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App uses voice to connect teachers and students in Africa

founderbusDelivering education across Africa and rural areas is a major challenge, however mobile entrepreneurs are coming up with new ways to overcome these challenges. Martin Pasquier, founder and lead explorer at Innovation is Everywhere and contributor to Appsafrica.com shares the story behind one such innovation which started on a bus.

Christopher Pruijsen  a Dutch entrepreneur started his African adventure on  a mobile hackathon called FounderBus. In a format now popular around the world, he would take about 50 people on board for 5 days and make them develop an app. The difference here lies in the social impact. At least 30% of the bus attendees must be women, and projects must tackle an issue with a big impact.

During one of his own trips, Pruijsen partnered with two fellows to create an app called Sterio.me which connects teachers and learners for free, using the voice, to broaden the scope of the education time in African countries. Here’s his story in his own words.

Martin Pasquier (MP) Innovation is Everywhere: Can you explain us how the idea of Sterio.me was born (did you have any education-related projects before that), and how technically you started it? I seem to remember it was part of your own Founder Bus.

Christopher Pruijsen (Sterio.me): We started on Startupbus Africa 2013 (which we now rebranded Founderbus Africa). Dean, Danielle and I met on the bus, and initially all had different ideas about how to make impact via mobile technology in education. My ideas were around vocational skill learning, Dean was thinking about audio technology and games, and Danielle was thinking about audio-visual ways of language learning. In the end we opted for voice-based homework and mobile learning. Dean and Danielle both had experience in audio software technology before (Shopbeat.co.za and Capsule.fm).

MP: How do learners and teachers receive your app? Who are the most responsive (eg: rural teachers vs urban ones)? How does the education community see this kind of app?

CP: Learners receive the information regarding the homework service via their teachers. Teachers receive this from the headteacher of their schools, and from us directly – with time they might also hear about it from other teachers. We work with Ministries of Education, Teacher Unions, school-owners and educational foundations/NGOs to identify schools and expansion models. So far urban and semi-urban teachers have been more responsive. Reception within the educational community has been good – they generally realise we cover a gap in the model (out-of-classroom and voice based learning without requirement of internet) which has under-innovated thus far. Most existing services require internet access or tablet ownership, high literacy levels or are only available in classrooms or dedicated ICT centres.

MP: When a deal/partnership is signed with a teacher, how do you implement the solution? Do you provide training? In a way, do you act more as a marketplace, or do you have people in-house, at Sterio.me, doing a mix of CRM with teachers or even recording for them?

CP: As we are an early stage company we do provide hands-on training. The system is easy and intuitive to use and so far we didn’t have a problem with this. Content creation is conducted in collaboration with the teachers we work with and with the ministry of education / teacher unions. Teachers are not required to create their own content, as we present them with a centralised database of content that ties into national curriculum, but we do intent to offer the User Generated Content option to some schools and teachers, possibly as a premium feature.



We don’t sign individual teachers to the platform as such, but work with schools as a whole. As our platform matures we could take a marketplace approach – imagine a Skillshare or Coursera for mobile learning via voice across primary, secondary and possibly even tertiary or corporate education, where teachers create lessons and can share these across regions and even national borders possibly. This is a long term vision however and we have a more hands-on approach at the moment.

MP: How does Sterio.me adapt what we assume is a big content (education on one topic) to a media, mobile phones, which doesn’t allow (maybe?) long contents? Are you transforming not only the way education is transmitted, but also its core content? What is a “homework” or a lesson on Sterio.me like?

CP: If you consider the lesson format we have for voice learning in Lesotho – we intend lessons to be 10 minutes in length. At an average rate of 100 words per minute including questions we can cover 1000 words, which is about 3 typed A4 pages of homework. The homework lessons on Sterio.me cover both multiple choice and open ended questions. For multiple choice the learner answers by typing 1-5 (the correct answer) into the keypad. For open ended questions they speak into the phone, we record this and make the audio file available for the teacher to review. This extends the realm of testable disciplines in homework by enabling teachers to test pronunciation and speech. This model realistically can only be used for language-heavy subjects like history, social studies and language learning – seeing we dont offer a visual interface for graphs, equations and illustrations – which in most African countries enables us to cover the majority of the curriculum.

MP: Can you tell us where you are now, and what are the next steps/challenges you face for your development?

CP: We have a prototype technology. In Lesotho we also have all necessary partners confirmed (Vodacom Foundation Lesotho to sponsor airtime during our pilot, Ministry of Education and Teacher Union endorsements to provide us with access to schools and the UN Habitat and Child Youth Finance International (CYFI) to purchase the value-add-messaging space at an attractive CPM rate which lies several times higher than comparable commercial CPM in Lesotho).

In Nigeria we are still working on partnership development prior to launch. One challenge for copying the model from Lesotho to Nigeria is the requirement of an NCC license for having one’s own shortcode or a third party VAS provider for a shortcode in-lieu. This reduces any margins available in the market. The Lesotho model also requires telecom foundations to support the initiative by reducing their rates, and in Nigeria only one telco has a foundation (MTN). For the Nigerian market therefore we are first exploring B2C models of mobile learning for out-of-school adults who can pay for lessons, and we are additionally exploring larger partnerships where a sponsor would pay for provision of certain information via voice to target groups.

Martin Pasquier is the founder and lead explorer at Innovation is Everywhere , a double world tour of startup ecosystems in the emerging markets. After 10 countries covered in 2013-2014, from Iran to Nigeria, he and his team will visit 20+ countries in 2014-2015.

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