International comparisons are all the rage in education these days, but they tend to focus on how American kids stack up (or don’t) against their peers in other developed countries. It can be easy to forget that millions of students in the developing world lack access to educational opportunities altogether--or face extreme challenges in accessing them. Toni Maraviglia is tackling this challenge. Her company, MPrep, uses a common technology--cell phones--to improve learning for Kenyan primary school students. But that’s just a first step in a broader vision to use accessible technologies to improve learning for students in developing countries throughout the world.
Maraviglia first began working in Kenya in 2008, when she founded WISERBridge, an education program that works to improve achievement in rural primary schools to enable all kids to access post-primary education. After launching WISERBridge, she taught at Harlem Village Academies in New York City before returning to Kenya in 2011 to found MPrep. A UCLA grad, Maraviglia began her career in education as a Teach for America corps member in West Harlem. Raised in Chicago and California, she currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and enjoys traveling in Kenya and Africa.
What is MPrep?
We offer the ability for students in the poorest areas of the world to study on mobile phones using simple technology and for teachers to gain meaningful data. Kids in Kenya don’t have access to learning resources at home. It’s hard for teachers to make photocopies because there’s no electricity. But everyone has a phone. I lived in a hut for a year in Kenya with no water or electricity, but everyone had a phone.
How does it work?
A student enters a code to take a quiz on a specific topic they want to study. They receive a 5-question quiz and get customized feedback based on the answers they give. Everything is aligned to local curriculum here. At the end there’s a “game-ified” effect, students get their score and ranking in their school and province. I’m securing a deal right now to add a social media element for kids where they can get paired up with a study-budy the same age in same school to SMS [text message] back and forth on same topic. Eventually we want to put more content on the system itself, but it’s hard to do through SMS. We also give teachers access to all the data for students in their classes.
Our primary goal is academic achievement. We want students to excel and have a decent shot at passing primary school and moving on. One of my underlying aims is also to make learning more social in Kenya. Now it’s just, “lecture and repeat what teacher said.” Seeing MPrep facilitate kids engaging in study groups after school where they talk and work together is so impactful and powerful. It makes learning more social and fun and engages kids.
Our last goal is to change attitudes toward education. In general people in Kenya have a great respect for education, but you have to realize it’s worthwhile to continually do this day to day. So those are our three goals: Achievement, changing attitudes, making learning more social. Everything else, how we use technology, can evolve.
What have been your biggest victories/successes to date?
The biggest victory is seeing kids doing so well. One of the schools we work with, Chandaria Primary, has about a 56% average. But yesterday I was watching students in their study groups and every score in their formative assessment was over 80% on questions that were harder than what they were taking before.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Obviously there are logistical challenges on a day-to-day basis, particularly in rural areas. How do we make this more well-known? How do we push this in a school where the kids don’t have a sound understanding of English? But I’ve lived in Kenya and I know all the logistical challenges--I almost don’t think of it as a challenge at this point.
One strange challenge we have is people continually try to question us about using low-tech. Investors are interested in really sexy high-tech things, and that’s what people in the U.S want to see: “Why don’t you create an iPad app, something for a tablet?” I’ve been in Kenya since 2008, and technology access has grown a lot, but we want to stick to something that can be mass provided. There is 90% phone penetration in Kenya.
You’ve worked in education in both the United States and Kenya--how are the challenges and opportunities similar/different? Anything we can learn from one another?
One of the things that is common is this idea of pushing technology on teachers as opposed to listening to them and asking them for input. The kind of back and forth that should be happening between teachers and technology providers doesn’t happen in the U.S. or here. NGOs or education technology companies will say, “Use this, it will make your life better.” I had the same experience as a teacher in the U.S. But if it doesn’t increase efficiency or save time, teachers won’t use it.
Why choose to work in Kenya?
I’ve been here for a while. About 4 years ago I started an educational program called WISERBridge in rural Kenya to increase the number of students accessing post-primary education. I fell in love with the culture, the country, and the possibilities here. Nairobi is such an up and coming place for technology and entrepreneurs and development; it’s an exciting place to be. I miss my students and family in the U.S, but my heart’s set on Kenya.
Obviously, technology is a hot topic in education these days. How do you think about the potential of technology to improve education in developing countries? What are the big opportunities?
Our mission is to take what people have access to at a mass level and work with that. I see a huge opportunity to leverage what people are already using rather than creating new devices. Education is a hard realm to break into because the classroom setting is so sacred, time is sacred, and the teacher’s relationship with students is sacred. Anything that leverages that and doesn’t require people to use new technology they don’t use outside the classroom is helpful. Things people are already using are the best way to move forward.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
There are my goals for MPrep and then some other personal goals. For MPrep, an immediate goal is building out the school Platform experience for MPrep. We want to create a pre-packaged, customized platform for schools, where they can add content, access data for their school only, and compare content with peers and across nation. We’re still trying to find the best way to integrate this. I hope to scale MPrep and expand it in different directions and areas of the world. I absolutely plan to expand MPrep beyond Kenya, and we know where other good spots for this would be in Africa. But there’s also demand in other places, such as India, and even in the United States. I had a TFA corps member in rural Alabama reach out to me and say, “How can we do this for my kids?” She’s creating ACT content for kids in rural Alabama where they have very poor internet access. I told her if you can find a way to do content, we can do the technology piece. When it comes up like that, then the market is telling you something.
Beyond MPrep: The secondary school system in developing world is very difficult--difficult for students to enter, difficult to stay because of costs. Before MPRep I was trying to figure out ways to combat that program--I’d like to get back to this.
Finally, I’d like to create more synergy between people who are already doing awesome stuff in education. There’s so much disconnect between educators, technologists, government, and NGOs. I’m starting by creating a meet-up group in Nairobi between people in education technology, but I’d hope to be part of a broader conversation to bridge that disconnect.
How did you come to work in education?
TFA was my path--it got me hooked. I was a TFA corps member in NYC. At the time, I had no plans to stay in education. I wanted to get a Ph.D. in political theory and be a writer, professor. But I just fell in love with teaching completely. It’s the most challenging thing you can ever do. I couldn’t turn back. I worked for TFA, started a program in Kenya, and went back to teaching in a charter school because I missed it.
What are some of the experiences, books, and people that have most influenced your work and thinking about education?
So many people I encounter on a day-to-day basis. My own family has been so incredible supportive. My own teachers, teachers I’ve worked with through TFA and at charter schools.
Working with students is also a huge inspiration. Coming here to Kenya just opens your eyes to how incredibly important education is in kids’ lives. It makes or breaks them and pulls them out of poverty. I lived in a rural area with a boy in school at the time in Class 8 and saw what is possible for someone who studies hard and gets a good education.
Wendy Kopp is a huge influence. She was able to think about creating something that’s grown to massive scale and has gotten so many people interested in and carrying about education.
If anyone reading this is thinking of going to Kenya, what would you tell them to see or do?
To see real culture, spend a week in a rural village. That’s the best Kenya experience. See how the people really live. It’s a much different world than Nairobi. I can also arrange for them to stay in my hut, if they’d like.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.