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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Kenya pilots handheld education
Richard Taylor
By Richard Taylor
Editor, BBC Click Online

In the final report of Click Online's Africa season, we visit Kenya where a trial project using handheld computers could help reduce the costs of education in poor communities.

School pupils
Books are a scarce resource in Kenyan primary schools
Mbita Point, on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria, hosts a small rural community.

A few minutes walk from the main town lies the local primary school, housed on the campus of a renowned research institute.

As the only school in the area with access to electricity, Mbita Primary enjoys a relatively privileged location.

This aside, it suffers from the same problems encountered by other public schools.

'Willing guinea pigs'

Since the Kenyan government introduced free primary school education two years ago, the resulting influx of kids has meant that resources are spread as thinly as ever.

In the future the students will be able to complete their assignments on these books and send them to the teacher.
Eduvision co-founder Maciej Sudra
Classrooms are crowded, and the all-too-familiar scenario of children sharing outdated textbooks is still very much in evidence.

However, in Class Five, things are just a little bit different. Fifty-four 11-year-old students are willing guinea pigs in an extraordinary experiment aimed at using technology to deliver education across the continent.

In the Eduvision pilot project, textbooks are out, customised Pocket PCs, referred to as e-slates, are very much in.

They are wi-fi enabled and run on licence-free open source software to keep costs down.

"The e-slates contain all the sorts of information you'd find in a textbook and a lot more," said Eduvision co-founder Maciej Sudra.

"They contain textual information, visual information and questions. Within visual information we can have audio files, we can have video clips, we can have animations.

"At the moment the e-slates only contain digitised textbooks, but we're hoping that in the future the students will be able to complete their assignments on these books and send them to the teacher, and the teacher will be able to grade them and send them back to the student."

The handheld PCs were chosen in place of desktops because they are more portable, so the children can take them home at night, and also because they're also cheaper, making them cost-effective alternatives to traditional methods of learning.

Enormous potential

Eduvision co-founder Matthew Herren says families pay upwards of $100 a year for textbooks.

"Our system is something that we hope will be sustainable, and the money that they use towards textbooks could be used to buy e-slates instead, which can last more than a year, thereby reducing the cost of education."

Pupils with an e-slate
E-slates have replaced books for 54 pupils
Moreover, the potential offered by e-slates is enormous. The content stored on them can be dynamically updated wirelessly, hence the need for wi-fi.

This means that they could include anything from new textbooks which have just come on stream, to other content like local information or even pages from the web.

The team have also devised a rather neat system for getting the information onto the devices.

First off, content is created and formatted for use on the e-slate.

A central operations centre distributes the material over a cheap satellite radio downlink to a satellite radio receiver in the school.

The information passes through a base station which beams it out wirelessly to the students. And so a new and enjoyable way of learning is born.

"I like using [the] e-slate because I can take it home to use it at night and I can use it because it has [a] battery," said Viola, a pupil at Mbita Primary.

Fellow pupil Felix had a few problems: "At first I found it difficult, but when our teacher, Maureen, told me to go in early to teach me, I went. The next day I found it easy."

Potential pitfalls

Although the kids are certainly enthralled by the novelty of the hi-tech gadgetry, their teachers are a little more realistic.

"There are too many drawbacks," said Robert Odero, a teacher at the school.

"One is the lack of electric power in most of our schools, and since the machine needs constant recharging for it to be effectively used this would affect the users as well as the teachers.

Kilemi Mwiria, Kenyan Asst. Minister of Education
I think it's a big leap, a big giant leap for schools, students and communities that don't even know what a desktop computer is.
Assistant Minister for Education, Kilemi Mwiria
"Another thing is the delicate nature of the machine. Given the rugged terrain of our country and the paths our kids use on their way to school, these things could easily fall on the way."

According to Eduvision co-founder Matthew Herren, the e-slates are fragile because the project is in a pilot stage.

"In any implementation in the future that's on a larger scale we will have them custom made to our specifications and coated in rubber and made much hardier," he said.

"At the same time, with textbooks there's no reason why a student couldn't drop all of their books into a pail of water and damage them as well."

There are plenty of concerns which have given pause for thought during the 18 months the pilot's been running.

The Eduvision team says all the issues can be solved and that the technology could be rolled out across countries and even extended beyond education.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of sceptics who believe it will never make it off this campus.

Kenya's Assistant Minister of Education, Science and Technology believes the project's flawed not just in design, but in its very conception.

"We need to be careful that we don't bring about too many experiments, and this is another such experiment being done without ensuring that we have the right environment for it to be assured of success," said Kilemi Mwiria.

"I think it's a big leap, a big giant leap for schools, students and communities that don't even know what a desktop computer is, as well as what you can use computers for.

"I think to suddenly bring even more advanced technology is being a bit unrealistic."

Few people could deny that this project is both novel and enterprising, and even while it's still in testing, Eduvision concede that they themselves have still got a lot to learn.

But they are convinced it will play a part in Africa's digital future.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

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