Innovation in Education? Bridge International’s Academy-in-a-Box

For six years, an innovator in charter school education has moved quickly to educate some of the world’s poorest children – for less per month than it costs to buy a Venti Frappuccino. Bridge International, a Silicon Valley startup with aggressive goals, has just had its founders named Social Entrepreneurs of the Year by The World Economic Forum for its innovation and success in educating children in Kenya. The company, which now boasts the “largest chain of private schools in Africa,” according to Izzy Best reporting for CNBC,” is poised to enter three more African countries this year.

http://www.cnbc.com/id/102361103#

“The first Bridge International Academy opened in 2009 using a “school-in-a-box” franchise model. The objective, says Best, was to give “children a quality education for roughly $5 a month, beginning with early childhood development classes through 8th grade.” Now, founders Jay Kimmelman and his wife, Dr. May Shannon Kimmelman, have established more than 350 locations with more than 100,000 pupils in Kenya and have received significant recognition for Bridge International, which was named one of the 25 Most Audatious Companies by Inc. Magazine in 2014.

Supported by big name investors, including Bill Gates and Pierre Omidyar, the company looks to provide quality schooling to children living in extreme poverty. According to The World Bank, Best reports, “one billion people will live in extreme poverty in 2015, while 2.2 billion people live on less than $2 a day…For many who live in developing economies, this means that access to good schools remains elusive, as the effects of poor education limits employment opportunities and increases inequality for women. Bridge International seeks to remedy this problem with a low-cost educational model.”

Bridge International has achieved this by using technology, including tablets and smartphones to run curricula and administration packaged in their program. They have standardized the lesson plans and put them on a timed system where their teachers are delivering proscribed lesson plans at exactly the same time using the tablets. Administrative tasks, including tracking teacher scheduling and subsequent evaluation is included, so they can be sure their “Academic Masters,” as teachers are called are delivering the program as expected.

“What we’ve done is taken a systems approach and looking at all the parts of the educational process and say, ‘What parts do you need to deliver world-class quality education, but at a price point that a customer is getting an experience that you’d get at any great school anywhere in the world?’ ” Best quotes  Kimmelman as saying.

Today, Best reports, “more than 100,000 students are enrolled at nearly 350 Bridge schools, all in Kenya. They are staffed with approximately 4,500 teachers who leverage technology and use digital devices to deliver class lessons created by education specialists. Student evaluations are electronically tracked and monitored by school administrators.” The Kimmelman’s intend to expand the program soon into India, Uganda and Nigeria.

According to the company’s website, they “invested large sums of capital in research, development, technology, and curriculum before even the first pupil was admitted,” to achieve “efficiencies both in terms of the overhead costs required to run an academy and in terms of increasing the….The vast majority of non-instructional activities that an Academy Manager would normally have to deal with are all automated and centralized through a combination of our Academy Manager’s smartphone application and our Teachers’ tablet application.  This frees our Academy Manager to focus on the critical work that must be executed locally – overseeing classroom instruction and building and managing relationships with parents and the local community.”

Their scripted curriculum delivered via tablet has “step-by-step instructions explaining what teachers should do and say during any given moment of a class.”

Terrance Ross, reporting in October in The Atlantic on what the Kimmelmans had achieved with Bridge International said, a report by the World Bank indicated in contrast that only “35 percent of Kenya’s public school teachers showed “mastery of the curriculum they teach….Previous attempts to solve this problem have been expensive, and ineffective.”  According to the same report, he said: “The government spends more than any of its neighbors. There’s a disconnect between Kenya’s spending on education and learning outcomes. More of the same is not enough….This is where Bridge has found its niche: somewhere between the exorbitantly expensive private schools and the absentee-ridden public ones.”

According to Ross, “So far, it’s been working: Bridge’s students score an average of 35 percent higher on core reading skills and 19 percent higher in math than their peers in neighboring schools. But not everyone is on board. Kate Redman, a communications and advocacy specialist for UNESCO’s Education For All initiative, isn’t convinced by Bridge’s long-term prospects.

“Redman also warns against Bridge and other private schools for potentially “imposing external cultural values” on the country. While private schools can help, it can be a slippery slope as well—the onus should remain on public schools to keep improving.”

Others have questioned Bridge International’s formulaic approach. Jason Beaubien, NPR’s Global Health and Development Correspondent for “Marketplace,” described this way, “Their business model takes the franchise model of Mcdonalds; merges it with a tablet computer’s efficiency at delivering information; automates daily operations through a smartphone and then plunks the final product down in a third world slum for $5 a month.”

His segment included comment from  Ed Gragert, the U.S. director of the Global Campaign for Education, who said, “If somebody suggested that kind of an educational model, in this country they would be laughed out of the educational community,” which advocates for increased access to education in the developing world. “That’s not how kids learn best,” he says. “Kids learn by interacting with each other. It seems like we are going back for the sake of somebody making a profit to where a robot could teach that class.”

Bridge International’s May Kimmelman disagreed saying the company had a different view of their teachers. She emphasized the company is working to “solve one of the biggest problems facing the poorest of the poor — the lack of access to decent education.”

[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]

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How to Market When the Product is You

“Without Promotion Something Terrible Happens…Nothing”   –P.T. Barnum

Marketing yourself is one of the biggest challenges creative people face. No matter how much help you get from your agent, well-meaning relatives or friends; the person you need to get squarely on your side is you.

While there are notable exceptions, those P.T. Barnum types who have no problem being their own best ad man; the greater majority find it easier to promote virtually anyone and anything else, than to trumpet their own work and accomplishments. I’ve found the same with arts organizations, much more so than in dealing with business and industry. I think the reason is due to the intimacy you have with what you’re promoting.

Take for example tech or service companies that have a new product or training program they believe will be useful. They can talk about capabilities, improvements in quality and increased productivity; how they can improve what’s being done. That’s much easier to quantify in terms of ROI.

When the product is more personal – how much someone will enjoy your artwork, game or book; experience a concert or new play; what you’re promising is quite different. It’s subjective. And knowing that is what stops the creative business person in his or her tracks – because they want to deliver what they promise.

What to do? Once you get past your initial inclination — pulling covers over your head (not at all effective), wishing someone else will do marketing for you (costly and only works well when you’re prepared to be fully engaged), hoping you’ll get discovered and duly rewarded for your hard-earned talent (wonderful when that happens on its own, but not a waiting game most can afford to play), you need to find a good, practical solution.

The answer lies between knowing what inspires you and what makes you mad. If you’re devoted to the creative life, you’ve chosen to forgo what others might have advised would be a safer path. Revenue’s not guaranteed, there’s not defined career ladder, and you don’t know how what you’re creating today will be received when it’s eventually brought to market.

It’s the strength of your passion about what you’re creating and the belief others should want it that must motivate you to succeed. Beyond that, what’s crucial is a clear understanding of what’s distinctly marketable and knowing what to do to advance your product or cause.

It can be helpful to get mad –“How dare they not see that they should buy this?!” Then it’s good to step back and look at what may be missing in your approach. How can you be clearer, add value, convey excitement? What’s worked in the past to get you to buy or commit?

Marketability is unique to each situation. Ask yourself, does this advance a trend? Is it a departure from the norm, a new technique, require a particular mix of talents, or offer an audience new ways to engage? Ask yourself which elements are primary and what drives you to go back to your work again and again to do better? That’s how you’ll find the key elements.

Then look at tools and techniques you can use. Start in your comfort zone then expand from there. Outline possible strategies and make a case for how what you’d like to do is best suited to advance your goals. Now, go back to your publishers, promoters and friends. Ask what they suggest. Try several ideas out, reassess and decide what’s working well and what may need to be changed.

Keep your ego out of it as much as possible. It’s not about being accepted or rejected; it’s whether you’ve found the right message and techniques to convey what you believe in to your potential audience. If you believe you have something worth sharing, this is not sleight of hand; it’s acting on the strength of conviction that you wouldn’t be investing so much time and talent, unless you believe you have something of real value to impart. Success is both in doing the work well and in finding those who want to be part of the experience you can offer.

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