Even students who have had very little experience with technology seem to embrace mobile digital gadgets like tablets quickly and with ease. In the words of Grace Wumbui, a 14-year-old from Nairobi, Kenya, "one minute" was all it took to understand the basics of how to operate these gadgets.
It was an exciting day for Grace and her classmates when the shipment of tablets first arrived at her school – a small tin shack – and transformed the classroom entirely. Where teaching at the Amaf School used to be done with chalk and a blackboard, now five students each share a tablet, taking turns manipulating its touch screen and delving into the details of the Kenyan curriculum that is preloaded on the device.
The tablets at Amaf School are an exception; they are part of a pilot project run by eLimu, a technology start-up. But if it and other firms are right, tablets and other digital devices may soon be the rule in African schools: many are betting on a boom in digital education in Kenya and elsewhere. Some executives even expect it to take off like M-Pesa, Kenya's hugely successful mobile-money service.
This embrace of technology comes at a time when the number of students struggling to land a place in a school is falling due to the expansion of access to education nationwide. Still, the school growth is not expected to keep pace with student population growth, so figuring out how to make resources go farther is a priority for education officials in the country. Technology could fill that gap by allowing students to move through the syllabus without as much input from a teacher.
The school system in Kenya is suffering from more than just overcrowding. Like many other systems across the world, it is constantly seeking to balance a very limited budget against students' educational needs. And like in many other countries, officials are long past ready to try radically different solutions.
And for something radically different, lawmakers and education experts turned to the company that brought about the last Kenyan digital miracle – the mobile payment system called M-Pesa.
Safaricom, the Kenyan mobile operator that pioneered the M-Pesa service, hopes to repeat its success in digital education. It is developing classroom content, from videotaped lessons to learning applications, that any of Kenya's 7,000 state secondary schools will be able to access online.
However, should the education tech sector take off in Kenya, Safaricom shouldn't expect to keep the market to themselves for long. Already, companies like Amazon have dipped their toe into the African region, seeing the sales figures for its digital reader – the Kindle – steadily rise. It is already improving its technology for the African market and won't be content to stay in second place.