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From dishwashing liquid to textbooks: Eastern Cape engineer’s quest to design a low-cost e-learning device for schools

From dishwashing liquid to textbooks: Eastern Cape engineer’s quest to design a low-cost e-learning device for schools
Grade 11 learners at Nqweba Secondary School in Graaff-Reinet connect to their digital classroom via their new Omang ed-tech devices, sponsored by Jendamark Automation. (Photo supplied)

Four years ago a news story about the struggle to get textbooks delivered to schools changed engineer Ajit Gopalakrishnan’s life. He went from building factories to building futures, leading to the production of a low-cost educational device to help children gain access to all the educational materials they need.

As an engineer, Ajit Gopalakrishnan made a living by building factories until he heard a news bulletin in 2016 on the problems the Eastern Cape Department of Education had with distributing textbooks. At the time, he was involved with a company making and distributing dishwashing liquid.

“We had 95% penetration of the South African market every three weeks. I listened to the issues with the textbooks and asked myself: How is it possible that we can do this and textbooks cannot be distributed to schools once a year?

“It was then that I became determined to make a difference or die trying. The question was how we could use private-sector capability to solve public-sector problems.”

Joining forces with Jendamark Automation, Gopalakrishnan has designed and developed the new e-learning solution as part of its Odin Education software ecosystem.

Roll-out of the devices began at the end of June, with more than 600 purchased for deployment across rural Free State schools and 75 to Grade 12 learners from various Nelson Mandela Bay schools who are enrolled in the Unity in Africa Foundation’s “Incubating Great Engineering Minds” (iGEMS) after-school programme. Jendamark donated a further 114 devices to Grade 11 pupils at Nqweba Secondary School in Graaff-Reinet. 

The Android educational tablet, known as Omang – meaning “identity” in Sesotho, is loaded with content drawn from the country’s major educational publishers with free data supplied by leading network providers. Content is tailored to each school’s curriculum requirements and can include any other e-learning platforms or apps it may already be using.

“This is not just about textbooks on tablets. This is about bringing costs down through collaboration to create a truly affordable ed-tech solution for every South African school, with no hidden costs,” Jendamark group managing director Quinton Uren said.

Each device is personalised according to the individual learner’s registered subject choices, with bonus website content added based on their interests and most-viewed topics online. In addition, teachers can upload their own content, including video lessons, old exam papers and notes, as well as allowing them to set multiple-choice tests and answer any questions via safe class chat forums.

“In this digital world, there is no shortage of quality educational content, but access to that content and to devices like phones or tablets is a real obstacle for many South African children. We know data is also an issue, so our devices are pre-loaded with a set amount per learner, which can be managed as the school chooses,” Gopalakrishnan said.

“Many parents have concerns about what their children may be viewing online and who they are talking to, but the Omang device can only be used for educational purposes, with safe, approved websites and teacher-led chats,” he said.

He said he then began working on putting together a truly affordable and efficient private-public partnership to get textbooks to children.

“We needed a blended approach to augment the teaching environment,” he said.

Gopalakrishnan left his corporate job and founded a company focused on providing technology solutions for education. Odin Education was born. His company was absorbed by Jendamark after two years.

“Our aim is to become a national solution,” he said. “We are not educators or content providers. We are the link between these people and the learners,” he said.

Gopalakrishnan explained that they had created an intuitive system where subjects can be preloaded and that will also provide access to the internet on certain subjects. He said their system learns as it is used by children and this capability makes it possible to constantly improve.

“Any information a learner needs is only three button presses away.

“I must say we have been blown away by the children’s reaction to it. We got hacked by a 14-year-old from a town with one street. Teachers are more scared of the device than the children are.

“At one stage we were worried that we were struggling to provide an automatic login for one of the programs. I was attending a school where these devices were being rolled out. On the second day, a kid came to me – he was showing me how far he got in the program. The login was no issue at all,” Gopalakrishnan said.

Some of the content on the device is available off-line for areas with connectivity issues, he said. The device can also be locked if stolen or lost.

Jendamark group managing director Quinton Uren said the Omang device had been piloted among 1,000 Grade 12 learners from schools in the two lowest quintiles.

“One of the big questions I wanted to answer was how we can empower teachers to do more. We let teachers do the teaching. We have made it as easy as possible for them to use our system. Our aim is to support teachers wherever we can. As an example, we have put the textbooks on the tablet in PDF format so that the page numbers of the physical textbooks and the document on the tablet are the same.

“This way if a teacher doesn’t want to use the technology, the kids can continue using their tablets,” he said. “We allow for teachers to be very creative.”

Berenice Rose, the general manager of the Unity in Africa Foundation and the iGEMS program, said they introduced the tablet to the learners in their program that is specifically geared for those with an interest in engineering.

“It works so well for us. Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic we saw that education was changing,” she said. “It was fortuitous that we started a conversation with Jendamark before lockdown. We were able to provide our learners with devices that could be used for monitoring and evaluation and also that it can be focused to find students where they are.

“When lockdown hit, technology made it possible for us to use Zoom as well, but you could see how the technology divide was growing.

“We were doing everything we could to prevent our learners from falling through the gaps. If you miss a month of mathematics or science you miss a lot. Our kids were desperate to keep learning,” said Rose.

“Kids need to be very resilient, as their whole educational path is just obstacle after obstacle,” she said.

“As iGEMS, we try to smooth the learning process for them. Through our collaboration, we will be able to teach them and communicate directly through these devices, so that they can carry on with their academic progress, especially the Grade 12s,” said Rose.

Jendamark group managing director Quinton Uren said the Omang device had been piloted among 1,000 Grade 12 learners from schools in the two lowest quintiles.

“Our research showed that what was needed was an affordable device that provides safe, controlled access to really useful educational resources. The result is our platform, which is essentially a protected digital classroom.

“What sets Omang apart is that it is a learning device and not just a smartphone with data. For example, it cannot be used for unsupervised social media consumption, which can be both time-wasting and dangerous for kids.

“It is designed to support under-resourced schools and give learners access to a really focused, digitally enhanced learning experience that puts them on the same educational footing as their peers,” Uren said. DM/MC

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