By Hira Iqbal and Minahil Raza
Two members of LDS Campus News sat down with the founder of Near Peer, Shahrukh Swati, for an interesting conversation about dreams, taking risks and facing hurdles.
What inspired you to come up with Near Peer?
Shahrukh: Well, in freshman year, my current roommate, Ammar, and I had one thing in common and that was thinking about new ideas. At the time, we probably didn’t even know what entrepreneurship meant but by the second year we knew that we wanted to do something different- something that allowed us to make our own dreams rather than working for someone else’s.
…He then told us that he even remembers the very chapter that motivated him- Intro to Management chapter 6 and he saw a striking similarity between entrepreneurs and him and his friend.
Reminiscing about the past we talked about his first company- Luminous Technologies.
Shahrukh: This company aimed to bring Google Street View into Pakistan. The first step was to talk to companies like PC, Centaurus Mall and offer to make virtual tours for their audience. The first step was met with a massive positive response during sophomore year, and Google did approach the company and that is how the first spark of entrepreneurship kindled within me.
… At the time of expansion Shahrukh had to go for an exchange program twice, one during the semester and one in the summer. Due to this he resigned from his own company but upon coming back he assumed an advisory position in the firm. Therein came the first step towards Near Peer.
Shahrukh: My friend and I sat down with our laptop and reopened our excel sheet – this sheet basically consists of all the ideas we ever wanted to undertake and one idea sparked our spirit again. Moving towards a world where books will slowly die out, we wanted to create a website, a forum where books were translated into videos- but with a twist. People from different fields would be asked about the book and then anyone could watch those videos and get a summary of various perspectives. However that seemed improbable and that’s how Near Peer came about.
Sitting in class, where I couldn’t understand anything I turned to my friend and said, ‘forget any random book, can someone please explain THIS to me?’ and that’s when Near Peer came about. We saw that there is usually one person who’s teaching a group and during exams the person vanishes. So why not have a constant source like that? One that’s available all the time. That is Near Peer a constant source available for all students in LUMS.
What are the core values of Near Peer?
Near Peer is based on certain core values. The first is time efficiency. Instead of spending two hours on one topic where there are multiple students in a class and each has to be catered to, Near Peer focuses on the lecture and makes it concise. The second is examples. Most of our lectures start with examples and therefore create a lasting impact on the student by relating the concept to the real world.
…by linking demand and supply to the cost of the PDC biryani even I understood what the concept was even though I have never studied Economics
Shahrukh: The third value is that Near Pear is exam oriented. A student’s life rotates around exams and therefore we aimed to tell students how to study for exams as well. Last is cost efficiency. All the resources for a single course- some were willing to pay 20,000, some 200 and others were willing to buy someone a meal. Internationally it should be the price of a decent meal so we set it at $10 as well. We refused anyone who wanted to increase prices because that is not Near Peer- we believe in charging as much as we should, not can.
How was the response you received?
Shahrukh: It was pretty awesome. Friends and family appreciated us. And the first course we released we got 4000 cumulative views in 4 days. So yes even today, the response is great! For our first course released, the instructor had to make a difficult paper because students studied from Near Peer and other resources.
Where do you see Near Peer in the next few years?
Shahrukh: We initially started by aiming towards universities, and we want to expand to majority universities in Pakistan like GIKI, PIEAS and more. We are currently in collaboration with Mobilink for expansion. However the major aim is to shift from this capitalist approach and first target children from nursery till matric and Fsc where 60% of students fail, or people can’t go to school because of distance but everyone has a smartphone. So that’s our target. Near Peer aims to design two models; one for students in the current target demographic where students have resources. Here Near Peer will act as the platform for online education as it is. The second model aims to provide free education in rural areas and that this model too will focus on the same core values.
So, with regards to all the controversy on Facebook as of late, do you have anything to say?
Shahrukh: Yes actually, we have some responses to the criticisms we received. Firstly, the people who are criticizing Nearpeer for “selling past papers” are those that haven’t even used Nearpeer. I know. I have the database of the names of the people who have registered with Nearpeer, and those people aren’t on that list. If they DID try Neapeer out before blatantly criticizing us, they’d see that videos discussing past quizzes and exams are very few in number, maybe around 20 or so. The other 496 videos are all based on the concept with practical examples, they’re all based on learning.
We have mentioned several times in our comments that people should please approach us, please talk to us, or try us even before sending criticism our way. Do not blindly criticize.
And what about those that say Nearpeer is too pricey?
Shahrukh: When deciding our pricing strategy we wanted there to be a reasonable trade off. Our prices are such that, at 350 rupees, you have the choice to either buy a decent burger, or buy an entire module for a course. Furthermore, you can’t sit at a university like LUMS, where if you do the math you pay around 5000rs per lecture and say our prices are too high. Come on.
We also have no issue offering free courses, but that depends on the availability of people willing to make these videos and sacrifice their time for free. If instructors wish to put up their courses for free, then we do allow them to do that.
And the comparisons with Khan Academy?
Shahrukh: Khan Academy is being funded, and heavily. He has millions sitting in his bank account. We’re just students. We’ve got no funding. Currently, 70% of our revenue goes to instructors, 7.5% goes to the LUMS Centre for Entrepreneurship, 3% are the charges for selling at khokha, and regardless of the leftover, we’re still operating in loss because of the costs incurred in the making, like the fee we paid the web developer.
Do you have any specific message you want to send to the LUMS community?
Shahrukh: Yes, we do. Firstly, LCE told us we could simply ignore the criticism on Facebook. That every business goes through this, and we can ignore it since it isn’t affecting us. But we wanted to respond. We wanted people to know what we’re actually about, and if people had questions we wanted to answer them.
Secondly, we at LUMS talk about changing the world and doing good for humanity. Yes, this has a capitalist aspect to it, but we want to look at the bigger picture, like a royalty free photos album, they put everything into perspective to you, look at providing educational resources for students who live far away from good educational institutions and thus decide to forego education, or at least any that isn’t absolutely necessary. We want to make lives easier. But we want to bring a change in Pakistan, we want to cover at least some part of where Pakistan is behind. And for that effort we’re being relentlessly criticized and that’s not right. You’re not encouraging people that want to help Pakistan grow, you’re putting them down. And Nearpeer does lead to growth. It leads to revenue generation, employment, etc.
Finally, to the critics, thank you, for the publicity we would never have been able to achieve otherwise.
- An interview with Shahrukh Swati, founder Nearpeer - March 5, 2016
- The Great Nearpeer Debate - March 1, 2016
- Politics and Islam in Pakistan: The Structure of Public Reasoning - February 27, 2016