Q&A: Bridge International Academies taps into tech education

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Bridge International Academies delivers high-tech educational solutions in a low-infrastructure environments across Africa.

Kent McNeill, Bridge International Academies Chief Technology Officer leads technology teams around the world to ensure teachers and staff are effectively supported as they help children to learn.

The BizNis Africa team sat down with McNeill to gain more insights regarding the Bridge International Academies technology projects.

What does Bridge International Academies do?

Bridge International Academies is a social enterprise focused on helping children in low and middle-income countries gain a life-changing education. We run or support about 1,200 nursery and primary schools in marginalised communities across Africa. We enable children to access high-quality basic education from nursery through to the end of primary level giving them the opportunity to excel. Some of our graduates have even received scholarships to US high schools.

To achieve our mission we work in partnership with governments, communities, teachers, and parents across Africa and Asia. For example, in Nigeria we’re working in a direct partnership with the government of Edo State to improve every primary school and every primary school teacher. We’re helping the government to upskill their workforce so that children experience a significant increase in learning outcomes. Of course, to achieve all of this, we rely on both developing people and providing one of the leading technologies.

We’re much more than just a tech company building a suite of applications; but it’s equally impossible to imagine how we would achieve our scale of impact without the extensive use of technology, including lots of custom software. In this regard, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has played a significant role in enabling us to advance our education mission by leveraging a range of solutions to facilitate teaching and learning, launch student analytics initiatives, and manage IT operations.Amazon S3, offers scalable storage infrastructure. Additionally, data is analysed by staff in their academic department and Learning Lab, These insights means that the organisation can do or understand data, like look at how much children are learning in class in near real-time and refine lesson guides so that learning is faster.

Which countries in Africa do you assist?

We’re currently working in Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya, In the future, we expect to be working in more African countries to support government education ministries. Our approach is very much to design solutions that best support governments to improve teaching and academic outcomes for their pupils. AWS has allowed us to achieve this reach along with IT agility, gain unlimited scalability, improve reliability and lower costs.

We run a range of different government partnerships and services that respond to individual government requests. In Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria we run affordable community schools. In Liberia, we’re part of a public private partnership called the Liberian Education Advancement Program (LEAP). And in Edo State, Nigeria, we’re the technical service delivery partner to Edo Supporting Teachers to achieve results-a core part of Edo Basic Education Sector Transformation (EdoBEST).

We’re happy to support governments in any way possible as long as it improves learning outcomes for marginalised children.

How do teachers access your study guides?

Fundamentally, our model is to empower school leaders and teachers with training, coaching and resources, and a key piece of that is handheld technology that helps them do a better job. For school leaders, we provide smartphones that allow them to manage and monitor their schools through custom software. We train school leaders on how to use these devices and the software.

For teachers, we offer a handheld teacher tablet that can access teaching resources digitally and then store them locally on their device. Teachers use their tablets to access these lesson guides to help them prepare and deliver classes. The tablet also allows teachers to perform other functions, such as taking attendance and recording assessment results. We use teacher guides because they have been proven to be the most effective way to support teachers and improving learning outcomes in low and middle-income countries.

All our technology is designed to work in low infrastructure environments, where regular access to power and network connectivity are not a given. Our hardware and software are designed to allow teachers to access guides and other functionality for up to two weeks without access to network or power.

What AWS solutions do you leverage for your platform?

We use a variety of AWS solutions, from Amazon EC2 to run all our servers, Amazon CloudWatch to keep tabs on them, Amazon Route 53 to manage our public DNS, Elastic Load Balancer for our containers, Amazon Glacier to assist in storing backups and disaster recovery, Amazon S3 to securely store documents, such as teacher guides or pupil records, SES to send emails, or AWS Lambda to run serverless processes.

Using these services allow us to manage and support our ambitious scaling needs at speed, but without heavy up-front investments in hardware or extensive on-going operational costs.

What sort of insights do teachers have access to through the platform?

Teaching insights are shared in a number of ways.

First, we have teams of academic lesson designers who work in each country with support from international pedagogy experts. So, the lesson guides our teachers receive have the insight on how to deliver a strong lesson already baked into them. The teachers themselves are seeing in the structure and language of these lesson plans how to create a pupil-centred lesson that really delivers learning outcomes for kids.

Because of our use of technology to deliver lessons and record academic results, we are also uniquely able to be an organisation that not only delivers education, but also learns about learning. This is a concept we refer to as the Learning Lab. This model ensures that the lessons our teachers are accessing are not static, but continuously updated with evidence based improvements.

The teachers are observed by people who coach them on how to improve their teaching, using historical data collected from their individual classrooms. This coaching can come from their school leader or someone from our academics team. So, teachers benefit from real-time feedback in person from education experts and using personalised data, allowing them to continually grow and develop professionally.

The insights are shared with senior teaching staff and even Ministry of Education officials and leaders. This high-level information is about who is teaching and what they’re teaching in near real time, as well as which pupils are in class and how they’re performing academically. We collect and curate data from thousands of teachers and pupils to generate high-level dashboards that give people the information to make well informed decisions about their schools. This is particularly useful in locations where official government oversight of education can be physically challenging e.g. the Liberian jungle or rural Uganda.

What are your future plans within Africa?

There are 600 million children being failed globally, either because they’re not in school or go to school but learn almost nothing. Many of these children are in Sub-Saharan Africa. We hope to be able to support more governments across Africa to transform their public education systems and deliver powerful public schools that improve learning outcomes and build safer, stronger and more prosperous communities and countries. In our quest to expand and support more countries, we’ll need the flexibility to expand operations at a rapid pace without need to set up new IT infrastructure and to be able to comply to country-specific data policy requirements, which backed by AWS, we can achieve.

For more information log on: www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com

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About Author

Bontle Moeng is the Founder and Managing Director of BizNis Africa. Moeng has spent 16 years working in the digital and online media industry across Africa. She applied her trade at True Love magazine prior to discovering her passion for Investment news in key sectors across Africa. Moeng previously worked for ITWeb, Starfish Mobile Technologies, ITNewsAfrica, AVATAR Agency, eNitiate, Global Interface Consulting and Havas Johannesburg. Her primary focus is to provide solid and valuable content on investment opportunities for the ICT, Energy and Mining sectors across Africa. In addition, the online news publication assists global companies to expand their presence in Africa. Email: news@biznisafrica.co.za

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