There has been a surge in technology initiatives aimed at delivering education in the developing world. But is there too much focus on flashy devices?

In a tiny classroom tucked inside one of Nairobi’s sprawling slums, the 34 class eight students of Amaf primary school wait anxiously for the 4 o’clock bell.

At this time, twice a week, headmaster Peter Lalo Outa instructs students to put away their textbooks, assembles them into groups, and pulls out seven sleek tablet computers for the after-school lesson. One day, the students watch a video explaining the process of composting manure. On another, they’ll watch the animals they study come to life through videos, pictures, and interactive games.

“Our curriculum in Kenya is like a punishment to children, they feel they have to do it because it’s compulsory,” explains Outa. “With these tablets, our students really enjoy learning.”

Amaf school is one of two institutions piloting software by eLimu, a Kenyan education-technology startup that develops apps and content for small, touch-screen, wifi-enabled Android-powered tablets.

 “We’re using the tablet as a tool through which information, ideas and passions can grow,” says eLimu founder Nivi Mukherjee,

eLimu works with local teachers, partners and developers to design localised, digital content meant to push primary education beyond the typical “chalk and talk” approach common in many classrooms. The start-up wants to show that digital content can be cheaper, better, and more effective at getting kids to learn. 

 “Our books have a limit,” says Outa, “but these tablets go beyond - with videos, photos and more practical learning.”

In Kenya, education is still one of the country’s biggest development hurdles. Although primary school was made free in 2003, resulting in nearly 100% enrollment, today less than one third of primary school pupils possess basic literacy and math skills for their level, according to Uwezo, a four-year initiative researching the state of education in east Africa. On any given day, 13 out of 100 teachers are absent from school, it says.

“Overcrowding in classes, inadequate teachers, and lack of learning and teaching materials” are all enormous challenges to education, admits John Temba of Kenya’s Ministry of Education.

Splash and flop

eLimu may be the latest attempt to harness technology for education, but it’s certainly not the first. For decades, organisations have been using technology to broaden universal access to information and make learning more interactive.

For example, in the 60’s, educational radio programs were used to reach students in Australia’s remote outback. In the 70’s, some Latin American countries were using radio to standardise and broadcast lessons to rural areas. And in the 90’s and 2000’s, there was an enormous push for computer labs in classrooms and internet connectivity.

These days, the spectrum of e-learning is much wider, and the goals more ambitious.

For example, there is the $100 laptop project - a rugged, solar-powered, “children’s laptop” with an open source learning platform developed by MIT’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Since 2006, founder Nicholas Negroponte has traveled the globe lobbying countries from Uruguay to Rwanda to commit to buying “one laptop per child” to improve education worldwide.

Then there is India’s Aakash Tablet, India’s “answer to MIT’s $100 computer,” according to Kapil Sibal, India’s minister of communications and information technology. The $50 tablet - to be built in India with Google’s free Android software - was unveiled in 2010 by two Indian tech entrepreneurs. 

And there is a host of others, including programmes from tech firms like Microsoft and Intel, to a project that distributes e-readers (like Kindles) to kids in the developing world.

Yet while the technology may be abundant, many of these e-learning initiatives seem to fall short of their promises.

Take OLPC. After seven years and several prototypes, it has yet to hit the $100 mark, or get laptops into the hands of every child in even a single country- though Uruguay has come close. By 2010, nearly 400,000 laptops had been distributed to students in the country’s government schools, making it one of the only fully “completed deployments” OLPC has achieved. Many also question its ease-of-use, ongoing cost for connectivity and support, and whether teachers know how to use it and incorporate it into their teaching. 

Similarly, the Aakash tablet was announced with a big splash, followed by a big flop. The tablets are still being made in China because it’s cheaper, and very few have reportedly made it into India’s universities. The Indian government has now agreed to help subsidise the costs.

Gadget challenge

So why is technology not having the disruptive effect promised by some?

“The history of technology in education is long and unsuccessful in dramatically changing education,” claims Wayan Vota, a technology expert with 17 years experience applying information and communication technologies (ICT) for development."It’s there, but I’m not seeing the base way in which we learn changing,”

Vota sees two problems. First, it’s expensive to make and pilot new technology. Second, there is too much emphasis on the technology.

“You can give a child a laptop, a tablet, a kindle- whatever. You could also give them an iPad or an Xbox360, and you’d probably see similar levels of excitement and engagement,” says Vota. “But the real challenge is translating these gadgets into learning.” 

Calestous Juma, Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard University and a founding board member of One Laptop per Child, agrees.

“Changing a learning culture takes a long time of interactive adaptation between technology and educational practices, including pedagogy,” he says.

eLimu hopes to work around both these issues by gambling on a rising need for digital content that can be used across any piece of technology, instead of trying to get expensive technology into the hands of every child. The key, says Mukherjee, is making local content that students can relate to.

“Contextualising educational content is very important,” says Mukherjee “Content from abroad is not culturally relevant or relatable. We need to create content locally.” 

Its apps- which include animations, songs, videos, games, music and quizzes, - are specifically designed to supplement Kenya’s national curriculum, which make them easy for teachers to adopt. They also use relevant culturally relevant themes. For example, if a maths lesson is about Pythagoras’ theorem it may incorporate the KICC building- a famous building in downtown Nairobi – as an example.  Or, an app may help the child count and subtract using madaazi, a local snack that they are familiar with.

Self help

“I love the idea of using the device as a conveyance of content” says Wayan Vota. “But making relevant educational, grade-specific content will still be a challenge.”

So too will the cost. Although eLimu’s physical tablets are no-name-brands from China, they are still quite expensive. With content included, they currently sell for around 16,000 KES ($180) a pop, although at scale the organisation hopes to sell them for 10,000 KES.   

Mukherjee admits that even at this price, a ‘one device per child’ goal may be a bit too lofty.

“I could see it being half a dollar per month per child, for four hours per week access. That’s feasible,” she says.

But of course, the start-up’s success will not just be judged on price, but the quality of the education it delivers.

At Amaf primary school, all 34 students have access to the eLimu tablets for a least a half an hour per day- in addition to the after school group sessions. After just four months of using the tablets, student science test scores improved from an average of 58% to 73% compared to last year, according to Headmaster Outa.

Outa says that the tablets have “allowed students to go beyond teachers, and learn on their own.”

Whether they will also be able to go beyond all previous efforts at delivering education using technology, only time will tell.

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