The startup bringing AI-powered SMS-based learning to Kenya

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Tech solutions are improving learning outcomes across the developed world, but Africa is being left out from the opportunity due to a lack of solutions delivered via basic mobile technology – a gap Kenyan edtech startup M-Shule is determined to address.

The developed world is seeing advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have a great impact on improving the effectiveness of education, as these new solutions lend themselves to a more personalised learning process.

However, the majority of edtech innovation is premised on reliable internet connectivity, and assumes users have access to smart devices.

“This leaves out the mass majority of students in Sub-Saharan Africa,” says Claire Mongeau, chief executive officer (CEO) of M-Shule.

The idea for M-Shule was born in late 2016, when co-founders Mongeau and chief technology officer (CTO) Julie Otieno decided to create a mobile platform capable of bringing the benefits of AI-powered personalised learning to any and every student through SMS.

“I worked in education for about six years in India, the US, and Kenya, where I realised that everywhere parents and students were investing so much time and energy into education, but there just weren’t always the best tools available to them,” Mongeau says.

“Together [with Otieno]we realised that there were ways to make the best innovations accessible in the mass market, as long as we met users where they are in terms of accessible technology.”

Fast-forward 18 months, and M-Shule has just completed its pilot with 400 students across 15 schools in Kenya.

The system is populated with lessons based on national curriculum standards delivered via SMS, that adapt to each student’s skills and abilities using AI technology.  As students use the platform, M-Shule tracks and analyses learner performance to empower parents and schools with insights and recommendations.

It is this element of personalisation, which is critical to improving learning outcomes, Mongeau explains.  By personalising educational content, students can advance at their own pace and find success at their own level, relieving the pressure of “failure” and preventing them from becoming demotivated.

“Personalising learning support to fit the needs of every individual learner is core to M-Shule’s mission. […] We use artificial intelligence algorithms to automatically analyse students’ levels of mastery, and then deliver lessons that meet and grow their competency level. By doing so, we ensure that students improve and advance to the next level at their own pace,” she says.

The startup has received substantial backing and support during its development phase; including investment from Engineers Without Borders Canada, and from South African accelerator Injini.  M-Shule was also crowned winner of the Nairobi leg of Seedstars World, and was named first runner up at the Global Edtech Startup Awards.

As such, the startup is now poised to begin a rapid expansion across Kenya before the end of the year; with plans to reach 1 million students in East Africa within the next five years.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.  

“Much of what we are doing is brand-new in the East African environment, so building our strategy and our product takes a lot of trial and error,” Mongeau says.  In addition, Kenya is in the process of rolling out a new curriculum, so she adds, “we need to be on our toes.”

“Luckily, our team is a really passionate group of people who are excited to experiment and try new things. We take these challenges as an opportunity to introduce new best practices and drive innovation around 21st century skills.”

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Inspired and excited by the African tech entrepreneurial scene, Gabriella spends her time travelling around the continent to report on the most innovative tech startups, the most active investors, and the latest trends emerging in the ecosystem.

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