Digital tool helping to bridge quality gaps in remote schools

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Dawati co-founders Mohammed Shariff (L) and Naheed Manjoni. PHOTO | POOL

While growing up in a remote village of Kajiado County, Mohammed Shariff experienced firsthand a lack of quality education among children from marginalised communities.

He challenged himself to help in efforts to provide them with affordable and premium education.

“While in some regions like Nairobi many students make it to the university, in places such as the Coast or Northern part of Kenya, nearly 85 percent of students do not make it,” says Mr Shariff.

“A school in Garissa that has about 100 students for instance will have only two or at times no student at all attaining grade C+ and above.”

And so after completing his computer science studies two years ago, Mr Shariff did not hesitate to use his newly acquired skills to develop a tool that would potentially bridge this gap.

Together with his associate Naheed Manjoni, Mr Shariff set out to develop a digital platform known as Dawati that connects students to education material produced by teachers who work in national schools.

To develop the prototype of the platform, Shariff and Manjoni approached Eddie Malitt, chief executive officer of Carrel Technologies who agreed to incubate them under his company, which specialises in the provision of high-end technology services.

Once they were able to stand on their own feet, the two then went ahead to approach teachers from Alliance High, Kenya High and Pangani High School, to help them in development of quality content.

“Schools that perform well are well resourced in terms of both teachers and equipment. Most times, you cannot move these teachers to other schools. A teacher in Pangani Girls for instance would not willingly move to Lodwar high school because they have more opportunities in Nairobi. The only way to move these teachers was virtually,” notes Mr Shariff.

Currently, he says the platform offers content on the seven main subjects in the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) for Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). Since it rolled out two years ago, it has been downloaded and used by 80,000 students from 5,000 different schools. Students access content through three plans - a monthly plan of Sh350, a termly plan (four months) of Sh750, and an annual plan of Sh2000, but 15 percent of the content is accessible for free.

“We are finalising an engagement with Telkom Kenya to subsidise bundles for students. For 6GB, it will cost Sh250 a month, which allows you to access content for around two hours a day,” says Mr. Shariff.

Because it offers content for practical subjects as well, he says the platform helps students who might have been distracted in technical classes, where missing even just a few seconds could mean losing out completely, to revise.

He says the platform also helps to counter the challenge of few slots available to national schools, as it offers a near similar alternative that keeps students who did not make it to these schools get quality education.

“Recently after KCPE results were announced, Pangani Girls had 111,000 applications for Form One, while there were only 336 openings, so you can imagine getting to Pangani Girls is almost more competitive than getting to Harvard,” says Mr Shariff.

“These schools represent our Ivy League schools. But since you cannot expand them physically, why not leverage on technology to make the quality education offered there accessible to all, whether you are in Lodwar, Garissa or Kisumu,” he added.

His business partner Naheed Manjoni says adult learners who aren’t going to school but want to sit for their KCSE exams can also use the platform as their primary source of information. It is essentially a cheaper substitute for conventional tuition, he notes.

“It’s a known problem that many parents who send their kids upcountry are also wary of the quality of teaching there. So, they invest in tuition during holidays. Getting a teacher for your kid’s tuition could cost you up to Sh2,000 an hour,” says Mr Manjoni, who adds that they also have a tablet, which comes pre-loaded with content so that even in areas with poor internet connectivity, students can access content offline.

“We recognise in many remote places the network connectivity is poor. If it is available, then the cost of connectivity is very high and because our content is multi-media, it consumes a bit of data,” said Mr Manjoni.

Schools in remote areas, he says, can connect the tablet to a screen or projector, and make the content accessible to all students, and adds that some schools in Wajir have adopted their concept.

“A tablet costs Sh12, 000, but we realise some people might not be able to afford that one-off, so we also sell it through a lease model, where you can pay Sh1500 upfront, then pay Sh30 a day or Sh900 a month for one year until it becomes yours,” says Mr Manjoni.