On 18th March, what must have qualified as the hottest and most humid day ever in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I braved the heat and clogged rapid bus transit lanes of the city centre to cycle over and attend the launch of ShuleDirect, one of the exciting, technology-enabled initiatives to support and promote student learning that has been incubated through DFID Tanzania’s Human Development Innovation Fund.
Around three years had passed since I first met Fajara and the ShuleDirect team at an embryonic launch event, where the aspirations to upload content to help secondary students learn online was somewhat overshadowed by a keynote speaker who promulgated the benefits of corporal punishment to improve performance.
It was so pleasing to see this great online support idea come to fruition, with the identification of strategic partners providing free or subsidised SMS hotline numbers and bandwidth. Most importantly, it was great to see Eneza Education bringing local regional experience from Kenya; with its much touted success at supporting close to half a million children in learning through mobiles and apps, providing them with learning content and an online teacher assistant.
ShuleDirect’s Makini SMS platform is centred around an online teacher: Ticha Kidevu aka TK who can respond from the website or to SMS messages on questions and topics on curriculum matters, provide past exam papers and answers, set quizzes and even help with counselling. It’s powered by a mix of full-time and volunteer teachers who access a databank of content (including Wikipedia), working flexibly and responding via smartphones.
A business model has been developed with initial free services after registration for a fixed time period, graduating to low rates (approximately 50c a month) subscription. Messages to the Makini SMS platform are free, from Tigo’s GSM network.
Some questions I had back in 2013 remain: How can poorer students afford/ access such platforms without devices? How will the programme bridge the language divide between English and Swahili for content and comprehension? Will the business model be viable and will learning gains made be tangible and/or measureable? It’s not possible to predict which of HDIF-supported innovations will expand and achieve impact at scale, perhaps to become the Khan Academy of East Africa. However, promoting local talent and ideas and collaboration is surely the right approach!