Siyavula, the edtech startup enabling learners through feature phones [updated]

Update: Facts and quotes have been amended. Our apologies to Mark Horner and Siyavula for the errors.

Education has been preached about as the way to a better life, “get good grades, go to a good school, then off to a better university where you’ll get a degree and make lots of money”. In our country, it’s especially hard to follow that path.

According to the 2014 education statistics, 28.3% of learners who passed their matric exam only qualified for a Bachelor’s programme, 31.3% qualified for a Diploma programme and 16.1% qualified for a Higher Certificate programme. These stats prove why more needs to be done in our education sector.

Siyavula‘s aim to produce open-source Maths and Physical Science textbooks for high school students has grown larger than they could’ve imagined. The textbooks they’ve developed were given to the Department of Education for free, of which 10-million copies have already been distributed. This is a vast uptake in their initial 2.5-million textbooks which were distributed.

With so many initiatives within the education sector — such as Spark Schools, Daptio, and many others — it’s hard to stand out in a saturated market.

“Without a doubt, the sector is congested. There are a lot of different offerings; that said I don’t think we’ve seen the transformative power. We haven’t seen real transformation taking place, the kind of transformation I think education technology can bring…So while it’s a very congested space, we’re still lacking real impact, as a sector… as a whole,” said director and CEO of Siyavula, Mark Horner.

Horner, a former Shuttleworth Fellow with a PhD in physics, had humble beginnings in the startup scene when he realised how students were lacking in real tangible educational resources. This realisation came about in the early 2000s when he represented UCT at a science fair in Grahamstown. He was approached by young rural students who inquisitively asked him to transcribe his Maths and Science notes because they knew their teacher wouldn’t explain it to them later on. Although he didn’t know it at the time, this was the spark for Siyavula.

The textbooks might have been where Horner started, but that isn’t where he currently is. He dramatically expanded the company, bringing on other skilled academics, but as the team grew, so did their ambitions.

“We originally wrote a whole lot of textbooks, alright? And they’re free and you can get them, download them and you can change them and adapt them,” said Horner. “They didn’t have the impact we were expecting, so then we went and we built ‘Intelligent Practice’ based on a whole bunch of cognitive science,” he continued.

“Intelligent Practice” works with one goal in mind, to help the student develop mastery of their subjects. The cognitive learning engine identifies the relevant needs of students and adapts its following questions to the perfect difficulty for the student. The engine pushes learners at the appropriate difficulty level to get a score of at least 70% in their exercises.

“The system generates questions and automatically marks them and gives the learner a solution. But, then it uses these maps of the curriculum and based on what you got right or wrong you can look at what mastery you’ve got of everything that you’re trying to practice. It also sequences the questions differently for each student,” said Horner.

“So then… it kind of supplements the books. The books are completely free and open and then this is a software as a service offering, based in the cloud,” continued Horner.

The analytical data Siyavula collects is especially useful as it can inform an educator exactly where each student is in their learning process. It shows at what rate the student is learning as well. It also depicts the student’s current level of mastery, as well as the time of day students are practising.

How then do they reach kids in rural areas that don’t necessarily have access to these types of services in general? Well, the textbooks and other learning materials are free online and work on internet-enabled feature phones, which means anyone who still uses Mxit on an old internet-enabled phone can access it. “It’s zero rated on Vodacom network and we’re hoping that we can get it zero rated on MTN as well. So then there’s no data cost. Then there’s a R15 a month fee using the service (Intelligent Practice), not the books. That’s the kind of price that can get it to a large number of people in South Africa,” said Horner.

I was once told: “Your ‘what’ can always be overcome by your ‘why’.” In this case, most people assume that kids in rural areas give up in the face of adversity — not always. Those that want to learn will always find a way to do so.

“We see about 25% of the learners are self-motivated, they practice on their own. We’ve got about 15 000 kids sponsored through the Vodacom project and these are quintile 2-4 schools, so like really rural schools… no running water kind of thing,” said Horner. “There, the kids practice at night on their own phone,” said Horner. He explained that teachers don’t necessarily need to encourage them to practice as they do it on their own. Horner said it was “really exciting” to see that there was demand for a service like this.

“While the idea (is) that ‘every kid in South Africa has a cellphone’ — that’s not true. Assuming that they don’t have a smartphone, if you cater for feature phones then you start to go in rural areas, the quintile 2-3 schools. you’ll see a third of the kids have got phones, and that’s enough for it to be useful, for peer learning, group work etc,” said Horner. Horner added that it was ‘cute’ to have an iPad,but if you want immediate impact in South Africa, you need to use what’s already there and “not try and re-architect the entire thing”.

As much as these services are needed in schools, to prevent yourself and your company from being spread too thinly a fine balance needs to be maintained.

Lower grades are also a potential target for Siyavula, “So, we are a social enterprise, so we need to first achieve sustainability,” said Horner. “We’ll probably go down to primary school first, not university, but we do want to branch out. Our goal is to make it work,” Horner continued. “But we’re on the cusp… it’s a kind of direct to client retail (sic) offering… And then the sponsors have all taken different approaches,” he said. “For example, Sasol is sponsoring learners at a bunch of specific schools that they’ve chosen, whereas Vodacom is mostly sponsoring individual learners, but through schools. And the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation are just saying… you can distribute access through Facebook…” said Horner, elaborating on different possible ways to deliver content to learners.

Either way, regardless of whether or not the education market is saturated, there’s still a great need for companies with the innovation to improve our education systems.

Featured image: Michael Pollak via Flickr



Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Ventureburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.