Hubs, spokes, and cells

An overview of the per-school approach
An overview of the per-school approach

Our initial model[1] is to create a cell structure for each school. A school needs at least one eReader device, they may have more devices if the usage warrants and justifies more. Each device is configured with a shared Amazon account (which can be used to share content on up to 5 devices in parallel, according to Amazon’s web site). So a single purchase can be downloaded onto up to 5 devices and therefore any teacher can use any available device.

The cell is semi-autonomous. Publicly the school can share their wish list, and other Amazon users can search for an find that wish list. For instance here is amazon’s find a wish list link

The schools in the pilot project are:

  • Nyandiwa
  • Kachieng
  • Kalando

These names can be used to find their respective wish list. However, at the moment, does not allow us to purchase items on behalf of the schools from other Amazon accounts. Therefore, at the moment someone with access to their Amazon account needs to login using the respective account details to pay for items from the wish list; the schools do not have Internet access so it’s impractical for them to do so. Alternatively gift certificates can be used to credit the account and enable the school to purchase items autonomously. Once others can directly pay for items from a school’s wish list we can transition towards a more federated, independent system with no centralised authority or arbiter of purchases, etc.

Services such as Amazon’s whispercast make content distribution easier using a hub and spoke distribution model (where content can be distributed to one or more groups of accounts). This service currently limited to the US amazon market.

[1] model = an approach, design, or hierarchy (pick whichever word seems most appropriate) that represents how we structure the use of the device(s) and Amazon account for a school


Why focus on teachers?

There are some excellent projects in various countries which have inspired me (Julian) while I’ve been working on this project. Most of these focus on helping the pupils, the children. I admire their work and believe our work may complement some of their projects. However, for a mix of reasons this project focuses on the teachers instead.

  • By helping the teachers we help ‘this’ generation, who teach and help the ‘next’ generation. Both benefit.
  • We can do more with less, each teacher teaches between 40 and 60 pupils. We cannot afford to fund or support one device per child at this stage; rather we are helping in aggregate teachers in 6 schools, so many hundreds of children with only 6 eReaders.

I have enjoyed quotations about educating ‘a girl’, for instance “Educate a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community.”, found online at

In this case the aim is to educate the teachers to educate and help the community.

The following web page has plenty of quotes on teachers


Collecting data during the pilot project

One of the aims of the pilot project is to learn and refine the project, another is to help guide the next phases of the project. Data can help provide concrete information, both now and historically. Given the distributed geographic nature of the project and team, the limited facilities to gather data from the devices, etc. we are using a mix of low-tech and technical approaches to data gathering. We have the permission of the schools and the team in Kenya to publish copies of their notes and reports.

Low-tech data gathering includes handwritten notes in a small notebook. Each device has one of these notebooks. We asked the teachers to make a written note each time they use the eReader; while we acknowledge they may not always do so, we have already been encouraged by the relatively frequent notes they have made during the first two months of the pilot.

Two pages of handwritten notes
Example of notes made about using the eReader

We also have limited information available on how far someone has read through each book, by using the automatic synchronisation facility provided by the Kindle service. The details of the wishlist for each account, and the book purchases are also tracked by each account. Note: a book is ‘purchased’ even if the price is £0.00

Leonard also visits the schools and interviews the teachers quite frequently and we have received several formal reports from senior teaching staff e.g. headteachers. Here is an example of a short report from Kachieng Secondary School. They provide a good example of how an additional device would help their teaching.

Photograph of handwritten report from Kachieng Secondary School
Kachieng Secondary School report 12 April 2013


Inaugural Workshop – February 2013 – Oyugis

Photo of teachers from the various schools
A schoolroom setting for the launch of the pilot project

On Valentine’s Day we launched the pilot program with 3 pairs of schools. Each pair consists of a primary school (8 years of schooling from 5 years old) and a secondary school (which covers 4 years of schooling). The Kenyan schooling is known as 8+4+4 with the final 4 years intended for university or college.

We held a workshop with teachers from the 6 schools, and with various school governors, the local chief, a representative from the district education, and various senior pastors, together with several people from the UK and several local staff of the charities we support.

Two teachers sharing a Kindle to discover ways to use it
Two of the teachers, discovering capabilities of the Kindle
Julian with teachers and staff
Sharing ideas with some of the teachers

I (Julian) ended up taking charge of the teachers during their tutorial / experimentation which was fun and surprisingly effective.The teachers has 2 sessions where they experimented with the devices to learn how they could be used. At the end of each session various teachers shared some of their discoveries with the teachers from the other schools. This helped them to realise they have more to gain from being open and collaborating, than if they kept their discoveries private.

The teachers each signed for the devices as part of establishing the formal pilot project and so they realise they’re now responsible for them. The don’t have to repay anything if the equipment is lost or damaged though. That wouldn’t be useful or productive… They each have a copy of a guide on how to maintain their device and keep it safe. They seemed very excited to use the eReaders.


In Kenya there are 2 people helping with the ongoing support: Leonard who liaises with the teachers and is helping encourage and support them to use the devices productively, and Jeremiah who deals with the technical aspects e.g. establishing Wi-Fi connectivity and helping with charging the devices where the school has no suitable power. We left Jeremiah with the spare Kindle.

Here is a link to an article written by Leonard after the workshop.


Wishlists and Payments

One of the first major challenges for this project is how to address payments. Very few people in rural Kenya have bank accounts or credit cards. They don’t have much money either, the region is classified in financial terms as being at the bottom of the pyramid[1]. All this means we need to find alternatives to the ‘register your credit card or bank account for automatic billing’ approach often used in the USA, UK, etc.

In my view, Kenya has one of the most advanced micro-payment systems globally, through the m-pesa service and similar mechanisms from the various mobile network providers in Kenya. And micro-payments via mobile phones is ubiquitous in Kenya, including in the rural areas.

Publishers, rightly need to be paid for their work, unless they choose to provide the material without charge. So we have a conundrum, how to pay for the materials for the teachers… And for this project we shouldn’t assume the teachers, or their schools, can afford or pay for the material. A typical teaching book costs around $10 on Amazon.

We initiated the project by creating accounts for the schools where we provide some credit of £25 (around $40 USD) using gift certificates. The school teachers can then choose to use the credit to pay for several books, and there are lots of books, including the ‘classics’ available free-of-charge.

We need ways to defend against uncapped spending, a Kindle user does not need to authenticate themselves to buy items from Amazon, so they don’t need to enter a password or other security information – money is simply deducted from the credit balance or any linked credit card or bank account. Because we use gift cards and we don’t configure the Amazon accounts with either bank accounts or credit cards, the maximum financial risk is the remaining balance from the gift certificates.

We would like to find ways to enable teachers, and other people with access to micro-payment services in Kenya, to be able to contribute towards or entirely pay for eBooks and other items e.g. newspapers, journals, etc. The most popular micro-payment service is m-pesa from Safaricom, the other Kenyan mobile network providers have similar services. The report from iHub Research[1] provides some useful background information on the use of micro-payments. We have approached Amazon and various publishers and online book selling sites aimed at the Kenyan market to explore these possibilities. They would help to enable the teachers, and people involved in the schooling in the country, to take more ownership of the project.

Wishlists are part of the Amazon service. They provide an elegant way for whoever wants an item to track these requests and to share the requests with other people. In our case, the teachers are encouraged to add items to their wishlist, that’s linked to their Kindle account. We, and other people who would like to support the project can then pick books from the wishlist and pay for them. The requestor (a teacher in one of the schools in Kenya) then receives the book the next time they use the device to connect online. There are some restrictions for Amazon accounts on the Amazon UK site that make it harder for people to buy books for another Amazon account. As far as we know Amazon accounts on the USA site don’t have this restriction.

We would prefer the ability for people to buy Kindle books as gifts for other Amazon accounts, i.e. accounts that work like those on the USA site, as it makes the approval and purchasing more decentralised and enables it to scale further. For instance, a sponsor could fund various books for a school by picking them from that school’s shared wishlist, without any need for intermediaries.

Using wishlists is an effective way to spend the very limited funds wisely, particularly for shared devices, and currently each of our devices may be shared with around 10 teachers at a school.

Another effective mechanism is the ability to download a sample of Kindle books. The teacher can then read the first section of the book to help decide if the book is worth ordering. However we have noticed some samples have very little of the book’s content, possibly for copyright or other commercial reasons? When there is little content the teacher is effectively buying blind – i.e. without being able to read a useful sample first.


[1] The following report, written by iHub Research in Kenya, covers mobile phone usage at the base of the pyramid. It provides a good overview of many relevant factors for this project. It can be downloaded from the World Bank blog here. Other web sites have links to it too.



Resilience and reducing single-points-of-failure

As an engineer I realise a common risk is to have single points of failure in any system. Therefore, on of the design goals for the project is to reduce the number of single-points-of-failure. In practice this means we are seeking ways to share the knowledge, the support, and how paid content is both selected and paid for.

Our approach of using parallel paths also helps reduce single-points-of-failure.

What did we start with Kindle devices from Amazon?

For practical reasons we started the pilot in Kenya with a mix of the Amazon Kindle devices. These reasons include:

  • They can be used for long periods before they need to be recharged,
  • They have global 3G connectivity bundled with the devices (provided one uses the 3G models, of course),
  • The Amazon Kindle technology and infrastructure are reliable and mature,
  • Vast amounts of material are easily available both online and other material can be added over USB,
  • Accounts can be shared across several devices and can be topped up using gift vouchers,
  • Wish-lists are available so teachers can request material where it can be paid for later on, even by other people abroad. We will cover the topic of wishlists and payments in more detail in another blog post.

We also wanted to start the pilot as soon as practical and to learn during the pilot. We needed to keep the number of variables relatively small, and we did not want to spend months evaluating a vast set of potentially competing technologies.


Parallel Paths

We don’t know what will work yet, and furthermore there may be alternative options that are more effective than our first choice. So we have consciously adopted an approach where we pick and try several things in parallel. This includes technologies, connectivity, content, schools, content distribution, etc. We expect to expand the number of parallel paths during our experiments and pilot projects. However, we also select and support combinations which seem suitable.

Here are some of the parallel paths we are currently evaluating:

  • Devices: we started with 2 devices: The Kindle Keyboard (3rd edition) 3G+Wi-Fi is the main device – we started the pilot with 5 of these. The current Kindle 4 with the 4 way controller, Wi-Fi, (and no touch screen) – we started the pilot with 2 of these.
  • Cases: For the Kindle Keyboards we use the Amazon case that includes a built-in LED light; and for the Kindle 4 we use the Solar-Mio integrated case with solar panel built-in LED light and in-built battery. Although these are expensive, our initial impressions are very positive.
  • Charging: Our devices need power, and to be recharged. We are evaluating solar panels, with and without internal batteries, as well as the standard mains USB chargers. We will cover the solar and other power options in another blog post soon.
  • Connectivity: as mentioned the Kindle Keyboards include 3G, so the teachers can connect directly to the Amazon store, and search Google and Wikipedia without needing Wi-Fi. As the schools don’t have Wi-Fi 3G connectivity provides virtually immediate access to materials for the teachers, even while teaching, etc. However, we also want to evaluate Wi-Fi, and ways to establish rural Wi-Fi for the schools, and the lowest priced Kindle, the Kindle 4, only comes in a Wi-Fi model. So we need to find ways to support these devices in the field as supplies of the older Kindle Keyboard dry up. We will cover connectivity in more detail in another blog post.
  • Content distribution: We are using both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ methods of content distribution. Pull is where the user (a teacher in this case) downloads the content to their eReader. Push is where content is sent to devices. Materials are also copied onto the devices directly from a computer using a USB connection. Services including dropbox are excellent to transfer and share materials over the Internet easily and effectively.
  • Materials: Many of the books in Swahili are published via Longhorn Publishers and available from Amazon. However there are other publishers of potentially suitable eBooks who don’t support the Amazon formats, instead they publish books in the ePub format. We are in discussion with various publishers in Kenya, and the UK, to find useful and relevant materials for the teachers; together with ways to make the material ‘work’ on Kindles, other eReaders, and  Tablet devices.

We are also evaluating Android Tablets and other eReader devices during the pilot period.


Project Background

We launched the first pilot project in February 2013 after I, Julian Harty, visited several schools in the Oyugis area of Western Kenya in October/November 2012. The visit was to see in person some of the school classrooms he had sponsored over recent years. Although the schools were well-organised with friendly and helpful teachers and pupils there were no obvious teaching materials in use, apart from a wall painted as a chalk board (or blackboard as they’re also known) and some sticks of chalk.

However, 3G mobile network coverage, was available at the various schools and my 3G kindle device worked flawlessly. During various discussions with school teachers locally, and some who were also visiting from the UK, the germ of an idea was formed to see if e-readers with some suitable teaching materials might help transform and improve the resources available to the teachers on the ground.

From the outset, the aim has been to encourage and support the teachers, technologists, and publishers in Kenya to participate in the project; and to encourage collaboration and sharing of ideas, experiences, good practices, etc.

Welcome to the Kusaidia Mwalimu web site

Welcome to the Kusaidia Mwalimu web site which is where you can learn about our project to help teachers in Kenya, and beyond, to teach more effectively and with a wider range of material than they typically have available.

The name of the site is Swahili for supporting teachers, as that’s the primary aim at this stage of the project.