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How an Anti-Tech Teacher Ended Up Creating A Mobile App to Improve Education in Africa

02/25/2015 09:00 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015
Eneze Education

In 2011 I returned to Kenya for a vacation. I wanted to see the community where I had lived just two years earlier, bring gifts to the families I had bonded with, and sing songs with the kids of the rural village that I had called home. I had lived in Muhuru Bay without water and electricity while working with teachers in this community to help students prepare for high school. It was meant to be a break before heading off to the West Coast for business school. I hadn't expected to start a company, especially one in technology.

On my second day back in Kenya, my colleague and good friend took me to a new innovation technology hub that had sprouted up in 2010. He was the co-founder of the NGO I had previously worked for, called WISER, and he was interested in the idea of using mobile phones to collect educational data. At the time, I was just along for the ride. I wanted to burn off my jetlag before heading home to the village. We headed to an innovation hub called the iHub -- a technology oasis filled with people in beanbag chairs on their laptops -- in the middle of the capital city, Nairobi. People go there for a fast internet connection, strong coffee, and conversations about code. We were meeting with the manager of the iHub's incubator, the Mobile Incubation Lab, or m:Lab for short. The manager was a smart, inquisitive guy named John Kieti.

In a tiny meeting room branded by Nokia, I briefly spat information at John about the educational program I had co-founded with Andrew -- coaching teachers, inspiring parents, collecting data, monitoring growth, etc. I told him about teaching in New York as a Teach For America corps member and about my dedication to educating girls in poor, rural areas in Africa. It was nothing that I expected a "techie" to truly feel passionate about.

"You should do a mobile app in education," John remarked.

My first reaction was to laugh. As a teacher, I had shied away from all technology in class. I strongly believed that learning resulted from deep human experiences, interactions that technology could never mimic.

"Teachers hate technology, I snickered. "The best teachers don't need it."

But I thought for a second -- no one had ever asked me what kind of technology I wanted for my kids. And my students back in New York and in Muhuru Bay needed technology to be successfully equipped to live in our world. If I could design anything, what would it be? That's how the idea of our social enterprise, Eneza Education, began.

In Version 1 of our product, my co-founder, Kago, essentially "technologized" a system I had run in my classroom back in 2005, a system my students loved and I found effective, but ridiculously tedious. I would track my students' progress according to nuanced standards -- how well they understood converting fractions to percentages, and all the subtleties around that topic, for example. It was nearly impossible to give each student detailed feedback, but I did. So, we came up with a way for kids to do the same thing -- on the phone. Now students in Africa using the app view brief texts we call "mini-lessons" and then answer quiz questions for which they get tailored feedback on their responses.

While everyone else was running to smartphones and tablets to "save education," we opted for dumb phones. Why? Every family had a dumb phone in my village ... We decided to meet people where they were and provide some mobile technology training wheels as they eventually do transition to smart phones.

Fast forward three and a half years, and we've reached more than 375,000 students in over 5000 schools. This is only a fraction of the 50 million students Eneza Education aims to impact, but it's a start.

And no, I never ended up attending business school. I decided to drop out during orientation week. I became too excited about the hundreds of thousands of kids we're reaching, the girls in rural villages, the kids without school in refugee camps, kids too poor to buy substantial review materials. I was too excited to buckle down and get started.

Two big lessons learned for this teacher-turned-techie:

  1. Sometimes, the things we resist can house the most potential. For me, it was technology. After understanding its usefulness, I embraced its potential to educate students.
  2. Technology is a good thing. Our kids are digital natives, no matter where they live. We must get them connected to the world around them. Using technology to educate increases both teachers' and students' understandings of the world.

With Africa's population increasing from one to 2.5 billion people in the next 35 years, our vitality in this world depends on the future of The Continent (as we call it here). I'm convinced that investing in quality education for all kids is the most powerful way to ensure the positive development of our planet.

What have you resisted -- whether it's technology, a new system, or a new boss or employee that has the potential to change your life or potentially the lives of millions of others?

Teach For All is a partner of Cisco CSR. Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's Impact X section.