The idea of a school-in-a-box isn’t new. Everyone from Apple to Samsung to more will sell you a flightcase packed with tablets, lesson plans and a built-in charging station if you want them, and they regularly do. We’ve seen clever charging stations in many township schools, and some that aren’t so clever and waste everyone’s time too.
Even though the idea isn’t new, however, the latest attempt to bundle everything a teacher needs for 21st Century education together is still quite eye catching. Partly that’s because the tablets come in bright yellow cases, and partly it’s because it comes with some very clever innovations. But it’s also partly because it’s from the same Kenyan team as BRCK – the battery powered, ruggedised router/modem designed to extend internet reach almost anywhere. And few have more hands-on experience getting internet enabled tools to the hands of those who need them most.
When the folks behind crisis-mapping service Ushahidi launched their BRCK Kickstarter in 2013, they had the ambitious goal of creating a world where internet connectivity could feasibly be extended to the roughly 800m people across the African continent that weren’t online.
Two years later the same team has put together an integrated digital classroom in a box, designed in to withstand (and to some extent thrive) in challenging education environments across the continent.
The fully integrated solution consists of three parts and has been launched under the BRCK Education brand in Kenya this morning.
The story starts with a new tablet called the Kio, which was designed and is being assembled by JP – apparently the world’s largest educational technology provider in Kenya.
The Kio can withstand a drop onto a concrete floor from 70cm, a fairly substantial water spill and some serious exposure to dust. Inside, it’s powered by one of Intel’s new SOFIA 3G budget processors – a dual-core x86 system on a chip that’s slightly cut down from current gen Atoms. It ha a 7inch, 1024×600 screen and a 4 000mAh battery that should last for eight hours (say the creators).
The Kio is quite cost effective: each tablet costs $99 (R1 350) and will be available to schools in Kenya at the beginning of October (with public availability following in January 2016).
The really clever part of the Kit, however, is a brand new add-on to the BRCK, called BRCK +Pi. This is a standard BRCK router with a Raspberry Pi bolted on. The Pi extends the router’s micro web serving capabilities to handle interactive web pages and the ability to stream other content types from a built-in 4GB flash drive.
This is a particularly innovative move, since it allows for cached educational content to be made available to students in areas where connectivity is sketchy. It also also for that content to be updated in a batch when there is connectivity. So a teacher could take the Kio Kit home, download the lessons for the next day, and then return to school if there’s no connectivity there, for example.
Holding everything together is the Kio Kit – a ruggedized, lockable and ‘wheelable’ flight case that not only keeps 40 Kio tablets, a BRCK and BRCK +Pi safe, but also provides the charging capabilities for the whole solution.
While a lockable flight case with a built in step-down transformer and 40 tablet-sized storage slots isn’t particularly innovative, the sleeves BRCK engineered into each of those storage slots is. This is the first school-in-a-box that we’ve seen which supports wireless charging. That’s important, because in rural areas dirt and dust are the mortal enemy of USB connectors if they’re regularly pushed in and pulled out. Wireless charging may not be super-efficient, but it does mean that the whole kit should last longer.
BRCK co-founder Erik Hersman says that this means the inefficiency of wireless charging, as well as the common heat generation and long term damage to batteries brought on by wireless charging has been reduced substantially.
Another key issue the BRCK Education team solved with Kio Kit is potential theft. While the flight case obviously locks shut, the tablets can also be configured to run a custom firmware version that will not function outside of the Kit’s WiFi footprint.
Hersman says this security will persist after a re-flashing of the firmware, meaning the tablet will be completely useless outside of the Kio Kit’s WiFi range.
The final piece of the puzzle and one that’s often forgotten in conversations about technology and education is that of content.
To address this, the BRCK appointed Nivi Mukherjee as its president of BRCK Education.
Mukherjee is the founder of eLimu, an interactive educational platform that focused on digitizing content for the Kenyan Primary School curriculum.
She says that BRCK has worked with Pearson, eLimu, Know Zone, eKitabu and Eneza Education to ensure that the content loaded into the Kio Kit is engaging, exciting and combines learning with playing.
As the solution expands out across the continent, BRCK Education will work with local content providers to ensure that materials are relevant and engaging.
Rolled together, the Kio Kit will cost $5 000 (R68 000-ish), which all things considered isn’t bad if you remove the $4 000 the 40 Kio tablets account for. It’s available for pre-order now on education.brck.com and will be publicly available in January.
Through a partnership with Chase Bank in Kenya, schools will be able to finance a Kio Kit from KSH 48 750 (Kenyan Shillings) per month (about R6 300).
Overall BRCK Education paints a very convincing picture and has a ton of feel good elements to it (especially the designed and assembled in Africa part).
It will have to deliver before it gets mass buy-in however, because let’s face it, there’s been tons of ambitious solutions that have looked and sounded great, but failed for one or another reason.
On the upside, each attempt that follows gets closer to success, providing the folks behind it learn from the mistakes of those that went before them.
Looking at what’s on offer from BRCK, this one might be on the money or at the very least, damn close.
This story is part of a special series focusing on IT in Education, brought to you in association with Intel. See the complete collection (so far) by clicking here.