Guest post by external blogger Lex Paulson

90%: the share of Uganda’s children enrolled in primary and secondary school.

An encouraging number? Perhaps, but consider a few more.

Average day-to-day school attendance: 80%. Children completing secondary school: 57%. And students who are able to pass the minimum skills-attainment tests in reading and math: 23%.

Add to these the rate of teacher absenteeism (~35%) and percentage of primary school instructors who can’t read a paragraph of English (65%), and you arrive upon a stunning result: on the average school day, nearly one-half of Uganda’s kids won’t benefit from any teacher at all, and many of the remaining half will receive poor-quality instruction.

But what if, for all these underserved Ugandan kids, a lesson from one of their country’s top teachers was only a few clicks away?

In partnership with Kampala’s NTV Uganda and a cadre of hand-picked star teachers, this is precisely what UNICEF-Uganda is aiming to do. In the last eight months, in their festively painted studio at the Innovation Lab in Mbuya, over 600 24-minute lessons have been recorded — high-quality, comprehensive instruction in English, math, social studies, and science.

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After sitting in yesterday on a recording session (and enjoying the sight of 12 esteemed development experts in child-sized wooden desks), I asked Christopher Fabian, Advisor to the Executive Director on Innovation, whether UNICEF was bringing the MOOC revolution to Africa. “Hm,” he considered for a moment. “Given our reach so far, let’s call it a SMOOC.” (The “S,” in this case, stands for “somewhat”)

Developing world-class educational content is one thing; delivering this content to children in hard-to-reach areas is quite another. For this reason, UNICEF Uganda Representative Sharad Sapra recently asked his team to get to work developing an inexpensive, ruggedized, solar-powered multimedia kit with laptop, projector, and PA speakers — a “digital school-in-a-box.”

Impossible? Not for UNICEF Uganda’s Innovation for Development Specialist Stefan Bock. His prototype, called the “Mobi-System,” was completed a few days before our visit and unveiled for the Innovation Visit yesterday morning. Built around a $300 Classmate laptop, the suitcase-sized Mobi-System includes two 15-watt speakers, a 100-lumen projector, and a document scanner, all for a total power usage of 10 watts.

Why the document scanner? Uganda’s education system is too resource-constrained to provide students with their own schoolbooks, so UNICEF and its engineers are helping that system skip a generation. With just a single copy of a text, UNICEF’s Mobi-System will enable students in a crowded, noisy classroom to see and hear the day’s lesson with ease.

Even better, Bock included a wireless keyboard a teacher can pass to a student to complete an exercise, offering much-needed interactivity to the school-day experience. And of course, when an instructor is absent, the Mobi-System will link these classrooms with the highest-quality “substitute teachers” anywhere in the country.

Which brings us to the Digital Drum.

A decent education can be built on absorption; a world-class education requires exploration. To give Uganda’s kids the means to explore the world in their own way, UNICEF’s innovation engineers are developing a new breed of Internet kiosks, sturdy and self-sufficient enough to bring the web to the most remote areas of the country.

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With a main portal screen giving options for “Learn,” “Play,” “News,” and “Health,” among others, the kiosk gives younger kids an opportunity to teach themselves basic computer skills, and older ones a tool to build a microenterprise, charge mobile phones, and connect with friends across the country.

And as the engineers demonstrated yesterday with a few (gleeful?) kicks to the fiberglass screen and polyurethane shell, these beauties are kid-proof.

As I watched the seven-year-old boy at Kampala’s TLC Youth Center sit transfixed at his Digital Drum console yesterday, two things struck me: (a) that he was remarkably skilled at his train-track-building game, and (b) that he probably didn’t realize the points he was racking up were on the first-ever deployed prototype of one of Time Magazine’s 50 Best Inventions of 2011.

Not resting on the growing fame of UNICEF’s breakthrough, Chris Fabian emphasizes that their work is far from done. “If this project is going to work,” he insists, “it will be because we’ve kept our innovations user-driven, inexpensive, iterative, and scalable.”

To illustrate Fabian’s point, Bock explains how the Digital Drum marks only one of several iterations in the project. “In an earlier version, developed by our partners in South Africa, the keyboard was specially made and embedded in the kiosk. It was well-protected, but if a key ever malfunctioned, the keyboard was prohibitively expensive and difficult to replace. So we switched out the proprietary keyboard for a generic model that sits outside the protected shell, but which is much, much easier and cheaper to replace if it fails.”

Surrounded by all this eye-popping technology, it can be easy for a first-time visitor to get carried away. After the visit Dr. Sapra brings us, cannily and gently, back down to earth. “As great as these gadgets are,” he warns, “the UNICEF team knows that technology can only ever provide 10% of the greater solution. This is our guiding principle: not ‘technology for development,’ but ‘innovations in development.’ Our technology is just the tool; Uganda’s young people are the real drivers of change.”

Lex Paulson

7 March, 2013

Kampala, Uganda

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