Learning for All

Technology and sound business are at the cutting edge of a dynamic new project aiming to provide education for some of Kenya’s poorest children at less than US$5 per month. Jackson Biko meets Marie Leznicki, Head of Marketing and Brand Strategy at Bridge International Academies

Learning_ABCAbout 134 schools in some of Kenya’s most impoverished areas have teachers who teach with the aid of computer tablets. This is an innovative system that intends to inject technology into education by giving poor children a chance of sound education at less than US$5 a month. It’s never been done before anywhere in the world. But it’s working, so far.
This ambitious project is the brainchild of Bridge International Academies, which isn’t a posh chain of high-cost schools in the leafier suburbs of Nairobi, as the name might suggest, but a non-profit organisation that wants to revolutionise education by using the latest technology.
The premise of the school is built on some glum statistics: it’s a fact that approximately 6 million primary school-age children in Kenya live on less than US$2 a day. The quality of education for these children is dismal. Government schools, which could salvage this situation, aren’t cheap either, costing anywhere between US$2 and US$12 per month once you’ve added up all the additional fees. Consequently, 55% of families end up choosing private schools.
Bridge International Academies was started in Kenya in 2007 with a unique model they call Academy-in-a-Box. This model is designed with two clear parameters: the academic requirements of the children and the financial limitations of their parents. Central to this objective is the use of data and technology.
As a result of this programme, which currently has been accessed by around 50,000 students in schools all over Kenya, 85-90% of families in low-resource communities can now afford to send their children to school.
It’s this tech-enabled model that has seen its pupils score up to 205% higher in international exams than their peers in other schools.
P102_LFA03To get my head around this unprecedented model of education, I sat down with Marie Leznicki, Bridge’s Head of Marketing and Brand Strategy for a chat.
How exactly does the system work? We operate under the belief that every child can learn given the right environment. All our curriculum, based on the 8-4-4 system of education, is developed and scripted in-house by the world’s leading experts and professionals from respected private schools in Nairobi and Boston, USA. We do this to remove the burden from teachers of planning countless lessons, allowing us to train teachers faster and provide a grade-to-grade continuum unmatched in other school systems.
These scripts are delivered to the teachers through data-enabled tablets, which are synced with our headquarters. All reading materials – tens of millions of textbooks, homework books, reading books and marketing materials – are produced in-house and are shipped to the academies. Our academy managers (one per school) are equipped with smartphones whose custom applications allow them to sync seamlessly with the academy’s Teacher Computers.

What is the advantage of this?
It allows us to monitor lessons, record attendance and track assessments in real time. We also create our own books, manipulative materials, instructional songs, symbols for enforcing positive behavioural management… all these we produce locally at an extremely low cost. What this means is that we give our pupils access to the type of teaching they would not be able to afford in any normal circumstance. In addition, this system allows us to standardise our high-quality instructions across all of our academies.

What about the apps you use?
They are all created specifically for these academic tasks. There is no other app like it in the world. We created it from scratch.

What process goes 
into setting up these schools?
There is research at the beginning. After consulting satellite and aerial imagery, we conduct mobile surveys of households in every community we consider working in. This information yields the number of children living in each area, their parents’ jobs and incomes, the availability and quality of existing schools and how much they cost, etc.

Land is a sensitive issue in most local communities, how do you navigate that?
Most of the land in these poor areas normally doesn’t belong to anyone, until you show interest. We have our Real Estate team, which looks for and negotiates land issues. Once we have land, we start construction (which usually takes 4-6 weeks to reach completion), after which a 700-point mobile survey is conducted to ensure that all academies are built to their exact specification, ensuring the best possible environment for pupils. We have currently finished building about 50 new schools.

How big is a class?
On average there are 35 pupils per class. Research carried out all over world has actually shown that students perform better when in bigger numbers in a class than small numbers. This system also helps us make sure that teachers stay in class and teach for the allocated period of time. A recent World Bank research revealed that teachers in public schools take the lead in being absent from class, 47.3 per cent compared with 30.7 per cent in private schools.
Subsequently, pupils in public schools get the fewest minimum teaching hours a day at two hours and 19 minutes, compared to private ones who get three hours and 28 minutes. Pupils in urban public schools are even worse as they get only two hours and 13 minutes, compared to those in rural public schools who are taught for two hours and 37 minutes.

What’s the structure of the school?
There are the teachers. They have tablets, which display scripted lessons; they record attendance and assessment scores, track lesson pacing and pupil comprehension and monitor teacher progress in real time. This allows teachers to focus their attention on lesson delivery and pupil engagement. It also helps us to monitor teachers who might skip lessons or be late. We also have the Academy Manager who manages the operations of the school, such as pupil admission, tuition payments, teacher assessment and vendor payments, all through their smartphones that are linked to the Bridge headquarters.

There is also the Academy Oversight, which performs regular assessments across academy operations and academics using their own custom smartphone app. Then we have Quality Assurance staff that perform audits at academies. Lastly, we have a 24/7 Customer Care call centre to answer calls from all the above-mentioned, as well as parents and pupils.

P102_LFA01Are the teachers picked from governmental teacher training institutions?
No. We recruit and train our own teachers. We pick them from the communities in order to build role models for the pupils. The process is rigorous: of every 1500 interviews only 15% are successful. The lucky candidates then go through a rigorous training programme that not only brings them up to speed with our technology but also develops their educational skills. We have a purpose-built 350-hour teacher-training induction programme, heavily leveraging facilitated as well as video-based training sessions, combined with professional development.

What are some of the challenges you experience at Bridge?
The major challenge for us is handling the quick growth that we have experienced with our chain of schools. The paperwork involved in this process is immense. Other challenges have been more unexpected. For example, the teachers have experienced problems with chalk dust on their tablets when they have to write on a traditional blackboard and use their tablets at the same time.

Future plans?
Yes. Big plans. We are looking to expand into Uganda, Nigeria, Pakistan and India in the coming years. Our goal is to reach 10 million children eventually.


A Business model for education

1.Technology develops all of the applications used to complete research, navigate land buying, teach, track, and assess pupils, communicate with parents, and manage and evaluate each academy.

2.Research analyses where an academy should be built, based on the needs and price points of local families using mobile surveys, satellite imagery etc.

3. Government Relations liaises with local and national leaders to discuss the possibility of building an academy and garners their support.

4. Real Estate scouts land for every academy using GPS devices to make sure they stay within the neighbourhood specified by Research.

5. Legal is responsible for real estate transactions, contracts, intellectual property protection, and litigation, in addition to general risk management.

6. Physical Planning ensures that an academy’s building plans are approved and that they meet environmental protection and zoning laws.

7. Construction builds each academy based on one of three previously-developed and tested designs.

8. Potential Academy managers and teachers are individually scouted, evaluated, and trained.

9. Human Resources supports the people employed by Bridge International Academies.

10. Bridge international Academies develops all of its own scripted curriculum along with matching books and hands-on learning tools.

11. Production provides design, proofreading and printing support for materials used by academies.

12. Marketing develops materials and programmes to recruit and retain pupils. Every academy has an annual marketing budget of just US$156, which must pay for printed materials, such as posters, flyers and decals, and events, such as Grand Opening Celebrations, Parents’ Day, Prize Giving Day and more.

14. Academy Operations manages all academies using a sophisticated tech-enabled support, audit and monitoring system.

15.Business Operations identifies and prioritises business challenges, enhancing existing processes and builds new foundations for growth.

16.Finance uses a cashless system to run each academy, using mobile financial services to track pupil payments and pay academy bills, including staff wages. Bridge International Academies was one of Safaricom’s very first M-PESA corporate accounts.