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Throwing an ICT4D BRCK at Hard Education Problems

By Wayan Vota on September 23, 2015

kit kit is the olpc of today

Congratulations to BRCK on their launch of BRCK Education yesterday. The Kio Kit is certainly a very cool hardware solution that has key innovations for educational use. I particularly like wireless charging of the Kio tablets in a customized Pelican case.

However, I would like to caution the BRCK team on getting too far ahead of themselves on how revolutionary their approach is. Those of us in the ICT4Education space have seen this show before and we know how this story often ends. Time and time again, here are the three acts in every technology for education play.

Talking Technology First

Technologists look at a modern classroom, see very little change in the education process from the 1900s or even 1800s, and think to themselves, “There has to be a better way to educate.” They come up with amazing technology designed for students to use directly, assuming away barriers of literacy, motivation, and access.

Focused on Hardware

When they announce their innovation, they wow audiences with flashy hardware. $100 green laptops and yellow tablets that are ruggedized against drops and drips, with long battery life come to mind. They also talk of local servers with localized content, though usually in passing, and rarely mention lesson plans, leveled readers, and other teaching aids high in demand.

Forgetting the Teachers

While the press fawns over the gadgets and shares pretty pictures of smiling children, teachers wonder what all the fuss is about. Not on stage, and not in the center of the excitement, they look from afar on yet other student-centric solution that doesn’t come with teacher training, or more importantly, teacher motivation.

In fact, teachers often rightly see the latest tech-toy as a subtle ploy to shift limited education budgets from salaries payable for many hardworking, oft-forgotten men and women far from the big cities, to the pockets of powerful constituencies closer to the capitol.

After decades of failure, we know that there are no shortcuts to good education. Efforts to improve education in underperforming primary and secondary schools should focus almost exclusively on better teachers and stronger administrations. Not shiny, flashy gadgets for kids, no matter how colorful.

Am I right, or is BRCK a better education? Tell us in the comments!

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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19 Comments to “Throwing an ICT4D BRCK at Hard Education Problems”

  1. Ari says:

    Yeah, good stuff Wayan.

    Gotta love this statement, provided as unsupported fact: “The easiest way to deliver educational content to students is through tablet computers.” No, the easiest way is just to yell it out from your desk. But while both of those ways might be ‘easy’, they are probably not be *the best* or *the most effective*. Because that way would involve teachers in some way.

    According to BRCK, the only two challenges were rugged long-lasting tablets and a charging system. Now that those have been conquered, there are NO OTHER CHALLENGES to education. Yep.

  2. adzo Dzide says:

    Thanks for this article, Great. I Love the fact that the product tries to look at resolving some of the challenges being faces by us in sub-Saharan Africa.

    I also love this article which reminds us that there are real problems we need to solve and throwing technology at it doesn’t resolve it.

    I’m all for tech, but it would be really cool to see technology actually bringing access to smaller communities and maybe a focus on developing content that can reach these communities a bit more easily than we have now OR maybe a way schools can share content on syllabus and work sheets.

    Maybe if we had a content partner for the tech product – it would have been a more exciting and motivational product.

  3. Mike Dawson says:

    Well said: but I actually don’t see much in the way of innovation here. The test that we are failing here is the maths test. We’ve had sub $100 tablets and raspberry pi servers with education content for a long time now. I don’t see much new here.

    The Kenyan Ministry of Education budget is $1.4bn USD http://www.hapakenya.com/2014/06/12/highlights-kenyan-20142015-budget/: there are at least 8 million children in primary school: http://www.unicef.org/kenya/children_3795.html That means the total budget including teacher’s salaries, building, everything is not more than $175 per child (couldn’t easily find the high school numbers, so the actual amount is going to be significantly lot less than this).

    We know that when hardware is given out the actual hardware itself is but a fraction of the cost. Training, installation, maintenance in the case of giving away hardware is going to fall on the same shoulders as those giving away the hardware.

    The cost benefit analysis of one child per device in low income settings is very tricky, practically impossible equation. But this was figured out many years ago with OLPC.

    In contrast bring your own device interventions don’t get saddled with the hardware, maintenance and training costs e.g. Eneza and Kytabu).

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Great point on the budget cost. If we run quick numbers just on the tablets, we get $4,000 for 40 tablets @ $100, before we include other things like the cost of the BRCK, custom case, software customization, Internet connectivity, and of course AC power to charge the tablets.

      That is in comparison to an average teacher salary of $1,500 per month. I don’t see how any school could afford a Kio Kit that isn’t already greatly advantaged in Kenya.

    • Jakub Simek says:

      I see BRCK Kio as a local pride and competition to NGOs such a Worldreader and other providers of customized hardware and software. Since BRCK comes from the heart of iHub they have an access to other innovative startups that can provide localized content that needs to be approved by KIE or in line with them. This is see as the most expensive venture and the biggest hurdle. I fear bring you own will not work in Kenya – no mobiles allowed for students at school, even no charging allowed. The learning on mobile is even more limited than color tablet and basically it is just the tests done on mobile, not that impressive. Plus i couldn’t find out if any of the winning startups – Eneza and Kztabu have a viable product as of now. Kyabu has 341 friends and last info from August is that their product comes soon. BRCK has much better chance of succeeding .

      • Isabella Woods says:

        Mobile phones might be banned in schools but students, teachers and are desperate for remedial materials. Parents will not buy gadgets yet they can hardly afford the extra costs that come with FREE primary education. Yes maybe private schools but without teacher content or interactive solutions for teachers and students or student to students interaction, it is just another fancy gadget. Eneza is not a test based platform and it is for revisional studying at home. Eneza took advantage of what people have and don’t need them to buy anything new to access the content, from a dumb phone all the way to a laptop.

        The content is set as courses where you receive topical lessons and assessments for students from class 4 to form 4, students can chat with a live teacher and ask them questions, invite friends and have group studying sessions. Teachers are able to assign homework, receive classroom management tips , take teacher refresher course and receive a certificate that are certified by education bodies, teachers can also have forums, where they exchange teacher best practices. They have been able to reach 500,000 students and teachers in Kenya and have 70k active users a month. Their impact assessment is impressive with 23% increment of academic performance on students who is the product at least 2hours a day for 9 months.

        So is Eneza viable? heck yes. How far has Kytabu reached am not sure but BRCK has a long way to scale this!
        .

  4. Steven says:

    Amen, Wayan. Let’s hope that the BRCK team heeds the failures of tech-first education initiatives of classrooms past.

  5. jke says:

    Well, I am sure they did their math beforehand and also studied the learning of the OLPC or even the e-Slate which was launched in Western Kenya in ~2005 (afair?). I try to see this as a non-ICT4D-approach. Just as a business and maybe they got Intel and someone else as a sponsor and did this in order to expand usecases for the Brck. So it’s just us who regard this from an ICT4D-perspective? My hope is that this will also improve the Brck and future iterations of it, so if this helps the Brck as a product, the Kio isn’t such a bad idea. As for solving education problems? Hmm.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Oh, make no mistake, this is a business. BRCK and eLamu joined forced to sell more hardware to schools. That doesn’t make it any better than OLPC, which also was aiming to sell hardware to schools.

      Intel is just excited to have its new processors in a tablet, as they are getting hammered by all these ARM tablets. Yet, I be stunned to learn that Intel gave any real cash to this effort. They typically only offer moral support.

  6. Quite an interesting addon in the ICT4Ed realm, next month we shall be launching skooldesk which is an online test preparation platform. The prototype can be viewed at this url (bluenodemdia.com/skooldesk). Our aim is to help kids increase test scores in primary education. We decide to focus on four main subjects i.e. English, Math, Science & SST (Geography & History). We provide quality test questions which are instantly graded upon completion. The questions include the traditional question types such as Multiple choice, True/False, Fill in the blank, short answer. We have included interactive question types such as interactive videos, Drag & Drop, Memory and Card games. The platform is available for individual users or groups e.g. an entire school. A robust analytics engine can help identify strengths and weaknesses of a user at subject level e.g. Maths or topic level such as Algebra, Arithmetic, Geometry. Our pilot phase targets the Uganda curriculum, but we hope to expand to sub saharan Africa in the near future. Your feedback is always welcome.

  7. Eric Couper says:

    Hi Wayan,

    My favorite thing I’ve ever heard you talk about is your passion for WorldReader and they ebook program. It’d be great to hear more about what makes or doesn’t make that a better model for education development.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Eric, I just wrote up three examples of efforts I admire for an internal email discussion sparked my this post. Here are my favorites and why I like them:

      I do see real game-changing innovation in ICT4Edu, but these efforts are uniformly teacher-centric and rightly relegate tech to a supportive role. Here are my 3 favorite:

      – Bridge International Academy

      Bridge has hundreds of low-cost private schools in Kenya and soon Nigeria that look like any other non-tech school, yet the teacher is using a tablet with specialized software to give her scripted lessons, child-specific testing & tracking, and parental school fees payments tracking & her own salary payment (mobile money). Bridge has shown its students score higher on standardized math and language tests than government schools. They are VC-backed and laser-focused on scaling quick – multiple schools opening a day, quick. More here: http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/

      – Eneza Education

      Eneza offers test preparation to Kenyan and Tanzanian high school students through their mobile phones. They work with teachers and tutors to automate rote memorization tasks and make sample quizzes that students then can do at their leisure. The per-student data is then shared with teachers and parents so student progress is a whole-community affair. They too have shown increases in standardized test scores (A levels and O levels) and are also VC-backed. More here: http://enezaeducation.com/

      – WorldReader

      WR is focused on increasing reading outcomes by delivering world-class reading content on any device. They started with Open Educational Content on Kindles that had to be bought (though w/ a massive discount from Amazon, their close partner) and now offer an amazing set of local authors on any phone that can use an Opera browser (most feature phones, all smartphones). When integrated into a classroom setting, they start by working with teachers and publishers to find and digitize relevant books for the students. Publishers who give their content free to WR, get help putting their books on the Kindle store for Diaspora sales – a win-win for publishers and WR. WR is an NGO. More here: http://worldreader.org

  8. Steve Vosloo says:

    It is true that the BRCK alone will not revolutionise education in Africa. To be sure, it looks like a rock solid product that will deliver connectivity and offline hosting in the toughest locations — features that have largely eluded teachers and learners in Africa (to the detriment of their educational opportunities). I personally know some of the BRCK founders and have no doubt about their technical ability and understanding of the African context to produce a quality and context-appropriate device.

    But as you say, there is a danger of focusing on the flashy device and forgetting that education is a deeply complex system. The UNESCO Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning (http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0021/002196/219641e.pdf), which I co-authored, describe the varied ecosystem that makes up a complete digital learning offering. It includes devices and technical support, connectivity, teacher training and ongoing professional development, a clear vision from leadership, supportive policies and, in some cases, community buy-in. I recently stressed this point in a presentation titled It’s not (only) about the e-book (http://www.slideshare.net/stevevosloo/footnote-summit-2015-steve-vosloo). The BRCK makes up one piece of this complex puzzle.

    I have been involved in negotiating the partnership between Pearson and BRCK. As Pearson works on putting together its digital education offering, we acknowledge the need for partnerships. We have been looking for a ruggedised connectivity and local server solution and are excited about trialing the BRCK in South Africa. In our negotiations the BRCK team has been fully cognisant of the educational ecosystem and how their contribution (hardware and tech support) is one part of the whole. Pearson, for example, can bring content as well as teacher training and help in facilitating the transition from offline to online teaching and learning (a major shift by any standards). Other partners are needed to complete the picture.

    So, while the BRCK tagline “EDUCATION WILL NEVER BE THE SAME” is short and full of promise, I can confirm that they understand that the BRCK alone will not change education in Africa. A far less sexy, but more appropriate, tagline should read:

    BRCK brings connectivity and local content access to places that don’t have it. Together with quality content, teacher training, ongoing facilitation to change teaching practice, solid technical support, supportive leadership and community buy-in, the promise of digital can be realised to ensure that education will never be the same.

    I’ll leave it up to the BRCK marketing team to turn this into something short and snappy.

    I congratulate the BRCK team on their launch and really look forward to working with them to bring the much-needed promise of digital to the education spaces of Africa.

  9. Ravi Agarwal says:

    Check out the articles below about how the Los Angeles school system spent $100 Million on an eLearning project including buying 40,000 iPads and partnered with Pearson to develop the curriculum as part of a $1.3 Billion project, and the whole thing ended in disaster. LA sued Apple and Pearson and has gotten a $6.4 Million settlement agreement.

    As Kentaro Toyama wrote in The Atlantic (link below), “Introducing computers … distracts the weaker schools from their core mission”.

    I think we should forget about adding more complexity to the quality education equation, and let’s focus on fixing the most basic piece first: more teachers, who are better trained and really engaged in their work. This means teachers being paid better, getting high quality training on an ongoing basis, being supported by the school systems and community, and being engaged in their jobs to help kids learn. Quoting Kentaro again – “what the U.S. education system needs above all isn’t more technology, but a deliberate allocation of high-quality adult supervision focused on those who need it most. ” – and this is even more true in school systems in Africa. Teachers are the most basic piece of the equation and until we fix that first, technology is only going to make things worse.

    Let’s skip the tablets and use all that money to hire more teachers that are better qualified and train & support them to be more effective and engaged.

    http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-la-unified-ipad-settlement-20150925-story.html
    http://www.wired.com/2015/05/los-angeles-edtech/
    http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/06/why-technology-alone-wont-fix-schools/394727/

  10. Israel Kloss says:

    Waylan,
    Since I first met you in DC at Net Squared you’ve seem to make your living critiquing other’s efforts. What you do is easy. What if by concentrating less on the perfect plan (one of the greatest enemies of doing good) you actually retained enough energy to accomplish even a portion of the success that Erik Hersman has accomplished in his career in Kenya, Sudan, San Francisco ? I mean what if? I actually was actually jealous of Erik’s success until I realized I had my own ability, although smaller, to make a difference for students in Africa. The Kenyan students I’ve worked with in the past 3 years find BRCK to be a technical inspiration and a hope for remote training and career development all across Kenya, developing Africa and rural areas all over the world.
    I think you should listen a little more carefully to Roosevelt in this situation:
    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    ― Theodore Roosevelt

    Israel Kloss
    Learn to Earn
    findable.me/lte

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Israel, I have no issue with Eric, he has done amazing work, and he deserves all the credit for his accomplishments.

      However that doesn’t mean Kio Kit is above critique. All of us, including myself, sometime let hype exceed reality on our projects and need to adjust our ideas and projects as we gain new info and input.

  11. Mike Dawson says:

    Interestingly we learn via today’s article on ICTWorks (13/Nov/2015) that the same thing is in fact a great idea worthy if implemented by Inveneo who co-host ICTWorks (instead of BRCK). The same hardware centered pitch says it will “transform Haiti” and implies the idea of a digital library that works offline or equipment that can be solar powered is new.

    To boot we are all invited to pitch in to fund Inveneo via an upcoming $50,000 crowdfunding campaign. Seems there are some journalistic standards and conflict of interest issues here.

  12. Edmund Resor says:

    Do people feel the people in Kenya should not be able to see how the Kio Kit works and make their own choice?

    Can we really ask the parents to wait for the development establishment to spend money on its next fad and see how that works for students as opposed to corrupt politicians? Kids can’t wait.

    Since many of you believe in economics, I suggest the work of the recent Nobel laureate Angus Deaton and particularly his findings on how international aid to governments corrupts them the way income from minerals corrupts them. Note also the end of the statement by the Nobel committee:
    “It [his work] has also exemplified how the clever use of household data may shed light on such issues as the relationships between income and calorie intake, and the extent of gender discrimination within the family. Deaton’s focus on household surveys has helped transform development economics from a theoretical field based on aggregate data to an empirical field based on detailed individual data.”

    See also the end of “The White Man’s Burden” by William Easterly. Rather than looking at the government budget for education, people should take a wider look at all aid to Kenya and the money spend by struggling families on private tutors. With Birdge International Academies educating 1% of its primary school students and other privates schools another 9% as an alternative to “free” primary education, Kenya has some of the most interesting innovation in education in the developing world, as well as very educated consumers for this education, who look at exam results, not technology. Have you economists lost your faith in markets?

    Take a look at the BRCK content when it is available and then decide who is throwing bricks and who is making them?