Design

The BRCK Kio Kit is revolutionising education in Africa

Hack & Craft News puts some big questions to an innovative new technology provider to find out what they do, and why.

This week: schools’ technology provider, Kio Kit. We caught up with Mark Kamau, Director of User Experience at BRCK.

July 12, 2017
Mark Kamau
Director of User Experience at BRCK

Mark Kamau is a Human Centered Designer with a multidisciplinary design background. He specialises in designing for Africa and emerging Markets. He founded the first open Human Centered Design Lab in Africa, supporting the iHub community of over 16,000 members with a wide array of startups. He also founded the first design week in Africa. Mark currently works as the UX Design Lead at BRCK where he leads the research and UX design of ruggedised tech hardware for Africa. He is also the Interaction Design Association coordinator for Kenya and sits at the advisory board of Ideo.org, Amplify. He believes in the power of Design to transform the world.

The Kio Kit allows schools to turn classrooms into digital classrooms “in minutes”, by supplying them with a set of rugged tablets and a Wi-Fi router in a tough, portable box. What was the thinking behind this ‘strongbox’ kit approach?

The thinking behind the Kio Kit was to narrow the huge educational gap that exists between schools that have access to books, internet and general access to learning content and those that don’t. Kenya is a case in point. There are students in well-to-do city schools with access to text books, libraries the internet and plenty of teachers.

On the other hand, you have many rural schools at the edge of the grid with no access to the internet, hardly any text books or teaching materials and a severe shortage of teachers. These students have to walk sometimes 20-30 kilometers just to get to class. The challenges they face are many. Needless to say odds are heavily stacked against them.

With these polar realities, all the students sit the same national exam, in spite of this huge imbalance.

The idea behind the Kio Kit is to redress this imbalance by enabling every student to have a fair chance of learning and excelling by providing schools with access to educational tools that help them teach and learn.

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What age group / learning level is Kio Kit aimed at?

The Kio Kit has mostly been deployed in primary schools, which range from 6-14.  It can however be deployed for different age groups as it is a content agnostic system.

You say that the Kio Kit is designed for schools that have poor infrastructures. What do you mean by this? And what problems do they face, and why?

The Kio Kit is designed using a Human Centered Design approach. This means the design process centres on the need and frustrations of the users, in this case school teachers and students.

While designing technology for schools is not a novel idea, it is the way the Kio Kit tackles the challenges faced in schools that makes it a unique proposition;

 1. Hardware: Most technology solutions have designed hardware for Africa without the user and their context in mind. Tablets or computers with hardware meant for office use are adopted for school use. The consequence is that teachers and students, who often have no prior handling experience and in hot and dusty conditions, end up breaking them. This makes them feel like they failed and attract the wrath of faculty. The net result is fear of using technology and a sense that technology brought a lot of hope and faded away just as fast. In the end, sometimes doing more harm than good.

The Kio Kit: The Kio Kit takes a totally different approach to hardware design. We start by understanding the user in their context and then designing to respond to their needs. The tablets are designed for a student’s hands with the right size for their hands, it is sealed for dust, it is water resistant and can withstand a 70cm drop onto concrete. These are are all as a result of centering the user and contexts as well as learning from where others have failed.

2. Charging: Most schools will have one or very few power outlets in their classroom or anywhere in the school. Some will have a solar system which is rare. The point being access to power is an issue for schools. Most deployments give a single computer or tablet with a charger, just like you would have for your tablet at home. With no power outlet sockets in the school, they end up struggling to charge the devices. They end up buying cheap extension cords which in turn ruin the devices. The other issue is human error. With lack of proper utilisation of the charging port and outlet due to lack of prior experience, the teachers and students end up messing up the charging port on the tablet.

There are also massive power outages and current fluctuation in African countries that can burn up the circuit of these fragile systems.

The Kio Kit: The Kio Kit fixed this problem. It requires only one charging outlet that can then charge all 40 tablets. The teacher plugs it in at night and with the in-built battery, the system can be used for a whole 6-8-hour class day without being plugged in again.

To avoid human error and messing up the charging ports of the tablets, the tablets are charged through a patent pending wireless charging system developed by BRCK. This means the student can insert the tablet into its slot in whichever direction and it will start automatically charging.

To deal with current fluctuation, the system is engineered to take several times the normal current fluctuations you expect in power surge situations which we studied.

To deal with the extreme heat environments, the Kio Kit has sensors that will automatically turn in-built fans on whenever the temperature reaches a prescribed point.

3. Content: Most technology deployments suffer from a scaled thinking for content management. In most cases, they have to round up all the tablets, take them to a central hub (often miles away from the school), update them with content and then take them back to the school. This works in a small scale, albeit inefficient and unsustainable. At scale, it is simply not an option.

The Kio Kit: The Kio Kit has one central nervous system and brain, the BRCK. This means all the tablets consume content by connecting to the BRCK via a local WiFi signal broadcasted by the Kio Kit. As a result, The BRCK can connect to the cloud via 3G or any other available connection, pull fresh content from the cloud and automatically update itself. This means by updating one device, all 40 tablets get access to fresh content. It also means you can update content at a huge scale remotely by reaching Kio Kits from one content management system. This allows for quality control and schools get consistent up to date content.

As you can see, the Kio Kit is as a result of carefully studying deployments of the past across the world, identifying their limitations from both a human and technical perspective and developing an integrated ecosystem of services that respond effectively to these challenges.

As a result, the school has a reliable system that means teachers and students spend less time thinking of technology, but focus their time on learning.

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Can the kit be targeted at schools in the UK, or is it mainly at countries where IT and communication infrastructures may be poor?

The Kio Kit was originally conceived for poor infrastructure environments. But as our founder Erik Hersman says, “If it works in Africa, it can work anywhere.”

The Kio Kit is content agnostic. This means you can load it with content from any educational system. The other benefits described above have proved relevant in many different countries.

How can other technology companies and local communities help schools overcome these problems – wherever they may be?

We believe in a Human Centered Design approach. This combines the people who are experiencing the challenges and other actors (academics, technology companies and communities) coming together and working towards viable, sustainable solutions that adequately respond to these challenges.

To what extent do the infrastructure problems some schools face cause problems in teaching the national curriculum?

As partially explained in the first question, there is often major challenges for teachers and students in learning. Teachers often have inadequate face time with student due to the amount of work they have on their plates marking exams and grading students, attending meetings and workshops and often, the number of pupils they have to handle per teacher is too challenging. The Kio Kit tries to respond to this by making lesson planning and exams digital, allowing for collaborative use of these resources and reducing exam marking time since the answers are preset and therefore automatically marked for results.

Students on the other hand have different ways of learning. Traditional education system approaches require all students to learn from reading books. Studies have shown that some of us learn best visually or by listening to sound. Technology provides opportunities to present concepts in different forms of rich media, giving those who struggle with traditional approaches a good chance of assimilating concepts through media.

Updating of content in this fast-moving world can be expensive, slow and inefficient if we had to print a new book each time. With technology, we have the opportunity to update knowledge pretty fast, which is a huge advantage for students and teachers.

You can also store thousands of books in a small device these days. With connectivity, it means access to a serious amount of previously unprecedented sources of knowledge is possible. This is huge.

Are schools with poor infrastructures often in areas where children may already be economically disadvantaged – and perhaps lack computers, tablets, and phones at home?

This is unfortunately often true. We have seen, as we take the Kio Kit across the continent, such extreme cases. I remember we once took the Kio Kit to Korr. The northern side of Kenya and in this area they had never had any radio signal, let alone mobile signal. You could not turn on a radio and catch a frequency, you could not watch any TV or make a mobile phone call. In such remote schools, there are far too few teachers and hardly any books or learning materials to speak of.

This leads to poor performance that frustrates and demotivate the teachers, with parents and students consequently questioning the need for education if all their efforts are in vain.

What kind of skills does Kio Kit help children to acquire, and how?

The Kio Kit standard content is divided in to Learn, Play and Grow.

Learn focuses on literacy and numeracy as well as a broad spectrum of content in language, sciences and social studies.

Play are educative games since we realise children must be children and therefore we utilise the power of play for good. We have games that reinforce their memory, critical thinking, literacy and numeracy.

Grow focuses on development of young people as members of society. We realise that to growing a wholesome individual that positively contributes to society takes more than literacy and therefore the grow section focuses on wider societal concepts that teach human interaction, society and decency.

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You’ve partnered with a range of content providers. Who? What do they provide? And why was this important?

We have a growing list of content partners both local and international like e-Limu, eKitabu (both leading local educational content providers), Wikipedia for Schools, Khan Academy, Ted Education among a growing list.

We believe that diversity of knowledge is important in allowing for different approaches, pedagogical considerations and eventual success of education. Technology affords unprecedented access to options for learning and managing education. There is a lot of research and development that has gone into the various content providers’ work and for the first time in human history, we are able to easily share this knowledge and insights across the world. This is truly powerful and eye opening and that is why we believe in it.

Is the content regularly updated?

Yes it is. We have a central content management system and this means we can update content as it comes through. As we engage different partners, schools have the advantage of having access to this content whenever possible. In the end, the content partners benefit from having their content widely spread and being able to learn from how it is used and can be improved, and the schools benefit from having global quality content for their teachers and students.

How important is IT security to schools, and how does Kio Kit help?

Security is very important and that is why we continue to develop a content management system and an operating system with robust security.  This is really important especially when considering personalised learning systems of the future that collect an individual student’s information for analysis and improved learning.