Equipping SA kids with smart tech to help them learn better

JOHANNESBURG — Over the last few decades, the world has changed dramatically with the advent of internet technologies together with handheld smart devices. Today, most of us walk around with devices in our pockets that can provide us with any information we desire almost instantly at the press of a button. While this has become normal for many of us, the reality is that the benefits of this tech are still difficult to attain for many a South African, especially in the country’s poverty-stricken areas. But an organisation called Closed Loop Learner Network is trying to change this state of affairs by implementing a viable way of allowing thousands of our country’s high school learners gain access to specially designed tablet devices that will help them improve the way they learn. In this interview, a director of Closed Loop Learner Network, Michelle Rocke, explains how the initiative works. – Gareth van Zyl

Joining me now on the podcast is Michelle Rocke who is a Director of the Closed Loop Learner Network. Now, this network is looking to give thousands of school learners across the country access to digital learning devices and content. Michelle, thank you very much for joining us on the podcast today.

Thanks for having me Gareth.

Michelle Rocke.

So, can you tell us more about what the Closed Loop Learner Network does exactly, and why you started it?

Absolutely, the intention of the Closed Loop Learner Network is to create a digital identity for all learners in South Africa. Obviously, we’re in an age where information is really important. Access to student information and access to a digital identity is becoming more and more important. The idea started, really, when my business partner and I just were very much aware of the crisis that the government and in fact, the country was experiencing in getting textbooks to learners. We just saw this as a massive hurdle and a massive stumbling block for learners to be getting such basic things as the resources that they needed to study when there were already so many other challenges. The idea was really born around ‘how do we use what we know how to do’, and at that time we were working in a corporate organisation.

We specialised in distribution and wanted to be able to assist the government in doing something that they need to do, which is really of critical importance. Since then, the idea has really evolved. So we knew that we would be able to support with distribution in the position that we were in at the time, but we didn’t have any information or knowledge or insight as to what the content was for learners, and in terms of how that would be relevant for them. So, we thought that the most important thing would be to bring partners together that have expertise in each of those areas to be able to create a solution that really works, rather than trying to solve it ourselves without having an understanding of what those important things were in each of the areas.

It then evolved from creating a solution for learning materials to a digital device that is pre-loaded with all of the content a high-school learner would need in terms of their syllabus across all the subjects. But it’s also now about creating a digital identity where we can now understand how they interact with their textbooks. What do they use the most? What do they not use so much? What are their interests? What are their preferences? We can do surveys. We can do background polling information and it, therefore, creates an identity for each learner, which up until now, has been something that neither government, industry, textbook producers, nor the publishers have had access to. In principle, that’s really what we have as part of the CLN program.

And how many leaners are you targeting here?

Gareth, at the moment we have 1000 devices deployed in the Free State and this is part of our pilot project. The intention is ultimately to roll the devices out to all learners across the country, which is in the region of about 12 million. In terms of a proof of concept, we’re hoping to target 20 000 learners in the Free State across 81 schools. As I’ve said, we currently have 1000 devices deployed across three schools in the Free State. Those are for Grade 10 and 11 learners. The intention, as I’ve said, is to get to the 81 schools, which consist of 20 000 by the end of this year and beyond that, we have a larger rollout plan.

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And you said earlier that you’re able to track insights in terms of how the learners are interacting with these devices and with their learning content. What are some of the highlights you’ve seen thus far, with the pilot that you’ve been running?

Obviously, we’ve had a tremendous reception just in terms of actually getting the content out there. It is in a pilot phase, so we’re still very much gathering data and we are now able to access information about what times those devices are interacted with the most and the kinds of interaction that the children are having. So, we’re still very much gathering that data in order to be able to analyse it but it’s got huge potential in understanding what the needs are and how best to meet those.

And these table devices are called ‘OMANG’ devices and they’re powered by Android. Can you tell us a little bit more about them? Where are they sourced from? Are they sourced internationally or locally?

Gareth, we’ve been really lucky to work with MTN on this project. They’ve come on board as our data partner and are providing access. The devices do work without connectivity. But in order to be able to poll and screen that information around the interaction with the device, we do need them to be able to connect to 3G networks. MTN and the MTN Foundation have come on board and sponsored the data for that as part of the pilot and they also connected us with Huawei for the hardware. It’s called the OMANG device, which is another word for ‘identity’, which is what the project is all about. But these are Huawei tablets, so they’re high-end/high-specification tablets but they’ve been custom-built for us. The intention around that is that there’s no theft risk and that the learners cannot use it for anything other than learning. So it doesn’t have access to basic Internet browsing.

We have specific websites that we’ve whitelisted for students to access that is relevant for their learning and then other options like cameras and social media aren’t accessible to the learners. The intention again, as I said, is so that there’s no theft risk. It has no theft risk. It has no value to anyone other than as a learning device and, secondly, so that the learners are using it for that primary purpose.

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Obviously, government is also rolling out its own tablet programme to various schools but it’s a programme that’s already come in for much criticism. For instance, some of the tablets that they’ve distributed have been stolen and they’ve had to lock them down. There has also been criticism around kids still needing data at home (but I guess you guys have sought to solve that problem by giving children free data). Also, children need electricity at home to be able to use the tablet and many of them don’t. So, how are you doing things differently compared to what is already underway in some jurisdictions in South Africa?

Great question, Gareth. I think we’ve been lucky in the sense that we’re probably in some ways got involved when there’s already quite a lot happening in the EdTech space. So we’ve been able to use a lot of the learnings from some of the failures and some of the challenges that have happened already. Important for us (as I’ve already mentioned) is that this doesn’t have a value for theft. It can really only be used as a device for learning and because we have a software platform that has been offered to us by MTN, we also have the ability to lock down devices where we can track if there’s an abuse of data usage or potentially something that may have gone wrong.

Our software partner, which is an organisation by the name of Wizzr has developed a platform that really is un-hackable. It’s been hacked before and that’s why we feel confident to say that because we’ve had a couple of workarounds where we can’t access anything other than what is on the device already and therefore, the theft risk is very low and as soon as we start rolling this out we’ll continue to be able to prove that. Also, we know that there is more than one cellphone per adult in South Africa. There is, therefore, a way that people even in the rural areas, and in areas that don’t have electricity in the home, are managing to charge cell phones. We are aware of the fact that this device does need to be charged.

It is a tablet device and we’re hoping that we’re not going to have major barriers in that space – as I say, working off the assumption that there is availability to charge cell phones, whether it be at homes, workplaces, or even at the school. Obviously, in the areas that we’re piloting, we have already assessed that and we’ve been able to identify that that won’t be a barrier.

And just as a final question: I thought that there was quite an interesting detail on your Closed Loop Network website that says, “We recognise that in order to have a wide-scale impact, this needs to make business sense.” On your website it also describes how you guys are looking for sponsors to help with this rollout. Can you explain how that whole philosophy works, exactly?

I’m so glad again Gareth that you’ve asked this question. Our time in corporate taught us that, unfortunately, businesses are under constant pressure. And to have a project like this dependent purely on CSI or CSR spend is very risky. Even if it’s government grants, because that funding is not always guaranteed and it’s really important – we believe – that in order for a project like to be sustainable, that it does make business sense. So, what we’re targeting beyond the pilot is really the ability to sell advertising space to organisations and corporates that are looking to move away from the traditional advertising model to more of a positive social messaging impact model — and we’ve seen that already. We’ve got quite a few corporates that are already interested in getting involved.

Whereas companies and corporates may be currently channelling their advertising spend via TV, social media, prints, or advertising etc., we’re asking them instead to use this as a platform to get the same content messaging out there with a positive social messaging spin to a targeted audience that’s ultimately funding education. And this has been a really attractive proposition for businesses. By doing that, we’re able then to use that spend to subsidise the cost of the textbooks, the cost of the devices, and make sure that this is a sustainable business venture rather than simply a corporate social initiative where funding may or may not be guaranteed.

And businesses can also earn Black Economic Empowerment points by getting involved in a program such as yours?

Absolutely. They can. So, we have a ceiling education fund and organisations can earn BB-BEE points, purely on the amount of spend that they allocate to the project.

Michelle Rocke, thank you so much for telling us more about the Closed Loop Network and I wish you guys the best of luck with it.

Thank you so much, Gareth. We really appreciate your time and the opportunity.