Miora Randriambeloma, co-founder of the ed-tech startup Chalkboard Education, explains how e-learning is changing African education for the better.
Sabine Gysi: Chalkboard Education conducted a pilot project with the University of Ghana. What did it take to convince the university to adopt the blended learning approach?
Miora Randriambeloma: We piloted the blended learning method with some classes at the University of Ghana during the 2016 academic year. The faculty (i.e. professors and lecturers) was very open to any solution – tech-related included – that would help them improve their teaching.
They welcomed the blended learning approach because it gives them the opportunity to teach in a more interactive way, and encourages students to participate more actively in the learning process. Lecturers also liked the fact that the app allowed them to organize and manage their time better instead of running to make copies, for instance, so they could focus on teaching and doing research.
“They welcomed the blended learning approach because it encourages students to participate more actively in the learning process.”
The lecturers gave us all of their teaching materials, and we published them on the Chalkboard app. Then, during the lectures, they would ask their students to first read selected teaching materials independently from the app and then return to the classroom to discuss what they had just read or discovered.
This is in sharp contrast to what usually happens in African classrooms today, where the lecturer simply reads the lesson aloud, and the students listen passively.
SG: When you started developing the mobile learning solution Chalkboard Education, how did you know schools and universities in the region were ready for it?
MR: We learned from empirical experience. We started by spending a few months on the ground carrying out market research. A lot of this time was spent in universities and schools, observing and analyzing the interactions between lecturers and their students. We quickly found that the concept of mobile learning can be integrated easily into the curriculum.
From that point, we focused our efforts on developing Chalkboard Education as soon as possible so that we could get it out there on the market and into the hands of users, and test how beneficial it is for both students and faculty.
Right now we are concentrating on collecting data through the use of the app to gain a better understanding of learning patterns and enhance the user experience.
SG: The lack of Internet access seems to be one of the biggest challenges to the introduction of an e-learning solution in countries like Ghana or Ivory Coast. Can you give us another example?
MR: Several higher education institutions are reluctant to experiment with new e-learning solutions like ours because they’ve made previous investments in ICT that unfortunately have not necessarily turned out for the best.
Some universities in Ghana, for example, invested in internationally designed ICT solutions that seemed good on paper, but owing to connectivity issues (and other technical complications) performed poorly in the realities of the country. This leaves the universities wary of investing in new e-learning solutions like Chalkboard Education.
“Several higher education institutions are reluctant to experiment with new e-learning solutions like ours because they’ve made previous investments in ICT that unfortunately have not turned out for the best.”
So it is up to us to convince them that our solution is made for Africa, and was developed with their environment and conditions in mind.
SG: What does the ed-tech startup scene in Ghana and Ivory Coast look like?
MR: The situations in Ghana and the Ivory Coast are very different. Ghana is way ahead in terms of innovation and ICT in general. When it comes to ed-tech, Ghana’s proximity to Nigeria has resulted in a strong network and frequent exchanges among the many ed-tech startups in both countries. There is a strong market for ed-tech in Ghana, and it is very stimulating to be in this environment because it really shows that success is possible.
In contrast, Ivory Coast is still a very young market. Things are changing, though. The startup ecosystem has begun developing with incubators, co-working spaces, etc. But there are a couple of really good startups working with ed-tech in Ivory Coast that have created some very interesting products.
SG: What advice would you offer other startups in the ed-tech field when they initiate this journey?
MR: My advice to other ed-tech startups is to know your product and your customer well. We’ve seen a lot of companies based overseas that do not spend enough time on the ground to really understand the needs here. Being hands-on and as close as possible to your customers can be very difficult, but we know from our experience that it is very important.
When we implemented our pilot at the University of Ghana last year, we were on campus pretty much every day, troubleshooting with lecturers and students, and so on. It took a great deal of time and energy to be there on the ground, but it was very rewarding because we learned a lot about our users’ experiences and expectations.
“My advice to other ed-tech startups is to know your product and your customer well. Being hands-on and as close as possible to your customers can be very difficult, but we know from our experience that it is very important. “
SG: Right now, you’re mostly working with private universities. Are there any other organizations that you’re going to work with in the future?
MR: We definitely want to expand to include the whole education system. We also want to go beyond academic education and work with training centers and NGOs in the future. For example, our goal in the next few years is to work with remote and rural populations in training programs, beginning with our partnership with TRECC. We are also looking at health projects that will allow doctors or nurses to receive training while based in remote rural areas. There is a lot to do in that field, so we are excited.
Founded in 2015, Chalkboard Education partners with universities, training institutions, and companies to provide software that digitalizes their content and distributes it to learners’ mobile devices, allowing students to access course content anytime and anywhere, even without an Internet connection.
Miora Randriambeloma co-founded Chalkboard Education after working as a strategic marketing consultant for 5 years in Paris. Miora grew up in Madagascar and is now based in Ghana. She graduated from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and Sorbonne University.