SINGAPORE: As part of a volunteer programme to help underprivileged children, 15-year-old Mihika Mishra used to go to a two-room HDB flat every week to do fun activities with a three-year-old girl and teach her how to read.
“Because of the pandemic, obviously that programme had to shut down. I couldn’t help but wonder what she must be going through,” Mihika said, stating that the girl lived with six others in the flat.
“I wanted to create a platform that allowed children like her to have an escape, just to have some fun or explore activities.”
Mihika talked about it with Arsh Sheikh, her good friend and classmate from the Overseas Family School. They had both struggled to discover their passion growing up. So in June, the pair brainstormed how they could help children engage in new activities during the pandemic.
“I wanted to provide children a way to do this for free, considering the unfortunate conditions some children face right now,” said Arsh, 15. “I also knew that there would be other kids who wanted to pursue a passion while staying remote and safe.”
The solution they came up with was Explorexa, a platform that uses Zoom to host fun and free 45-minute lessons for children aged three to 18. The thrice-weekly sessions, ranging from art and baking to singing and dancing, are taught by fellow students who have some talent or experience in these fields.
Arsh said the instructors are aged 13 to 18 to make lessons more child-friendly and encourage questions. The co-founders will ask potential instructors to demonstrate their expertise and also tell them the dos and don’ts.
For instance, students are not required to switch on their cameras during lessons to protect their privacy. Instructors should also pause every 15 minutes to ask if there are questions. It is about getting the students excited about something, Arsh said.
“It's not a formal classroom setting, it's more of just an interactive environment where the kids feel safe and comfortable to ask questions and be passionate about the activity,” Mihika added.
The lessons can involve basic explanations, pre-recorded videos and live demonstrations. For example, a lesson on graffiti art included an introduction to sketches and pencils, as well as a how-to on drawing popular cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants.
Interested parties can visit their website for a list of upcoming activities, before filling up a registration form that asks for details like name, age and grade. They will receive a Zoom link a day before the activity. Instructors can also sign up through a separate form.
Since its July launch, Explorexa has had about 120 sign-ups across 18 lessons, including sports like football and basketball and more serious topics like programming and business. Some of those who signed up come from countries like Norway, Oman and Australia.
“Most of our audience is from international schools, but we would really like to expand to local schools, or even children who don't have the opportunity to go to school,” Mihika said. “That’s one of our main causes.”
BUILDING FROM SCRATCH
But creating Explorexa did not come without challenges. Mihika and Arsh took quite a bit of time to decide how the lessons would be conducted, and considered starting a YouTube channel.
While some organisations like the National Heritage Board and Wildlife Reserves Singapore digitised their content and launched online activities for children during the “circuit breaker”, Mihika wanted something with a more human touch.
READ: Children bored during the COVID-19 circuit breaker? Try these family-friendly online activities
“We thought that live sessions would work best for kids since they require interactivity, and it would just be the most suitable environment for them,” she said. “Instead of just watching videos, they can ask questions and learn better.”
At the start, the pair spent hours watching online tutorials on designing websites using the online platform Wix, delving into details like picking the most suitable interface and colours for children.
“It was really time intensive because we needed to go through so many tutorials to even understand one feature. Wix is a really broad website with a lot of features,” Arsh said,
“Because of quarantine we actually don't have anything else to do so, we just put all our effort into this one website.”
The pair used their own savings to pay for a domain name and premium Wix plan. Arsh said it was free to use Zoom to host lessons as the platform usually upgrades its time limit on meetings from 40 minutes to an hour.
Once that was done, they had to find instructors, something they acknowledged was difficult because everything would be done for free.
“We asked a couple of our friends but a lot of them were like, ‘We would like to do it for money,’” Mihika said.
“But I think the fact that we had a ‘be a leader’ page (for instructors) and we made it clear that that was free, caused us to get people who are genuinely interested in teaching. So from that we generated a lot of leaders.”
A bunch of schoolmates soon agreed to become instructors. More recently, a student from a local secondary school signed up to teach a lesson on baking chocolate chip cookies. Explorexa eventually had enough activities to last several weeks.
“We had already planned for the next three or four weeks, just to put that off our mind because we need to focus on the marketing, making a social media account and everything,” Arsh said.
However, Explorexa failed to attract much interest for the first round of lessons starting Jul 18. The website was only getting a maximum of 200 views. Mihika and Arsh felt discouraged after putting so much into it.
“We weren't sure whether to continue, but we had already put so much effort into it, we just decided to give it a go,” Mihika said.
The two of them ramped up publicity efforts on social media, including getting their parents and friends to share it with others from across the globe. In the second week, Explorexa saw a spike in sign-ups.
“That actually filled us with a lot of confidence,” Arsh said, adding that they thought it would be at least a month before interest picked up. “It just inspired us to do more work, putting in as much effort as we can during this (COVID-19) season.”
A few weeks in, Mihika said she is “pretty proud” of the feedback so far, although she encouraged more parents and students to give reviews. Students can also suggest what lessons they would like to see.
Still, Arsh expects to see a dip in sign-ups when COVID-19 restrictions are eventually lifted, but insisted that they will continue to run Explorexa. The platform, like learning through YouTube videos, will remain relevant, he predicted.
Nevertheless, Mihika and Arsh admitted that it is a lot of work. They have to search for new instructors and activities, sit in for lessons to ensure everything runs smoothly, respond to feedback and manage the social media accounts.
Mihika is optimistic as the lessons are usually conducted after school or on weekends. If things start to get really hectic, she plans to get more volunteers on board. Some of her friends have already expressed interest.
“We can launch clubs in our school where people can actually volunteer to help us maintain the website,” Arsh said.
Nevertheless, the pair have lofty ambitions for Explorexa. They are currently working on issuing certificates to instructors, and finding more variations of popular activities like arts and sports.
This includes introducing lesser-known sports like rounders, which is similar to baseball.
Down the road, they hope to launch an Explorexa app and a one-to-one tutoring function for subjects taught in school. They also discussed adding in-depth “masterclasses” taught by older and more seasoned instructors.
But one thing will remain constant: That the platform is free to use.
“For starters, we definitely hope to grow in Singapore and neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, as I know they've been hugely affected (by COVID-19),” Mihika said, adding that the aim is to get as many students as possible.
“I think the main goal of what we believe is that we need to keep it free, because the main goal is just to help out kids, it's never to make a profit.”