How African schools are using cognitive systems to help shape the future of education
Students fall behind for all kinds of reasons. Poor attendance. Problems at home. Sometimes it’s where they’re sitting in class. In Africa’s poorer regions, there are even more factors to consider, from a lack of books to inadequate electricity. IBM Research - Africa is working with experts from RTI International to use cognitive and mobile technologies to help identify which Kenyan schools are most at risk to fail. This first-of-its-kind initiative is capturing data on everything from class size and grades to school facilities, resources and even sanitation. In a separate project, IBM scientists are working with schools in Nairobi to explore how technology can help personalize the learning experience in classrooms. Our technology and education podcast reveals how these programs could become a model for schools everywhere.
Behind the scenes : A look at how IBM Research is using cognitive technology to help improve Kenyan schools
This episode’s Wild Duck, IBM scientist Komminist “Kommy” Weldemariam, is head of education initiatives at IBM Research – Africa in Nairobi. As a child, Weldemariam attended an Ethiopian school that didn’t have a computer or even a library. And yet, he’s gone on to great achievements. He was recently named a Next Einstein Fellow, an award given to the top 15 young scientists and technologists in Africa, for deploying cognitive computing, analytics, and mobile technologies to help students succeed in the classroom. He believes these technologies can help develop an early warning system that could help teachers and administrators to intervene more quickly and help save kids at risk of failure.
Weldemariam is based in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, which has become a hotbed for innovation thanks to its mobile-centric culture. Kenya is the birthplace of both the open-source disaster-relief mapping system Ushahidi and M-PESA, a mobile payments app that has revolutionized retail banking. M-PESA (short for ‘mobile money’ in Swahili) was developed to help the “unbanked” send money home, but seven years later, almost all Kenyans use it to make purchases, lend money and settle debts. Which makes the country a fitting place to launch a cognitive-based schools initiative to help improve classroom learning. “We’re trying to reverse the classic technology transfer where Africa inherits innovation from the West,” says Weldemariam. “We’re building something that can be exported to schools around the world.”
The new digital reporting platform is currently being piloted in Mombasa County, Kenya. It was developed by Weldemariam’s team at IBM Research – Africa in collaboration with leading non-profit RTI International and benefitting from funding from USAID. The system includes an app which allows administrators to locate districts on a map of Mombasa and zoom down to the school level. Tap one button and color-coded performance indicators and attendance records appear. The app also reveals warnings for schools that don’t have enough books, for example, or inadequate electricity and sanitation to serve the student body.
Weldemariam’s team includes research scientists, software engineers and developers. Here, Charity Wayua, an IBM Research scientist, explains to Wild Ducks co-host Bernhard Warner how a recent pilot program in a Nairobi school, utilizing Watson Cognitive Tutor, improved the classroom learning experience. Teachers received specific recommendations for future lessons while students got more personalized attention. Wayua says putting Watson in the classroom was like giving the teacher an extra set of eyes to ensure that no child fell behind.
We visited the Waridi elementary school in Nairobi to see how Kenyan teachers are integrating new technologies and classic learning techniques. Waridi is a model for what Kenyan schools hope to become. Enrollment rates are high in all grades; there’s even a waiting list. That’s unusual in Sub-Saharan Africa, where high dropout rates are a serious problem. Weldemariam and his team are hoping cognitive and mobile technologies will help all Kenyan schools achieve the same success as Waridi. The hope is that their new initiative will help transform schools across Kenya and eventually be deployed around the world.