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Built in Africa: Via Afrika wants to use technology to educate the continent

Built in Africa focuses on entrepreneurs, startups and technologies that are affecting the continent and empowering African people.

About 12 years ago, I made my final trek through the dreaded world of high school, I crammed everything I possibly could, retaining what my brain would allow in order to cement my future and ticking off that box in my education journey. High school only seems easy when you have left.

The education system in Africa isn’t where it ought to be. If we are being honest, the education system in most parts of the world really isn’t where it should be. South Africa especially suffers from lack of infrastructure in certain areas, where text books and other learning aids are not available to students. In this, the fourth instalment of our “Built in Africa” series, we feature a company hoping to use technology to revolutionise education in South Africa and change the way students learn — Via Afrika.

The company currently has operations in South Africa and Botswana and is in talks to move into Kenya.

Via Afrika Publishers describes itself as “a leading publisher of quality educational textbooks and related material for South Africa and southern African countries”. Unlike most of the other companies that we have featured, this one has been around for a long time now. Boasting more than 63 years of experience in the education space for primary and secondary school students as well as FET courses. Now the company is blinking its way into digital with full force and hopes to change how the continent’s students learn.

Education through tech: let the pages come to life

In order to catch up with the modern-day student and also empower them, Via Afrika has created a suite of apps that allow students to experience their curriculum-approved content in a very nice Android container. These apps range from ebooks, interactive textbooks and a test yourself app that allows you to gauge your knowledge of a certain subject.

Micheal Goodman, Group Content Director of Via Afrika walks me through the apps, explaining the purpose of each and how each app will change learning.

The publisher’s mobi reader allows users to download books into a shelf that they can easily access. The Living Pages app gives students the opportunity to learn through interactive student and video demos. The idea here is to give students something more interesting than just a digitized textbook which, in essence, is just paper behind glass.

“We have compressed the algorithm so the content that students are downloading aren’t huge files. It is compressed enough to be used on a smartphone and big enough to also be used on a tablet. The largest files are around 2MB, which really isn’t that much,” he says.

According to Goodman, aside from the initial download of the Living Pages app, users do not have to be connected to the internet to experience to rich media content provided. Each section of each textbook is visualised to give the student a much more valuable experience as well as teach them to retain knowledge.

Test yourself: are you smarter than a 10-year-old?

“Would you like to test yourself?” Goodman asks. He thinks the best way to show just how great the suite of apps Via Afrika has created would be to let me play with one. This particular app allows students to test their knowledge of specific subject.

“Sure,” I begin uncertainly. “Not Maths though, I was rubbish at that in school.”

“The test is the same type of test you would get in schools, you can time yourself to see how you are doing and instead giving you the answers right away it makes you wait till the end,” he tells me as I cautiously pick a subject to test myself in.

After careful consideration, I pick Life Orientation, the “easy” subject by all accounts. The user interface is easy and the questions are every bit as confusing as my high school tests were. I am pretty confident that I am doing well, because after all I do have a Master’s degree and this is a grade 10 level test. Test done, results in and as it turns out, I am not that smart.

The beauty of the test is not learning that I am not as clever as I hoped I was but that it is able to show me where I went wrong and explain why I failed that particular question.

“It’s really nice that these quizzes aren’t just simple 12 questions and 12 mark quizzes,” Goodman explains. “We weight the questions the same way they would be weighted in an exam or test situation. So 12 questions will equal 21 marks.”

The point of these quizzes is to get students into the habit of taking tests and understanding how questioning in a test or exam situation works and having the luxury of doing it on their smartphones rather than being burdened with books and pieces of paper.

“The quiz shuffles itself so you can take it over and over again until you know the material,” he adds.

The first quiz is free for every subject but then users are given the option to purchase more for a minuscule amount.

Access where it is needed

Due to the creeping dominance of Android in Africa and South Africa specifically, Via Afrika’s apps are only available for Android devices for now. “Our apps work on any Android device and we have seen the growth of Android and are confident of that market,” Goodman says.

The areas in South Africa that suffer from poor education standards are unlikely to have access to mobile devices with all the functionality that Via Afrika’s apps require.

In a bid to combat that, the company is partnering with Breadline Africa to launch container libraries fully equipped with computers and Android tablets that students could use in some of the poorest schools in the country.

“The idea is to use old shipping containers and turn them into libraries. We train the librarians and leave them to it,” Goodman says. The company will monitor the progress of the libraries, observing usage and improvement in student performance as they become familiar with the technology.

Putting tablets in schools won’t solve all the education problems that Africa faces, Goodman admits.

“It can’t just be tablets,” he says. “You can’t just put tablets in schools and expect it to solve everything. It’s got to be tablet and content, there is no use for the tablet if the relevant content isn’t available for the student.”

The real benefit of having tablets in schools is the opportunities it opens up for the students. As Goodman explains, “the access a tablet provides is key, because with internet connectivity students are able to do more research and further their understanding.”

Author Bio

Mich Atagana
Mich started out life wanting to be a theoretical physicist but soon realized that mathematics was required. So, she promptly let go of that dream. She then decided that law might be the best place for her talents, but with too many litigation classes missed in favour of feminist... More

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