As any veteran teacher will attest, students under-perform at school for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps they’re not sitting close enough to the teacher to comprehend the lesson. Maybe they’re not getting support at home. Or maybe they’ve missed that one key class and just haven’t been able to catch up. In Africa’s poorer schools, there are even more factors to consider. Are there enough books? Is there proper electricity and sanitation? As we detail in the latest Wild Ducks podcast episode, Dr. Komminist “Kommy” Weldemariam, a research scientist at IBM Research – Africa, believes that by deploying cognitive, mobile, and analytics technologies in these poor districts, educators can create an early warning system to identify which schools – and even which students – are most at risk to fail. Weldemariam and his team have just launched a first-of-its-kind initiative in Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city. They’re developing and testing intelligent systems to capture data at more than 100 schools – collecting everything from class size and test grades to student health and safety. Our latest technology and education podcast shines a light on this project and explains how this initiative could point to the future of education everywhere.  You can hear all about this in the latest Wild Ducks podcast.

This episode’s Wild Duck, IBM scientist Komminist “Kommy” Weldemariam, is head of education initiatives at IBM Research – Africa’s lab in Nairobi. As a child, Weldemariam attended an Ethiopian school that didn’t have a computer or even a library. And yet, he’s gone on to great achievements. He was recently named a Next Einstein Fellow. Now he believes these same technologies can help develop an early warning system for educators to identify challenging learning environments like the one he grew up in, enabling teachers and administrators to intervene more quickly and help save kids at risk of failure.

In Kenya, and in much of the developing world, a dearth of timely schools data is a real problem for educators and students alike. Here, Weldemariam explains to Wild Ducks co-host Bernhard Warner how the project deploys cognitive, mobile, and analytics technologies in more than 100 schools in Kenya’s Mombasa County to help educators identify the factors that lead to underperformance among students, at the school level as well as across entire districts.

The digital schools-reporting platform used in Kenya is a new application developed by Weldemariam’s team at the IBM Research – Africa Lab in Nairobi. The app allows education officials to locate districts on a map of Mombasa, where the pilot program is underway, and zoom down to the school level. Tap one button and color-coded performance indicators and attendance records immediately appear for each school. The app also reveals warnings for schools that don’t have enough books, for example, or lack of proper sanitation to serve the entire student body.

Weldemariam’s team is comprised of research scientists, software engineers and developers. Here, Charity Wayua, an IBM research scientist, explains to journalist Bernhard Warner how a recent pilot program in a Nairobi school, utilizing Watson Cognitive Tutor, improved the classroom learning experience. Teachers got student-specific recommendations for future lessons while students got more personalized attention. Wayua says that putting Watson in the classroom was like giving the teacher an extra set of eyes to ensure that no child fell behind.

IBM Research – Africa is based in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, which has become a hotbed for innovation, thanks to its mobile-centric culture. Kenya is the birthplace of both the open-source disaster-relief mapping system Ushahidi and M-PESA, the mobile payments app by Safaricom that has revolutionized retail banking. M-PESA — short for ‘mobile money’ in Swahili — was originally developed to help the “unbanked” send money home, but now almost everyone across Kenya uses it to make purchases, lend money and settle debts. Which makes the country a fitting place to launch a schools initiative, utilizing cognitive, mobile and analytics systems to help improve classroom learning. “What we are doing here is trying to reverse the classic technology transfer where Africa inherits innovation from the West,” says Weldemariam. “We’re building something that can be exported to schools around the world.”

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