Sanjay* had struggled with maths throughout his school years. No matter how his teachers explained the subject to him, he couldn’t keep up. The trouble with algebra, to coin a phrase, was that it was all foreign to him.
‘With every other subject I was fine,’ says the 16-year-old, who has asked not to be identified in Friday. ‘But maths and physics? They were lost on me. I just couldn’t get my head round what teachers were saying.’
That was until last September.
Sitting at home in Al Barsha, Dubai, struggling with some particularly tricky quadratic equations, he searched online for help and stumbled on a YouTube channel called ExamFear.
On there, great portions of the Indian maths and science syllabus for years nine to 12 were explained in bite-sized, easy-to-follow 10-minute videos.
‘It was like someone was taking a blindfold off me,’ says Sanjay. ‘It just clicked. This one video explained in 10 minutes what my teacher had been trying to make me understand all term. I just got it.’
He is now, he says, considering studying maths at university next September.
It may sound like a remarkable turn around but when Friday tells Roshni Mukherjee, the woman behind ExamFear, about Sanjay’s journey from maths straggler to stormer, she seems pretty nonplussed.
‘I get that a lot,’ the 29-year-old says casually. ‘There was one boy who said he’d found the videos while revising for some physics exams and ended up coming out with 96 per cent.’
All of this makes her, one might say, India’s (and possibly the world’s) favourite teacher. Her class is 75,000 strong. That’s how many kids subscribe to her YouTube channel – ‘although the videos have been viewed more than 22 million times,’ she notes.
And her schoolroom stretches across the globe. Youngsters log in from India, obviously, but also from across the Middle East (about 3 per cent of users are based in the UAE), Europe and America. Anywhere, indeed, that a traditional Indian curriculum is taught. Not bad for someone who has no formal training as a teacher. The whole concept behind ExamFear started as an idea while Roshni was working as an IT professional.
‘I’d always wanted to be a teacher,’ she explains today at her home in Bengaluru. ‘I had a physics teacher called Mr Mohan when I was a teenager and his devotion to the subject really made me passionate about science and changed my life by showing me what science can achieve. I wanted to have that effect on kids too.
‘I planned to go on and take a teacher-training course after I had finished my master’s degree in physics in 2008 at Delhi University. But before I could do that, my father, Tapendra, had a heart attack and passed away. To support me and my mother, Karabi, I got a job as a quality analyst in an IT company and I suppose I enjoyed doing that and thought the chance to be a teacher had passed me by.’
Yet one evening, not long after she got married to software engineer Gopal in 2011, Roshni was struggling to cook a particularly tricky meal. And what happened next made her think that maybe she could be a teacher after all. Albeit, one with a huge difference.
‘I went online and found some videos explaining how to make this meal,’ she recalls. ‘I thought about it and I realised that there might be school kids struggling with science and maths who were looking for videos like that online.
‘Well, I had the right IT skills and I just decided to make one explaining some basic physics principles.’ She spent a few hours doing just that. Although fairly rudimentary – it used diagrams, illustrations and calculations with Roshni talking over the top – it was picked up on by a bunch of teenagers almost immediately.
‘I saw that it was getting a lot of views and a few positive comments and I decided to make a second one about units and measurements a week or so later,’ she says. The positive comments were repeated.
It was to be the start of a path that would lead to one student noting that she was ‘India’s online tutor’.
Getting to that point wasn’t easy, of course. From 2011 to last November, Roshni would work her full-time job, then get home and make her video tutorials in the three or four hours before bed. Most weekends, that’s all she did too.
‘Saturdays and Sundays I would spend 13 to 14 hours each day making them,’ she says. ‘Some took maybe an hour or two to make but others could take a couple of days – depending on the subject and the illustrations needed.’
Among her self-imposed tasks were writing her own scripts and sourcing her own images. And a key part was using real-life examples to convey theoretical points.
She diversified from physics into maths, chemistry and biology, and stretched the lessons, which had started simply for years 10 and 11, down to year nine and up to year 12. ‘Of course it was hard work,’ she says. ‘But I enjoyed doing it, so it was like my hobby. And the appreciation from students made it all worthwhile.
‘Hearing someone say a concept they couldn’t understand had suddenly become clear was the best feeling in the world. It just felt like something I was meant to do. My husband didn’t mind at all. He encouraged and helped me.’ Since those early days, she’s made an astonishing 3,900 videos. All are on the YouTube channel and now on her own website – ExamFear.com – too. As their popularity grew, advertisers started signing up to feature on the site. Which meant last November Roshni was able to quit her job in IT to grow her online tutorials full time.
‘Why have they been so popular?’ she ponders today. ‘I think it’s a mix of two things. Firstly, the videos are really good quality. People tell me I have a way of conveying information that makes it very easy to understand – and I take a lot of time getting that right. But, secondly, the fact they’re free is a huge thing. A lot of colleges in India put up this kind of material online, but they charge for it. Many people cannot afford to pay for video tutorials.
‘I’ll never charge because for me this is not about making money, it’s about helping people and making a difference to young lives. Education is the secret to solving many of life’s great problems and so if I can help educate people I am well rewarded enough without getting rich doing it.’
And now she wants to expand further. She’s looking at creating tutorials down to year six and will then expand into English lessons. ‘When I think that 75,000 people are signed up for this it just blows my mind,’ she says. ‘But I don’t want to just rest there. I want to help even more children to try to carve out a better life for themselves.’
*Name has been changed