StartUp RoundUp: Monitoring and Evaluation of ICTs in Education

While most of the monitoring and evaluation work I’ve done with Jigsaw Consult is in international development, it is interesting to see how startups – both in Africa, and in the US, are approaching some of the same issues.

Two startups from the US that have come to my attention lately are BrightBytes and Learnmetrics (formerly Ontract). Basically, they are platforms which provide learning analytics, which can then be used to assess the relative value of using various learning technologies. Brightbytes is quite explicit about how the whole learning management chain can be used to inform classroom use and higher-level ICT use policy, while Ontract focuses on the learning analytics.

One of BrightBytes’ products, Clarity, aims to quantify use of existing ICTs in order to inform use about future ICT acquisition and course design:

This is just one of 4 data-driven areas identified by professor Christopher Bishop as key to the future of mobile and connected learning at the Future of Wireless conference in Cambridge last week. Alongside BrightBytes’ focus on course design, and Learnmetrics’ focus on student performance, Prof Bishop identified “Instructor Activities” and “Science of Learning” as key to the future of education.

Two startups addressing the “Science of Learning” and “Instructor Activities” are startups from East Africa which pitched at Pivot East last week. While Kytabu was the winner in the “Mobile Society” category, another finalist was Skoobox with its academic-networking platform for students to share and make the learning process more connected and open. Skoobox is essentially a social networking tool for students, which has the potential to measure the collaborative and social side of learning. It is difficult for teachers and schools to know how students are learning from each other if they are not able to access that network. It may be inappropriate or simply a waste of time for teachers to follow their classes on facebook or twitter. Hopefully, better analysis of the social side of learning can shed new light on how collaboration works for mobile connected students. While there isn’t much to emerge from Skoobox yet, it will be interesting to see if they capitalize on the opportunity to monitor and evaluate the social side of collaborative learning.

Another finalist at Pivot East was Schoolmaster solutions which promised a whole range of school management solutions. While it seems to be aimed more at the heads of schools rather than instructors per se, they do include a module/product entitled “Teacher Professional Development- integrating ICT in teaching & Learning(Teachers Track)” and a product related to Instructional Design. While one might hope that Schoolmaster solutions might have a part to play in the fourth area mentioned by Prof Bishop, their appalling website leaves plenty of questions about their capacity to deliver a usable product.


Monitoring and Evaluation of ICT use in education certainly has a long way to go, and it is encouraging to see that Kenyan and other African commercial competitors are involved in the early stages. The four startups highlighted here seem to have gaps pedagogically in conceptualising learning within the ambitious plans they suggest, and some are more successful and polished in executing their ideas than others. For my money, Kytabu, though less ambitious than the others is most likely to have an impact because of their simple vision of short-term textbook leasing for inexpensive tablets.

…and other “berries”

Raspberry Pi logo

Raspberry Pi logo

In my shameless self-promotion of the last post on Raspberry Pi’s in education, I tried to take advantage of the trending #Blackberry10 announcement about their new devices, and drew a fruitful parallel between their names:

This flippant comment gave me pause to reflect on the fact that actually, Blackberry phones are wildly popular in developing countries (particularly Africa), a fact which is overlooked by most people working in mobiles for development or ICT4D. I can sympathize with this inattention, since I have never owned a Blackberry, and I don’t think I ever would, but isn’t it an imposition of the aspirations of researchers and development professionals to project this on others?


blackberry logo

Aside from the practical issues of Blackberries being more rugged, with better battery life, and cheaper messaging and internet facilities (with BBM and other services) than other smartphones, the prestige factor seems to come up first. The prestige of the Blackberry is best captured by the highly caricatured Nollywood establishment that is the “Blackberry Babes” film series. Yes this is a real thing, folks – Nollywood went there. The film flirts the line between propaganda, aspiration and absurdity in a low-budget way that only Nollywood can – I am not familiar enough with the genre to be sure whether there is some ironic self-parody in the cringe-worthy constant product placement, but I hope so.
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Other Mobile Technologies in education: Raspberry Pi

a whole lotta pie!

1mil Raspberry Pi

As quickly as a consensus around a technocentric definition of “mobile learning” coalesced around mobile phones, it vanished in the face of newer mobile technologies, including tablets and minicomputers that are extremely portable, like the Raspberry Pi. Their site says:

“The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming.”

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Twitter’s “Pivot” and its international footprint

This post discusses a recent debate on the broader direction of Twitter, and how the increasing number of international users fits into the larger picture.

Dalton Caldwell, a serial entrepreneur whom leading tech industry analysis blog TechCrunch describes as a “founder of things that have pivoted,” claims that Twitter is in the midst of a “mid-flight pivot.” (For those who aren’t aware, within the startup world a ‘pivot’ is a significant change of business strategy or model). This change in “what twitter is” is exemplified by the tweet of their new board member Peter Chernin, former president of MySpace, the original social networking giant.

Basically, Caldwell claims that Chernin doesn’t know how to tweet properly, and uses Twitter only to consume news, rather than to create content. He draws the conclusion from this that Twitter is embracing a pivot from essentially a content-generation service (micro-blogging) to a content-consumption service.
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iPad Mini and other tablets in Education

caveat: I started writing this a few weeks ago as a general review, but with the iPad mini’s release today, I had to finish and post it up

The fast-growing tablet space in mobile technology is increasingly looked to as a place for education. While some remember the tablet PCs of the late 90′s (or the even earlier Newton’s from Apple), some would argue that e-readers such as the kindle brought the tablet into the mainstream. Now Amazon’s kindle fire offerings, along with the iPad, and numerous Android offerings, are crowding the tablet market, not to mention Microsoft’s surface tablets. Some of these pieces of hardware do have education-focused ecosystems for software and content, but others do not specifically. While an in-depth comparison is not possible at the moment, as not all of the devices have been released, a relative comparison of some of the hardware and software features is valuable.
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DFID Data challenge

I am a bit late commenting on last weekend’s event sponsored by DFID‘s department for trade transparency, which others have covered here and here, but I wanted to get some of my thoughts out there on the subject and give a bit more behind the scenes from the perspective of some of us developers, data hackers and designers who attended the event. Firstly, kudos to Rewired State once again for making it happen and bringing us all together for this. I think thanks are also in order to DFID for the creativity in coming up with the idea and the confidence in developers, not just in the UK, but also in Nigeria and South Africa (different events in the same series.)
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StartUp RoundUp: Education as a Service

BenchPrep StudyHall
I am going to try a new type of post this week, focusing on a few interesting education-related technology startups which have caught my attention. Most of these will have a mobile learning element, but I read quite a lot about tech-related startups on sites like TechCrunch, so this seemed like a natural extension of that. This week we’ll look at a peer learning platform called Studyhall, another open learning platform called Class2Go, and BenchPrep – test prep education as a service.
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Education’s Mobile Future in Africa

@korakora4In the article discussed in my previous post , blended and mobile learning are seen as a solution for cash-strapped education systems. Likewise, a recent BBC article “The future of education in Africa is mobile” sees mobile learning as an economical solution to the lack of teachers in Africa’s attempts to meet “Education for All” goals. Brushing aside the logical disjoint between targeting EFA (Universal Primary Education) and the examples the article gives of mobile learning services which target secondary, tertiary and adult learners, the article is a signature example of hopeless optimism based on irrelevant statistics and anecdotes.

The global figures for users of various services like Nokia Life and WorldReader (most of which are not in Africa) and MXit (nearly all of which are in South Africa), all in the millions, are aimed to impress. Yet they can’t be taken as representative of any broader African trends about anything, no less mobile learning. Even in aspiration, the “mobile learning” the article describes is about how “mobiles are the only channel for effectively distributing reading material,” which is, as discussed previously, not really about learning, but dissemination. It isn’t fair to criticize the author, Steve Vosloo, for his lack of rigour, as the article is not meant to be a frank evaluation and assessment (though even these too frequently carry the same tone), though it is concerning that a “mobile learning specialist” from UNESCO would be so unequivocally positive (and self-promoting!) about a field with so little proven success.
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Blended learning for school children

blended classroom

In a recent article, “Anticipating a Blended Classroom Boom Led by Education Startups,” Emily Goligoski wrote of how the blossoming of technology-related educational tools, and the current climate for innovation among educators is starting to produce broader change in the way schools use technology. The article focuses on a range of specific software startups that are providing various solutions, particularly around metrics, middleware and learning management. While a few solutions focus on enhancing learning content, and optimizing the balance between various learning modes to increase opportunities for learners, it struck me as interesting that the majority focus on the management of learning institutions rather than the learning. The products which education technology startups are developing are marketed for schools, not for teachers and learners.
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The Mitchell Development Index

I am currently in Kyrgyzstan, but have also recently spent time in Kenya, and a survey of a few development indicators has shown that some of the  statistics for Kyrgyzstan (and Tajikistan – they both consistently rank at the bottom) are actually similar to some of the African countries I have lived in and visited that would seem to be much less “developed.”

This has led me to come up with my own “development index” that I think will reflect the expectations for quality of life that many will share. As may be clear from my general thoughts about “development,” most statistics bandied about by the Washington consensus are fairly arbitrary proxies for “level of engagement with capitalist globalisation,” and “assimilation into western values for quality of life.” That isn’t to say that the goals that are put forward through those agendas are not laudable – who can argue with reducing (actually, eliminating!) maternal and infant mortality? However, I think it does need to be underscored that all development statistics represent relatively arbitrary proxy data, and indices that lead to “rankings” are particularly pernicious when taken out of context.
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