In a scene not unlike classrooms around the world, the faces of 40 children glow from the light of their tablets as their teacher leads them through the morning’s lesson.
Except this happened yesterday inside a converted shipping container in a low-income area of Kenya, in a country where the price of such a basic tablet far outweighs the cost of sending a child to school. Even though Kenya has had free primary, public school education since 2003, the associated costs of textbooks and uniforms are high. Some public schools require children to bring their own desks at the beginning of the year, so the sight of small children carrying planks of wood to school is not uncommon.
Tablet technology might be commonplace in the developed world, but in emerging markets it’s simply too expensive.
However, the Lighthouse Grace Academy in Dagoretti, Nairobi, is part of a ground-breaking pilot programme for a new education initiative – founded and developed in Africa – that could provide the best new model for tech-based teaching in emerging markets.
BRCK Education was launched in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, today to address the country’s education problems, which include a lack of access to technology, inconsistent electricity supply, high mobile data costs, and lack of technological literacy by both teachers and learners.
The BRCK Kio Kit is a combination of the robust BRCK device, toughened tablets and an easy-to-use ruggedised suitcase that doubles as a charger when the tablets are stored. It has only one charging cable (as the tablets use wireless charging) and one on/off switch.
When turned on, it houses a web server or “micro-cloud” – or an offline version of the internet – providing the same kind of rich, interactive content provided by the web but without incurring expensive data costs. This is powered by the BRCK with an additional Raspberry Pi computer attached to it.
Arguably the killer feature in this clever confluence of technology and entrepreneurial spirit is the way it has been designed to teach tech-unsavvy teachers as much as children. The preloaded content – which comes from five content suppliers, four from Kenya and from global education giant Pearsons – has been curated accordingly for the six- to seven-year-old age group at which this pilot programme is aimed.
BRCK is a clever internet device designed for the particular challenges faced by African consumers (including Kenya’s notorious power cuts) when trying to get online. BRCK – which has attracted funding from the Case Foundation, amongst others – is the brainchild of a group of entrepreneurs in the thriving Nairobi tech start-up scene, including Erik Hersman, the co-founder of Kenya’s other great tech success story, Ushahidi. US President Barack Obama enthusiastically praised Kenya’s renowned entrepreneurial spirit.
BRCK was co-founded by Hersman, Reg Orton and Philip Walton in 2013 as a spin off of Ushahidi. Its Kickstarter campaign that year superseded its $125,000 target, going on to raise $170,000. The company is closing its Series A funding this month.
The ruggedised device initially set out to solve Africa’s notorious connectivity problems.
“Internet access is equally about power; sometimes it’s more about power,” says Walton, BRCK’s chief operating officer. BRCK uses cellular data to keep as many as 20 gadgets connected for up to eight hours. Encased in a tough plastic container that is water-resistant, it can connect to the internet using a wide range of wireless and wired technologies, and has an 8,000mAh battery both to power itself and charge up other gadgets.
As much as the BRCK Kio Kit is physically robust, so too its software is designed to cope with the constraints of its environment. These micro clouds in each individual suitcase are remotely updated whenever new content needs to be provided. But it is still powerful enough to provide the kids the same experience as if it was provided by an internet server.
“Now we’re moving the computing power from servers in San Francisco to rural communities with all the power of the internet,” says Orton, BRCK’s chief technology officer.
BRCK hopes to address education challenges for the 410 million African school children under the age of 14 – citing a UN report – a number that’s expected to increase to 800 million school kids by 2050.
The tablets are called Kio (Swahili for window) and are designed to survive being dropped from 70cm and are water-resistant; a companion set of headphones is also supplied to each child.
This BRCK Kio Kit is designed to make using the tablets – and teaching with them – as simple as possible. It follows months of field testing to access the challenges faced in classrooms across Kenya. Previously the complexity associated with earlier attempts at introducing tablets into schools (where charging individual tablets as done via standard micro USB cable) resulted in a 20-minute period required in each teaching period to hand them out to students, then plug them back in afterwards. Now, to overcome that the bright-yellow tablets charge wirelessly in their slots. That simple. It took about two minutes for the 40 students at the Lighthouse Grace Academy to get their tablets and headphones, and slightly longer to return the, all.
“Where everyone saw wireless charging as a luxury item, we saw it as something to serve the ordinary people,” Hersman, BRCK’s CEO, tells me in Nairobi. BRCK worked with Intel to hone this charging tech to the point where it is now deployed in the Kio Kit and where it has survived the rigours of the field testing. Intel also offered help via its education initiative.
This technological simplicity is mirrored with an equally simplified interface and content that has been custom created for the six-to-seven age group the pilot programme is designed for.
“We need to make the learning process fun and interesting,” says BRCK Education President Nivi Mukherjee. She is something of a veteran of trying to introduce tech-based education in Kenya. She co-founded a start-up called eLimu that was a finalist at the first Demo Africa event, held in Nairobi in 2012.
“At eLimu our focus was content. Good, beautiful content. But content needs hardware to sit on. Hardware needs infrastructure. Infrastructure needs connectivity. We need the entire, holistic ecosystem to come together and [produce] a tablet. It has content on it, and we can update that content,” she tells me.
“And of course the most important wrapping on this cake is the teacher training. Integrating that teacher and teaching them how to bring [technology] into the classroom is an integral part of learning. The teacher is the heart of everything. The teacher is completely our doorway to reach students. We can’t make this too complicated for teachers. It has to be a simple solution that doesn’t disrupt class time, that doesn’t get in the way of teacher doing the work she has to do and disseminating the information she has to disseminate.”
George Jenga, the principal of the Lighthouse Grace Academy, where BRCK is being piloted, says it is being enthusiastically adopted by pupils and teachers alike, and is “going to transform the children in the way they study”.
“The use of these tabs is helping the children understand more. It helps them know more. They are grasping the technology very fast. The animation really helps them understand the teachings,” he says. “The teachers are excited. And they have actually understood how to use the tabs. Yesterday I got a phone call from one of the parents, [who was] very excited.”
This new education initiative is a further feather in the cap for BRCK, which has been sold in 54 countries. “We didn’t think of communities that live on boats, or in remote mountains in Europe,” says Walton of the unexpected uses for the gadget, which was originally marketed as “the backup generator for the internet”.
Adds Orton: “We’ve always seen ourselves as a Kenyan company. But the problems extend past Kenya.”
Or, as Principal Jenga sums up his thoughts of the the BRCK Kio Kit: “I believe that it has a very big future, a very bright future.”