Beyond the data: Journey to iMlango

There is a human story behind data.

For the past year, I have been immersed in Whizz Education’s Central Reports, monitoring learning patterns of students in the DFID-funded Project iMlango, led by Avanti. Through the project, over 50,000 students in rural Kenya have been assessed by the adaptive Math-Whizz tutor, with that number set to reach 108,000 by 2017. As students receive personalized support from Math-Whizz, our system captures their every interaction — every lesson attempted, every question answered and every button clicked.

That’s a lot of data, and it has revealed some startling high-level insights. We have learned that, on average, students in iMlango lag more than three years behind their international peers. We also know this is not a Kenyan problem — students across three private schools in Kenya who are on Math-Whizz do just fine. So there appear to be environmental factors at play.

The data tells us *what* is happening, but it is only by engaging with the realities on the ground that we can understand the *why*. It was about time I paid Kenya a visit.

During my weeklong stay, I visited four schools in Kajiado, which lies on the outskirts of Nairobi and is one of the four counties participating in iMlango.

Here then, is my story of iMlango.

Praying for power at Kibiko Primary School

Kicking off the itinerary is Kibiko Primary School. Our country head, Wangeci, informs me that it is one of our top-end schools. They are ten months into the iMlango project, and students enjoy around 20 minutes/week of Math-Whizz tutoring (that’s pretty good going when you consider the average for all of iMlango is around 6 minutes/week).

As we are ushered through the school gates, a still calmness washes over us. Students can be heard in the distance, reciting in unison. Birds are tweeting away. Richard points out the Avanti satellite dish hanging atop the schoolhouse. It is a strange juxtaposition of rural scenery and 21st century technology. In any other context, the dish would look hopelessly out of place. But this is an iMlango school, and the satellite is a marker of intent to bring the best of digital learning to the students of Kibiko.

We stroll over the school office, where we are greeted by the Head, Mrs Josephine. She rises as we make our entrance, seemingly delighted to welcome these strangers from afar. It’s not long before we hear something of Kibiko’s journey with iMlango, through the lens of one of the project’s strongest advocates.

Mrs Josephine spent part of the morning praying for the power supply to stay on. It’s a Wednesday, so it should hold up well. But she never takes it for granted. “It’s good you didn’t come on Thursday,” she tells us. Apparently the government rations power on that day, leaving no guarantees to the local schools.

Mrs Josephine talks us through the math of free schooling at Kibiko. The government provides a subsidy, but the numbers do not add up. By all logic, there should be no sustained water or electricity at all in Kibiko.

There is a hint of desperation to Mrs Josephine’s tone. The stakes could not be higher: no power means no personalized tutoring through Math-Whizz. Worse still, no water spells disaster for the students.

What will you have for lunch tomorrow?

At Kibiko Primary School, scarcity is a way of life. The school day starts very early for these kids as they begin the long trek over. As we step outside her office, Mrs Josephine directs her gaze towards the distance. “Do you see those windmills?”, she asks. After some squinting, I can just about make them out. “That’s where most of our children live.”

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Can you spot the windmills?

The 5km journey is no simple walk; students have to navigate undulating hills and boggy terrain. They arrive at school with hope and excitement for the learning ahead, but with limited supplements. On a typical day, two-thirds of students will be without lunch. Vouchers provided by Squid go some way to supporting the most burdened children, but they often only benefit from a fraction of the stipend as parents use it to provide for their large families.

The best the school can offer for lunch is water — and that’s on a good day when the supplies are running. Today is a good day; we see the children gather excitedly as they take turns to fill their modestly-sized bottles.

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The water was running — it was a good day.

Early on in the iMlango implementation, Mrs Josephine was almost resigned to defeat. But after hearing from Wangeci of the creative initiatives at nearby schools, she resolved to turn her story into one of triumph over adversity. Mrs Josephine has since inspired the local community to volunteer in making up the financial shortfall. It seems to be working — water and power have been running consistently this term.

Mrs Josephine is a proudly spiritual woman. Her prayers are often answered. Local well-wishers and aid workers have recently offered to supply food ingredients for 1–2 weeks at a time. Students rejoice upon hearing this news; it can be the difference between attending school and staying at home.

Kibiko is not a tale of woe. Far from it: this school exemplifies what can be achieved with positive attitudes and a relentless drive to succeed, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

No two screens are the same

For a Whizzer, the computer lab is the highlight of any iMlango visit. You get to see Math-Whizz in action. I am immediately struck by the focus and discipline of the students as they rush to their seats. They do not waste any time in getting seated and logging in. There are around 30 computers in all, refurbished by Camara. It’s not all smooth sailing — the iMlango portal occasionally locks students out inadvertently, and connectivity itself is often sporadic. One of the computers is broken, but Whizz’s local Customer Success manager, Elijah, is working on it. He’s “one of the family”, according to Mrs Josephine. He joins us moments later, proclaiming that he has indeed “fixed the CPU”, much to the delight — and amazement — of us all.

Once the students are inside Math-Whizz, it’s a sight to behold. Wangeci remarks how amazing it is that “no two screens are the same.” Every child is receiving dedicated 1:1 support from the Math-Whizz tutor. In these precious moments, their individual learning needs are being catered for. It’s also impossible to ignore the age range of the students; it’s a Standard 4 class but there are students as old as 16 working away. In each case, the tutor is aligning to their current ability, not their age.

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No two screens are the same: virtual tutoring for every child

Right next door, we are witness to whole-class learning in action. A group of 51 students (Wangeci counted every one) recites back to the teacher as he guides them through a lesson on Teachers’ Resource. They are calculating the surface area of a 3-D shape. There’s a slight problem with the projector displaying, but Richard and Elijah are on hand to enlarge the screen.

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It’s a team effort to enlarge the projector screen

In many ways, this room is a digital projection of age-old teaching models: one teacher dictating the same content to all students. The fanciful yearnings of Blended Learning seem a world apart.

Part of the problem is the level of teacher education — many primary school teachers in rural Kenya have a Math Age below 10. Their primacy in the classroom may be threatened if they invite inquiry and student-centred pedagogies.

New pedagogies will not take flight overnight, but Elijah has identified one way of bridging the disparate learning experiences we’re seeing in these adjacent rooms. He hints at a version of Teacher Control that ensures the lessons students receive in Tutor relate to what they are doing in the whole-class setting.

Back in the lab, Mrs Josephine invites the students to offer their feedback. They all respond positively when asked if they enjoy Math-Whizz, and if project iMlango has taught them to use computers. It may not the most reliable of survey methodologies, so the teacher turns to a single student, Anthony. His initial account of Math-Whizz’s impact is very calculating: “I scored 50s on my assessment last year, and this year I scored 60s. Next year I wish to score 70s.” Whizz is pleased to oblige in raising test scores, but it was Anthony’s next comment that captured our broader hopes for students on Math-Whizz: “I am so pleased you brought computers to our school. God bless you.” Ms Nelius, a school teacher, follows up by telling us that the availability of computers via iMlango is motivating many students to attend school consistently for the first time. The local paper has also caught wind of this phenomenon and is set to write a piece.

The students adopt a gracious attitude towards iMlango. Walls are plastered with rules and regulations to ensure the computers are used with fidelity. They have even appointed an ICT Cabinet Secretary, a 12-year-old girl named Deborah Kemuto. Deborah was elected into her Cabinet role earlier this year, fending off competition from two other students. It’s not long before she’s elegantly schooling Whizz’s CEO on the importance of maintaining a clean and disciplined computer lab.

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Deborah Kemuto, the ICT Cabinet Secretary, schooling Whizz CEO, Richard Marett

Deborah displays maturity beyond her years. You can see the influence Mrs Josephine’s leadership has had on this young starlet. One wonders where life may take Deborah, and whether she will have the opportunity to fulfill her potential.

By the time I leave Kibiko, I have some appreciation of what makes it a “top-end” school. It’s not the buildings, although I understand the bricked dwellings of Kibiko are not typical of rural schools. Rather, the real strength of Kibiko is its leadership. Mrs Josephine embodies all that we should hold dear as educators: a relentless commitment to helping every child succeed. She has every excuse to give up, but chooses to fight on. Whizz is with her in the struggle.

Stolen property, enduring hearts

Each school furnishes the importance of Whizz’s work with its own unique challenges. At Enoomatasiani Primary (I almost pronounced it correctly the first time), we notice that the lab has some empty space. We soon discover that this is down to a recent break-in, in which three computers and eleven headphones were stolen (the headphones are very marketable, we’re told). That amounts to 10% of lost learning potential.

And yet, just as in Kibiko, there is a defiant optimism that fills the school. As one session comes to an end, we observe a throng of eager young minds gathering at the door.

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Eager young minds, waiting for their iMlango session

The new group is seated and on Math-Whizz within minutes. One computer is down — but Elijah is at it again. This time he’s spotted an issue with the motherboard — I’ll take his word for it.

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Elijah: Customer Success Manager and fixer of motherboards

The iMlango portal is playing up once more — some students are having trouble logging in. There is no contingency in place for these students, so they do what’s natural and gather around their friends’ computers. We can see the peer dynamics of collaboration in action. It’s a joyful scene, but perhaps not ideal in the context of individualized tutoring, which relies on capturing each child’s unique learning needs.

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A collaborative effort on a Fractions lesson

From the chosen few to a full-time schedule

At Oloosurutia Primary, the importance of school leadership is made abundantly clear by the current Deputy Head, Mrs Zainab. She relays the struggles of working with the previous school Head, who saw iMlango as a “special program for the chosen few”. Of course, this is the antithesis of the inclusive philosophy behind iMlango. The early stages of adoption were staggered, with few assessments completed. Computers were even locked away to prevent “other students” from accessing them.

But Mrs Zainab is in good spirits, because a new Head has come in and occasioned a shift in mentality. With a renewed belief in the universal benefits of iMlango, the school has resolved to improve its adoption.

Elijah has again been a stalwart. He compiled a schedule for the school and shared it with Mrs Zainab via WhatsApp (the communication tool of choice for the local Customer Success team). Elijah was not quite done — he arranged to visit Zainab and worked closely with her to enforce the schedule.

“He is a pillar of strength”, Zainab says of Elijah.

The school doubled up on Whizz’s commitment by freeing up the workload of its ICT leads so they could focus on the iMlango implementation. No surprise then that over 800 assessments have now been completed.

The zeal for iMlango stretches beyond school hours. Students stream into schools in the early morning, stay late into the evening, and even come in on weekends. Zainab takes it all in her stride: “necessity is the mother of invention” she says, as she walks us over to the lab.

The lab is once again a delightful scene. Even though it’s a Thursday, and power is usually volatile, it’s holding up for us today. In the corner of the room I spot a teacher looking intently at her screen. My hope becomes reality as I see her hovering over the Math Age distribution line, scanning the progress data of each student. The virtual tutoring service is in full flow, engaging student and teacher alike. A recurring challenge is the login issue faced by a handful of students in each lab.

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A Math teacher monitoring students’ progress through the Math-Whizz reports

When it rains, it pours…and iMlango goes offline

Heading into the final school visit on Friday, I’m wondering how schools react when the internet is down. I’ve heard about response strategies (or lack thereof) but not experienced them first-hand. Not to worry: Kiserian Primary School is about to land me in the midst of a rainstorm.

The rain is already falling as we enter the grounds of Kiserian. There is a haunted feel about the place. It turns out Kiserian is in exam mode: students have just returned from the holidays and are taking their mandatory open-book assessments.

We are led to a small office, where we meet with a trifecta of school leaders: the Head, a member of the Board of Managers (the equivalent of a school governor) and the ICT lead. Each take turns to heap praise on iMlango, and Math-Whizz in particular. The Head explains how students fight for lab time. They have even opened their doors to recent graduates. “Usually they are happy to leave the school”, the Head says, “but now they come back after graduating because they want to keep learning.” The local community is infected with the same enthusiasm for iMlango. The Board Manager tells us how the school is now oversubscribed, with some parents even taking their children out of private schools to get into Kiserian.

The parents even want to use the computers for their own learning. One senses a future community project is brewing. The Board Manager revels in the growing popularity of Kiserian: “The Lord has given us the honor of being on top”, he says.

The ICT lead is a power user of reports. His only gripe is that the school does not have a printer, and so he is unable to print certificates to award students with the highest usage and improvement (Elijah makes a note to print copies for his next visit). He does make use of the messaging system, which brings delight to his students.

The Head is unequivocal about Kiserian’s greatest implementation challenge: the size of the labs. With a school of 1,650 students and class sizes rocketing towards 120, he needs more computers and more lab space. It is a logistical challenge to divide large class sizes into the computer lab, whole-class learning and ‘normal activities’.

At present, Kiserian students access Math-Whizz once every three weeks; learning gains come in short bursts and are not always sustained. Despite this, test scores have continued to rise, with half of Standard 8 students receiving an A. Whatever the grades signify, it is clearly a big deal for the ICT lead, who is beaming with pride.

The conversation is filling us Whizzers with deep satisfaction, but there is no room for complacency. By the time we head to the lab, the rain is coming on full pelt. The ICT lead knows what this means.

“Even when it’s cloudy, the internet is slow. It will be gone now.” His prediction comes to fruition; the handful of students in the computer lab are browsing offline content. The Math-Whizz Topic CD is among the choices, although it does not always load.

In many ways, the Kiserian computer lab is a celebration of iMlango. The thirty-five computers are crammed into a tiny space, with students rubbing shoulders as they desperately try to log back into the portal. iMlango posters brighten up this dimly lit room. In this school, iMlango is a beacon of hope.

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iMlango posters brighten up the rustic computer lab

It is a great shame that these students are missing out on virtual tutoring. They sit frustrated, hoping in vain that the connectivity will return. As the rain crashes onto the roof, the lab is consumed by a feeling of resignation. There will be no more iMlango today. Instead we pose for photos, losing none of the enthusiasm that brought us all to the computer lab:

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All smiles, even in spite of the rain

The grounds of Kiserian are feeling the full force of the rain. It barely resembles a school anymore, but the sight of excited children at the end of the school week is undeniable . They take refuge under the roof, waiting for the Head’s signal to go home. For many of these students, home is a two-hour walk away.

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Kiserian Primary: battered but not beaten

I’m wondering why parents have not arrived to collect their children — surely in these conditions the children are not expected to journey home on their own. The mere thought provokes a fit of laughter from Wangeci — she reminds me that the rules are different in rural Kenya. Parents often cannot afford to leave their homes, and children are conditioned to walk home without assistance.

Our trip back to Nairobi serves as a metaphor for project iMlango. Even in the comforts of our car, we endure a long and bumpy ride. Our Über driver (that’s right, rural Kenya is not beyond the reach of disruptive mobile apps) is impressively casual in swerving around potholes and ploughing through rising puddles of water. The rain is unrelenting; at one point we have to divert our route. Soon we stop dead in a long line. Nairobi is renowned for its traffic and I have an evening flight to catch. I would consider this a stressful commute, except for the view outside the car. We can now see hoards of kids making the trip home, somewhat nonchalantly.

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The resilience of these students is crystal clear

If that wasn’t striking enough, the road ahead is now occupied by cows.

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Just another day in Kajiado

The contextual lessons for life in rural Kenya are not lost on me as we eventually make it back to Nairobi.

Lessons learned for Whizz World

The four schools I visited represented a snapshot of the challenges our schools in Kenya are confronted with. If our responsibility as service providers is to walk in the shoes of our users, then it’s important to recognise that I have only taken a few baby steps. I’m not sure I have the courage to even spend a day living the reality of our students and teachers — one in which the most basic tenets of life such as food, shelter and security cannot be taken for granted.

This visit has served up no shortage of lessons. The most profound of these is the importance of having a human presence on the ground. A common thread throughout my visits was the support and comfort provided by our Customer Success Manager, Elijah. In their own words, he is a “pillar of strength” for our schools. Elijah arranges schedules, fixes computers and provides moment-to-moment support in the computer lab. Even then it is a constant struggle, as schools press against social, environmental and technological barriers.

Elijah brings an impressive array of technical skills, but it is his trust and credibility that wins the day. He serves these schools in a deeply authentic way because he understands their reality — he used to live it. Believe it or not, Elijah used to herd cattle for up to 100km at a time. He eventually found his back way to formal education and, thankfully, to Whizz. Perhaps he represents what Kibiko’s Cabinet Secretary, Deborah, may one day become — a champion for children’s education.

As I met the rest of the field team, I realized that the challenges facing Kajiado, and the extraordinary lengths to which Elijah goes to support his schools, are par for the course. Our team lead, Collins Wekesa, talked of how he would block out three days in his schedule to reach the most remote schools and ensure he could stay long enough for the power to come back on. It seems that the tougher the constraints, the more prepared our team is to break through them with resourcefulness and resilience. Mrs Zainab was on the money when she said that “necessity is the mother of invention”.

There is a crushing reality for those who think technology alone can be the solution. In this world, technology can lift communities to higher aspirations, but its impact will only be felt through the effort and understanding of local champions.

Attitude makes all the difference, as we saw in Oloosurutia. iMlango thrives when it is embraced by school leaders who can see the transformational potential of technology. Our success will only be felt when we empower champions like Mrs Josephine and Mrs Zainab.

As the Head of Product at Whizz, I feel emboldened by the impact we are already having in some of the most remote and challenged regions of the world. Yet, the problems I saw do not imply new streams of product development. In fact, the pains felt by iMlango users deliver insights on how we can improve Math-Whizz for users everywhere. The challenges faced by iMlango may be on the extreme end of the scale, but they invite the same conclusions: we need to bring together whole-class learning and individualized tutoring (Teacher Control) and make the most of every precious second a student has on Math-Whizz (Intelligent Sequencing). Most of all, we need to understand that Math-Whizz is only ever one piece of a highly complex puzzle.

Our service interacts with highly variable, often volatile learning environments. To achieve true integration, we must understand who our users are and their core needs. iMlango forces that discipline because the needs of its users are so severe.

A Whizzer’s journey is not complete until they have lived the reality of project iMlango. You cannot understand the environmental challenges facing our schools in iMlango until you have heard and seen them for yourself. The most striking thought of all is that the Kajiado county is relatively affluent. I have heard harrowing accounts of life in another one of our counties, Kalifi, where our usage numbers are markedly low. That’s a story for another visit.

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