With limited internet access and regular power outages in schools, will digital education companies transform learning in east Africa?
It’s a hot Tuesday afternoon and Martin and his classmates are studying biology in the library of Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. Yet the children are not staring at a blackboard or copying lessons from a textbook. There’s not even a teacher in the room. Instead, small groups of excited 10-year-olds gather around tablets, tapping and swiping between quizzes and educational videos.
They are using eLimu, a local software platform that aims to optimise learning by turning Kenya’s school curriculum into colourful, easy-to-digest exercises. And they are not alone. Kenya is brimming with companies trying to bring education into the digital era by scanning textbooks, developing bite-sized courses for mobile phones and providing tablets to rural schools.
This needs to change if the government wants to fulfil its promise of transforming Kenya into a middle-income nation by 2030 and achieving the sustainable development goals of providing universal access to the internet and ensuring that youth and adults have skills for employment and entrepreneurship.
To this end, Kenya’s Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) is rolling out the Digital Literacy Programme, which promises to deliver 1.2m devices to all of the country’s 21,718 public primary schools by the end of 2017.
Education for everyone
However, only a third of Kenyans have access to the internet and many schools suffer from regular power outages, which makes it difficult to charge the devices. That is why BRCK, a Nairobi tech company, has developed the Kio Kit. This portable digital classroom includes a wifi hotspot, a small server packed with educational content and 40 tablets that can be charged wirelessly and work in the roughest conditions in rural schools.
“Digital education is the ultimate equaliser,” says Erik Hersman, the company’s chief executive. “It doesn’t remove all obstacles but it levels the playing field.”
Devices alone are unlikely to bridge the digital divide in Kenya’s education. One Laptop Per Child – a not-for-profit organisation providing low-cost computers to children around the world – once had similar aspirations and was active in over 30 countries, before downsizing.
A study into the scheme, led by the Inter-American Development Bank in 2012, found that the 860,000 computers supplied to schools in Peru made teachers feel left out and did not improve students’ test scores. A later study into the programme in Uruguay drew a similar conclusion.
That’s why Kenya’s new digital education companies are putting a lot of emphasis on teacher training. “We don’t want to replace teachers, we want to help them,” says David Henia, product manager at Eneza Education, a Kenyan startup providing courses by SMS that has already reached 1.6m users. Henia argues that working closely with educators is also better for business because teachers are the ones who recommend their service.
Still, these solutions are hard to scale without public support. Wambui Munge, communications officer at the Results for Development Institute, a not-for-profit development consultancy, warns that “to have any macro-level impact, private companies will have to collaborate with the government”.
But doing so is not always easy, admits Will Clurman, Chief Executive of eKitabu, an ebook provider that aims to drastically reduce the price of textbooks in Kenyaby building a digital library with thousands of titles.
Clurman says that working with the Ministry of ICT often requires extra time and patience because of the added bureaucracy. However, he thinks it’s worth it. “Sometimes the private sector can be really biased,” he says, with companies often assuming they are better at solving problems than NGOs or governments. “We need to put our egos aside. We must remember that we all share the same purpose.”
Spreading around the world
Even with public support, questions remain about how effective digital classrooms are. In Kibera, Mary Kinyanjui, the library’s manager, thinks the tablets make the children more eager to study and improve their marks. “There is no limit to what they can learn online,” she says.
But empirical evidence on their academic merits is still scarce. Startups rarely have the funds to pay for external audits and a large-scale studyby the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation concluded that computer-assisted learning had “decidedly mixed effects,” depending on the context.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s new educational companies are already exporting their products. Eneza has pilot programmes in Tanzania and Ghana, while BRCK is selling its classroom kits in 11 countries, including Uganda, Cambodia and, most recently, Kiribati.
Unlike other development trends, digital education is here to stay, claim these entrepreneurs. “Digitisation is not a fad,” says Hersman, “it’s a forgone conclusion.”