Monday, 5 October 2015

Is education in Africa on the verge of a revolution? By Toby Shapshak


Last week, in a classroom made from a converted shipping container, in a dusty low-income area of Nairobi, I saw the future of education in emerging countries.
Using 17cm touchscreen tablets with individual headsets, 40 learners at the Lighthouse Grace Academy in Dagoretti were led through a lesson by their teacher, watching a cartoonish animated movie. It could have been at my nephew’s school in Florida in the US, or any school where computer equipment and Internet access are provided as standard.

But while it looks the same on the surface, behind the scenes it has taken three years for this tech start-up from the bustling entrepreneurial hub that is Kenya’s capital to achieve what is an inspiring solution to Africa’s education problem.
Nairobi is typical of an emerging country’s conditions, with poor infrastructure, poor electricity, poor Internet resources and poor governance. Education is technically free, but the costs of uniforms, books and other necessities are huge for most parents. They would not be able to buy such technology.

Inside the brightly painted container, the lesson happens with a smoothness and ease that belies the effort and hard work that has gone into this new BRCK Education system.
At the start of the lesson, a big, toughened plastic suitcase is wheeled in. Called the BRCK Kio Kit, it’s one of those cases used to transport delicate photographic gear. The bottom layer of soft foam has been removed (it remains in the lid) and now houses the 40 Kio tablets in custom-designed charging slots. Hidden behind these plastic sleeves is some sophisticated technology that you seldom see in something essentially for the bottom end of the market.

“Where everyone saw wireless charging as a luxury item, we saw it as something to serve the ordinary people,” says BRCK CEO Erik Hersman. His team worked with Intel to make this usually high-end technology work in these tough, connectivity-starved conditions.
This was because the biggest impediment in previous education initiatives, as BRCK Education president Nivi Mukherjee explains, was the time it took to unplug and distribute tablets, then collect them and plug them in again to charge. This could be as much as 20 minutes each.

The heart of this is the BRCK itself, which is a powerful connectivity device that was designed to deal with Kenya’s notorious infrastructure, power and connectivity problems. Power outages are common, as is inconsistent power supply.
The BRCK was designed to use any source of Internet signal (Ethernet, 2G, 3G and so on) and share it with up to 20 devices for eight hours. To the BRCK, its founders added a Raspberry Pi, a mini-computer that provides a small offline Web server, giving the same content and experience to the pupils as being on the Internet — but without the cost of online access. Each of these “micro-clouds” in the BRCK Kio Kit is remotely updated with new content when it becomes available.

In this way, children in a low-income area — or a far-flung rural town — are getting the same access to educational information as any in a suburban area, says Hersman.
But the key to the success of this whole process is the appropriate, localised content that the team has curated. The content is simple and easy to understand, and equally importantly it has been designed to aid teachers, not replace them.

Given that both learners and teachers might themselves be technologically illiterate, the system’s ease of use was paramount, say the founders.
Like the BRCK itself, this education package’s significance will certainly expand beyond this continent to communities that have the same connectivity problems and infrastructure challenges as Africa has.

Africa has the fastest-growing population in the world and we will need all the clever solutions we can come up with, especially to educate our children.
The BRCK itself is a great African solution for African problems, BRCK Education even more so.

Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine

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