As I write these lines in my home office, India is under an unprecedented lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis. Shopping malls and cinemas are shut. Public and private transport has been largely suspended. Schools, colleges and universities across the nation remain closed for the foreseeable future. All around, parents are worried about their children missing out on important learning opportunities and lessons. Students who were planning to take examinations in preparation for their job applications now have their meticulously scheduled plans permanently on hold.  

It is almost as if everyone takes for granted that learning automatically and mysteriously stops the second you step out of school or do not have a teacher and textbook at your side. Why is it that we have become so dependent on institutions and authorities for our education? How did these spaces gain an exclusive monopoly on knowledge?

I believe that now is the best opportunity for all of us to debunk the myth of institutionalised education as the only way of learning. Perhaps we can even make a virtue out of necessity. The practice of ‘self-designed learning’ (SDL) can serve as inspiration and guidance in preparing for a more resilient and joyful future where knowledge knows no boundaries.

But What is SDL?

When I talk about self-designed learning, I am not referring to the idea of schooling at home, wherein a school-teacher is replaced by a parent-teacher and a pre-decided curriculum, exam schedule and certification process. While the latter is still based on what others (your teachers, ‘education experts’, politicians, etc.) may tell you to do or learn, SDL is a learner-centric approach.

A Learner exhibits his creation | Credit: Project DEFY

It lets you, the learner, decide for yourself what it is you want to learn, how you want to learn it and the ways in which you will ultimately use your knowledge; maybe you are using the acquired skills and knowledge to build a livelihood for yourself, or you are using it for nothing at all other than the pure pleasure of learning something that interests you.

This isn’t a new concept in India. Trails and traces of it can be found from the Mahabharata’s tale of Eklavya – potentially the world’s first self-designed learner – to the Gurukul system of learning and the philosophies of Gandhi, Tagore and Vinoba Bhave. 

All these strands are united by the simple principle that people are not stupid. This is the exact opposite of what the mainstream education system assumes – be it teachers, schools or regional education boards. Instead, self-designed learning does not assume that an authority figure is necessary to stimulate knowledge absorption or to even generate new knowledge. Knowledge is abundant where a learner has curiosity and the will to learn; it is not hidden exclusively in the spaces of schools and colleges.

Learning in Nooks: Project DEFY

Self-designed learning cannot happen in isolation. It is integrated with what we can imagine as a thick ‘learning web’ that consists of people, communities, spaces and resources. 

The principle of learning from each other is central to SDL. “Nooks” which have been set up by Project DEFY (‘Design Education for Yourself’), a Bangalore-based NGO, help facilitate this principle. These are self-designed learning spaces in marginalised communities which enable learners of all ages to create their own, individual and context-relevant learning journeys. While they are equipped with items such as laptops and internet access, electronics, tools and materials, those who come and continuously grow together as a ‘Community of Learners’ are the biggest assets of any Nook.

A Learning Nook in JP Nagar, Bangalore | Credit: Project DEFY

You will come across a ‘school dropout’, who is actually a teenager learning English online and practising her diction with other Nook Learners. Or, you may see a college graduate (who wants to build a drone) acquiring basic programming skills from more experienced Learners. 

How about a 65-year old woman who regularly builds electronic robots together with school children? Recognising an urgent need in their community, a group of young men and women aspire to create eco-friendly, low-cost sanitary pads. Learning takes a no-holds-barred approach within these nooks. 

Democratising Knowledge has Knock-On Effects

Situated on the outskirts of Bangalore, Avalahalli is a village that grew out of an erstwhile slum area. Many residents struggle to make ends meet through precarious labour and low-paying jobs. Like most conservative communities, women are relegated to a life of financial dependency and domestic abuse.

This is the context which 33-year old Nook Learner Niah* fights to determine her own future. Leaving high school and marrying early in life, she moved to Avalahalli to live with her husband, a truck driver, their two sons and her in-laws.

Learners in a Nook in Kaggalipura, Bangalore | Credit: Project DEFY

“My husband and in-laws are very strict. They want me to stay at home and do only household work. At the same time, they call me ‘useless’, which makes me feel very bad about myself. It isn’t fair, because they are the ones restricting me from doing anything productive in the first place”, she complains. 

Niah now learns English, how to use Excel and the basics of accounting so that she can find a job and become more independent. “The Nook opens my mind and changes the way I think… I’ve experienced a world besides being a housewife.”

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Whereas the ‘modern’ (read: outdated) education system is modelled to enable individuals to do standardised tasks, follow orders and strive to increase their productivity in the workplace, SDL encourages the Learners to be innovative, to think critically and act autonomously. 

But how does SDL work?

Project DEFY’s Nooks are financed through a mix of corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding, individual donations and grants provided by various foundations. When discussing the scalability of an SDL model of education, be careful not to assume it to be completely antithetical to school-based education.

Proponents of SDL do not argue for the immediate closure of all schools and their replacement with self-designed learning spaces. All they ask is to give Learners a true choice over the elements of their own education.

Monisha is in the 7th grade at St. Joseph’s Convent School in Whitefield, Bangalore. With her parents being informal workers who are busy almost all day, there are few safe activities left for her within the community.

Monisha in the Whitefield Nook | Credit: Project DEFY

All of this changed when the Whitefield Nook came about. Now, Monisha explores a wide range of areas and acquires many skills every day after school. “I haven’t been to any space like the Nook which contains so many tools and materials that we can all use. I had never used a computer before either, so now I access information online to find new projects” says the 13-year-old. “We never apply what we learn in school outside of it… in the Nook, we can build any type of project that interests us”. 

Over 90% of Indians work in the informal sector. Even ‘well-educated unemployment’ is on the rise. You cannot deny that for many Indians, a school certificate (after acquiring largely theoretical textbook knowledge) is less valuable than their ability to gain applicable skills and talents that help them create livelihoods based on their own needs, interests and aspirations. Besides, given India’s immense cultural, social and economic diversity, a decentralised approach to learning may be much more feasible.

Preparing for the Future

The idea of self-designed learning does not only stand for a different approach to education. It also stands for a different way of living life, imagining opportunities and pursuing aspirations. Initiatives such as Project DEFY enable newly acquired skills and knowledge to be applied to real-life projects where Nook Learners can build a living portfolio of their work and experiences. 

Coming from marginalised communities, both Niah and Monisha have shown how adequate resources and opportunities can allow anyone and everyone to embark on their SDL journey. This is not an education reserved for the privileged. Especially in a country like India, where informal systems of apprenticeships and a rich heritage of ‘learning for and from life’ already exists, the pre-conditions to revive and reinvent the practice of SDL for the 21st Century are in place. 

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the temporary suspension of educational institutions are an open invite for everyone to discover what we are capable of learning on our own, even on a smaller scale for now. Just imagine what all of us can do together if we shared our interests, experiences, skills and talents amidst free spaces that provide us with the requisite tools and resources to co-create our own learning. 

*Names have been changed. Featured image courtesy Project DEFY.

Views expressed are personal.

Christoph recently completed his PhD from the City University of Hong Kong. His research interests in alternatives modes of learning outside the mainstream education system led him to Project DEFY. The Bangalore-based organisation has set up self-designed learning spaces in India, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Uganda, with future projects coming up in Bangladesh and Tanzania.


  1. Dear ,,, Abhijit didi project.. congratulations….as well as possible do you help in Chhattisgarh defy..Would be good to leverage community spaces / centres to set up these Nooks in the neighbourhoods

  2. This is a brilliant, affordable and accessible option of learning that would complement the formal education in schools . Would be good to leverage community spaces / centres to set up these Nooks in the neighbourhoods. All the best


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