Obami opens up the classroom

[Image] Kids from the Narsing Primary School in the township outside Graaff Reinet in the Eastern Cape.
(Image: Obami)

Barbara Mallinson
  Co-owner and director of Obami
  +27 (0)83 215 8112

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There’s nothing like a road trip to get you down and dirty with what’s happening on the ground in the far reaches of South Africa.

And that’s exactly what Barbara Mallinson and her business partner and husband, Ennis Jones, did recently, when they went out to document the voices of teachers and pupils. They also used the trip to introduce their world-class social learning platform, Obami, to as many people as possible. “Of course we introduced schools to Obami when we could, but our primary goal was to hear what different people, from different parts of society, thought about education, the future and whether there was hope for South Africa,” says Mallinson.

Obami, a Zulu word meaning “mine”, is a platform that brings pupils, teachers and parents together to connect and exchange ideas and provide school administrators with a comprehensive platform to make school management easy and effective.

The platform is being used by some 300 schools in South Africa, and hundreds of schools across Africa, Europe and the United States. In 2011, it was voted among the top 10 innovative technologies in the world by Netexplo in partnership with Unesco, and in 2012, it was identified by Forbes in the top 20 African tech start-ups.

Mallinson talks about what the pair gleaned from the road trip: “I think we both felt true sadness, desperation and frustration at times. We were humbled by the stories we heard. But throughout it all, we experienced hope. There’s an undeniable sense, across the entire country, that as a nation, we can pull together and conquer, no matter how big our crisis.”

The trip took five weeks. They drove 7 500 kilometres in a motor home that doubled as an office, visiting 50 schools. “We had set out to seek sentiment on South African education, and came home with hope … that makes me happy.”

They started in Cape Town where they are based, and drove along the coastal Garden Route, up into Eastern Cape, and then further up the coast to KwaZulu-Natal. From there, they went inland through Free State, and north to North West Province, turning eastwards to Mpumalunga, and north again to Limpopo, finally reaching the financial heart of the country, Johannesburg, in Gauteng, 52 days later.

Mallinson and Jones filmed their trip, and produced a series of short documentaries to share the voices of those they met along the way. The principal video was released at an exclusive screening in Cape Town in mid-April. “The video, along with a web and mobile experience that features additional digital content, packs a punchy yet uplifting message to every South African looking to make a difference to education and indeed, the country’s future,” enthuses Mallinson.

Free platform

Obami is a free platform for primary and secondary schools, and can be used by governing bodies, NGOs, small businesses, and “other passionate people”. It provides a powerful solution for schools to connect, create, share and learn. Educational resources can be shared while offering academic and personal development for everyone involved. And importantly, it protects the security and privacy of users. It also provides school administrators with cyber bullying and profanity monitoring tools to ensure high standards of communication are maintained.

Mallinson and Jones recently had the platform rebuilt, in the process incorporating additional and more adjustable security controls. It can replicate communities that exist in a school, such as a science class or a rugby team. Users can upload, share, access and store content like newsletters, photographs and videos as PDFs, podcasts, polls and wikis.

Communication can be conducted through Obami messages, SMS, email and instant messaging. Pupils sign up through their schools, which must be Obami-registered. Each pupil then gets a code and an invitation to join the network. This ensures that privacy is guaranteed. Whenever a child gets a friend request, the parent is immediately notified.

Teachers and parents

Teachers use Obami to upload, create and share academic resources with their pupils, or to facilitate discussions and set assignments. This involves daily homework worksheets, projects, tests and even exams. Some teachers use Obami to connect their classes to others around the world.

Parents use Obami to access school information through newsletters and messages. They can connect to their children’s teachers, so getting updates on their children’s performances or upcoming assignments.

Mallinson says teachers have told them how much fun they have using Obami with their pupils. It has resulted in greater class participation and reduced absenteeism – and therefore better results. “Several of our township-based schools have told us how they’ve seen Obami improve basic numeracy and literacy too – the learners seem to make more of an effort because they find the technology so engaging,” says Mallinson.

Maths and science are being taught through Obami, Afrikaans and English projects are set using the platform, and geography resources are shared.

Mobile platform

It is being used in city and township schools, and in rural schools, where pupils may not have computers or internet access, but they do have mobile phones. They can download content, take part in courses created by teachers or companies, and exchange ideas. In far rural areas, where coverage is limited and data costs high, users can use Obami at a library or shop that has internet access. This allows for material to be printed out and distributed to classmates or teachers.

“Obami’s mobile experience is about accessing content and communities quickly, or undertaking surveys and completing assignments, while on the go,” confirms Mallinson. Plans involve opening the Obami School, “a social learning space that hopes to spread equal education across South Africa and way beyond”.

“We’ve got a lot to do, but already there’s great interest in making this a community for learners of any age to come and gain instruction, understanding, or enlightenment.”

Obami employs five full-time employees in its Cape Town office, and one person in its United Kingdom office – and it is about to take on more people.