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Ask HN: Providing cheaper EdTech tools for rural zones
43 points by houssem_fat on Jan 21, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments
We are building a company (http://www.keedo.tn) to reduce the gap in education accessibility between urban and rural zones and private/public systems. We provide web apps and learning tools (we already started developing some tools like a virtual piano, body anatomy viewer, maps for geographic subjects, stories reader and so on) and we are fully cloud based, so everything is accessible and shared over the network.

Our big challenge is to provide a cheap computer with internet connection, (wifi/3G) support and acceptable performance. For information, the family income for our first clients in such regions, is on average $130 per month. We love the OLPC_XO http://laptop.org/en/laptop/ project idea (worldreader.org also) but their price is still high for our target clients and we try to avoid donations as much as possible.

First we thought about low cost white label tablets (most are china ODM/OEM providers), but from experience and reviews, they seems to be less performing with intensive usage. Now we have two solutions, either we use an already proven SOCs like PINE A64, Raspberry pi or we develop our custom pc. Any pointers, suggestions or collaborations will be highly appreciated!

I would encourage you to forget about hardware and concentrate on the software and applications.

Based on my experiences (I work for an ISP but we have a "sister" company that's an MSP that provides IT services to, among others, several K-12 schools in such rural areas), most of these schools either 1) already have available hardware (iPads, Chromebooks) due to existing 1:1 programs or 2) have decided to not (yet) pursue that (usually because of financial reasons).

In the former case, they already have hardware and don't want to buy even more. In the latter, they simply don't have the money for it (it'll be an even harder sell if it's not "general purpose" and can only be used with your stuff). Even if you manage to get it under $50 per student, that's still a lot of money that they could likely spend elsewhere.

Develop your applications and concentrate on targeting the most popular platforms (iOS and Android) and forget about trying to sell them hardware they can't (easily) reuse. Definitely forget about cellular connectivity and stick to Wi-Fi instead.

Thank you jlgaddis ! Really, we don't try to be a hardware company, we just try to find a reasonable way to a child fo owning a device with internet access and 'reasonable' performance. Our freemium business model really didn't focus on such areas neither in hardware, if we found a hardware provider partner that offers affordable plans ( such as paying 5$ per month during a year instead of all), this will be great for us so we can focus only on software apps. In The zone that we target, they never used computers before, most use cellular phones or cheap smartphones but this is for parents not children.

Have you considered pre owned laptops from urban areas. You could try running a campaign if you haven't already.

I thought important thing in this setup is transparency. So if a particular user or teacher can not afford, you add them to a page. A donation can be old or pre owned laptop.

the problem with old equipment twofold; first, there's a lot more maintenance. Next? when you are dealing in cast-offs, you by necessity have a heterogeneous fleet of hardware.

(The market for obsolete server hardware is interesting because often you pay more if you want a whole bunch of the same thing)

If you have to pay someone to maintain the obsolete hardware, it's probably cheaper to just buy everyone new chromebooks or something.

On the other hand, If you can sell that as part of the program, teaching the kids to fix the hardware, that could work out really well. But the point is that there is a lot of labor involved in using a heterogeneous fleet of cast-off hardware; a lot more labor than in using a homogenous fleet of newer hardware.

It is, however, labor that I think you can teach kids how to do. Fixing a computer isn't any harder than fixing a car, and is probably a lot safer.

So, from the .tn URL and family income listed, I am inferring this is based in Tunisia.

Can you optimize this for a cheap smartphone? I think that would probably be a better solution.

I am American. I was homeless for 5.7 years and I began learning to make money online while homeless. This is part of how I got back into housing. I have some experience with various tablets, laptops and phones. Phones have proven to be a surprisingly robust internet solution for me.

I currently have a $30 smartphone (brand ZTE). I have Tracfone service with it and I can use it on Wi-Fi. Although the screen is tiny and storage is limited, it has overall better performance than the $70 tablet I have. I rarely get on the tablet. My sons use it, but I spend almost all my time on my phone at home, plus I go to the local library to access a proper computer.

From what I have read, phones are a much bigger thing in Africa than tablets or laptops. I have read that everyone in Malawi has their own sim card even though an entire village might have a single phone.

I can do a surprising amount on my phone. I can blog, take photos, play games and do online banking. I have to be mindful of storage limits and I have to periodically clear my cache and do storage management and I have to be a little pickier about limiting my apps to the essentials. But it does a surprisingly good job of letting me do most of the things I want to do online.

When I was homeless, battery life was a big deal. Large screens on tablets really burned up the battery life. A phone or small tablet was generally better in that regard. Devices with good battery life were vastly more useful. I had access to electricity during the day most days, but I was on battery power at night. How much I could do was very dependent on battery life.

Large parts of Africa will have limited access to electricity. I have read that in some areas, one person will collect up all the phones in the village once a week and hike to the nearest paid recharging station and get them all charged.

So I will suggest that a cheap smartphone with a long battery life is probably the best solution for this project. Then design your program with those constraints in mind.

Edit: I will add that a $200 laptop was generally worse than a $50 tablet. We had to spend $300 on a laptop to get one we didn't hate.

Hi DoreenMichele, Thank you !! And I greet you for your self learning.

Yes you are right, we are based in Tunisia. Really, we don't have a critical issues to access electricity compared to other african countries.

With 50$ (120 Dt) in average, you can buy smartphone and tablets, most are chineese brands either with their names or under white labeled 'Tunisian' brands, and some known brands (huwaiey, sumsing, ZTE) that provide some low-cost of their products dedicated to developing countries.

We first thought about tablets because it's provide large screen and they gave us the possibilities to develop the system. The smartphone is a great choice also but we need to adapt our apps in a responsive way so can be rendered in multiple screen sizes.

My thought? E-waste.

This is how I got my first computers; obsolete and broken computers cast off by people wealthier than I was. [1] It's great, because you get to learn how to fix the computer as well as whatever it is you learn on the computer. I imagine my life experience is super different from those you are helping, but I can tell you that early experience fixing obsolete computers has vastly helped my career.

It is a lot more labor intensive, because you have to have someone to teach the kids how to fix the damn things, (for me, my dad and a copy of minasi's "upgrading and repairing PCs") but once you have that skillset locally? it's probably sustainable, because the rich will always be throwing out last years gadgets.

In some ways it will be way easier for you than for me; when I grew up in the '80s and '90s, there wasn't a lot of standardization, so with my 'catch as catch can' hardware acquisition strategy, I'd have to completely change my software stack every time I got new hardware. These days? Most educational software runs in a browser (I use and heartily endorse Khan Academy for the parts of learning that can't be done from a book alone) and so you can have a diverse fleet of hardware and even operating systems, and as long as you have enough local skill to bring the things up to the point where they can run a browser, you should be good to go.

The big problem with this plan is power; Nicer gear from the aughts ought to run a browser just fine, but it will chew up a lot more power. If you have to pay for unsubsidized electricity, more modern gear might make more sense.

[1]There was also this really juicy (for me) sense of acquiring "means of production" - I owned these computers that others had cast off as worthless or broken, and I turned them into a useful resource for myself. I think that if you could work something out so that the kid in question gets to keep the computer they fix... that might be extra gratifying. I know it was for me.

Any good references for folks interested in recycling (as a hobby)? Phones/laptops etc.

In case you're not aware of it, freecycling is a movement in many cities over the world, where people advertise their old stuff that they don't need any more, for anyone who's willing to go and take it off their hands. A lot of people are hesitant about throwing away workable but old or mildly damaged things, but also don't want the hassle of putting it on ebay or craigslist and responding to a thousand questions.

In recent years, a significant portion of the items listings I've seen are about old electronic stuff that people have moved on from and want to give away.

If you asked me 20 years ago, I'd have given you good answers. Then? it was mostly a matter of collecting things. tell everyone you know that this is your hobby, especially teachers and people who work around computer labs. Tell them to let you have the stuff they are tossing. A good friend of mine would regularly patrol the university dumpsters, and got some really good stuff, including an obsolete sun enterprise that he conned a local ISP into hosting for $50/month for years (that thing was a 10 cpu monster; it ate way more than $50/month in electricity)

As for now? well, let's put it this way; I've still got two and a half working iphone 5 units in my parts drawer. I mean, none of them work, but I've got the parts for two and a half of 'em. I spent some time on it and decided to go buy a new iphone 7 instead (I kinda wish I went for the SE; the form factor of the 5 was superior, I think.)

Hell, I'm typing this on a macbook; I used to buy stacks of old thinkpads and just replace parts as they broke, but the thinkpads with the good keyboards are too old (the new thinkpad with the classic keyboard is too expensive, at least for a thinkpad sans ecc, and I always liked the X not the T) but... I got tired of that, too.

On the other hand, the macbook is kind of terrible. The keyboard is tolerable (better than the chicklet lenovo keyboards, but still only tolerable) and the wifi cuts out as if I had damaged the antenna in a fall, something i could totally repair on an old thinkpad.

But my point is that at this point I make too much money and don't have enough time to really have a good computer repair hobby.

I used the ifixit guides for my iphone 5 adventures; I personally think their toolkits aren't great (last one I got, for replacement of an iphone screen felt like it came with phillips rather than JIS drivers, and I think the iphone screws are JIS) -- but their videos and instructions seemed pretty good. On the other hand, none of the iphones I performed surgery on are fully functional, so...

In general I've had good luck with just looking the thing I'm doing up on youtube.

A while back, a friend of mine (a ce/ee) had a bad keyboard on her viao. Not having experience with the parts of the computer industry that don't require college degrees, she took it apart, and when she couldn't get it back together, she brought it to a computer repair shop.

The shop, of course, thought that the computer never worked; they also couldn't get it back together. (the wisdom here is to do all or none of the repair. The shop probably could have replaced the keyboard if she brought a working viao in with a broken keyboard... but because it wasn't working when they got it, aside from not seeing how it was put together, they probably thought it was broken more deeply than just the keyboard.)

So, on my thinkpads, I would download the manual and puzzle about in the exploded parts diagrams until I saw what was what. Thinkpads were pretty simple, though, doing this with the viao was just a giant tangle of wires.

Anyhow, I looked it up on youtube, and there was someone who had a real clear video showing how to take apart and put together a viao. Following the video, I found that the connector with the power button was plugged into the wrong place, and the viao worked perfectly.

My only real piece of advice comes from my working with servers. Go buy a ESD wrist strap and workmat. Ignore it when your friends make fun of you. It makes a difference.

As you likely know, you will need to be very careful when developing web-based applications for the resource-constrained devices you mention. A typical bloated web app as made by most companies will often not run well in resource-constrained environments like many ARM SOCs. I would encourage you to approach the app design process with an extremely minimalist approach, striving to avoid libraries and use vanilla JS as much as possible, use tiny assets, and keep allocations to a minimum (maybe consider object pools for certain applications). If you use a minimal framework, Mithril JS might be a good choice, or domvm, or something similarly minimal. You probably want to stay away from React and Angular.

If you're looking at any kind of volume, you should be able to get Chromebooks for under $100 direct from China. When I was at a K12 school about 3 years ago, our purchase of ~250 Chromebooks allowed us to knock nearly 25% off the per unit cost to get them down to ~$150/device. And that was going through a third-party that was white labeling the devices.

The machines we ended up with were 2GB of RAM/16GB storage devices with 11" screens. Basically they were the reference designs Google released a while back when they opened up Chromebook manufacturing. And for the 4th-12th graders we gave them to, they were amazing.

Thank you patrickserrano !! This is will be great if we establish an affordable plan with a 3 or 4 year engagement. We can support this if we found a partnership or an investment, that's will be a good option for better quality.

Recovering olpc volunteer here. Happy to hear of your labors!

One of the concepts a related project explored was using live / persistent USB disks to preserve student ownership and facilitate unscheduled explorations.

Multiplexes hardware across students at different times, facilitating students using a consistent environment at home on old P4 desktops and at school on whatever's available.

Even large (32+GB) portable storage devices are available under $50.

Check out "sugar on a stick" and "open1to1" for related trains of thought.

This is very interesting, Thank you daniher !! Sharing and portability are nice features and these systems are so important, as they have already a lot of pre-build tools. Still need a pc or a raspberry pi like system to read usb. But thanks again !

You can mount a USB stick on a phone. But a phone for each child would serve the same purpose.

We are working in Zambia to building tools for people who want to create their own electricity supplies using local resources.


We are also working closely with a local NGO who do coding workshops for rural communities.

Would love to chat and explore possible collaboration opportunities. Email is Samson [at] localelectricity [dot] org

I don't know where you are thinking about implementing your"solution". There are a lot of people trying to solve the problem you are solving, even governments have. I am writing from Ghana and the government has tried two times and failed. Two questions you need to address: 1. does your solution really align with the people's need ? 2. Is it sustainable? After you have found interest, you ask if the people are also interested in managing the program, after you are gone. Is there the required infrastructure to support. I am in development work and this is really core to making impactful change, I was going to say lasting change but I took it back. There are other level of questions but please answer the two questions above before you even move ahead with your idea otherwise it's a waste of resources.

Hi sammidelali, thank you for your interest. There's no 'our solution' in in the exact meaning of word, the hardware is a way for access to internet. Our goal is to provide (via internet or computer technologies) a lot of inaccessible software tools in a fun/animated way and that's may be achieved using computer, tablets, Tv with usb disk ..

This project was propsed 4 five years ago and i started by talking to education responsables who thought that's 'unmanaged and hard to set up'. The idea is simple, we believe that every child 'should' access to learning ressources in a virtual way regardless his location. For the sustainablity part, i think that the average age of a large numbers of electronics is limited, and may be recycled after that. We are talking about a game like tool.

I think this is amazing, and credit should be given where credit is due. Are you basing your concept on learning management systems like moodle. Is that what you are? I know, you're probably so much more. But I need to ask, how do you organize content that's already available into bite-sized lessons easily digestible by children? And it's easy to get muddled into providing content, along with a medium for that content. And then you go into grade levels, standardizing, not to mention having proper internet access, along with power. I mean how do you do it?

Hello, Thank you kazishariar ! Right now, we are not using a special framework for managing system, Edx maybe our primary choice if we think about a all-in-one system. But instead, we decide to build apps by categories instead of building a generic one. We are focusing on the way we create content by subject.

We started developing a story editor with basic images, texts, and sounds (so we can add effects in the story). We also developed a small version of a simple sheet music editor with a virtual piano and sounds. For geographic, historic and animals anatomy illustrations, we use a map-like editor, so the teacher can draw shapes, add voice, timelines ...

For the internet access, there are many places that already covered by 3G service, What's good for us, is that the area size of the country is small, so, network providers can extends theirs services without huge investments.

Tell me if i replied your question or missed something !

What you're doing sounds incredibly expensive in terms of developer hours. Are you certain you've explored the world of pre existing open content?

You should reach out to the folks at learningequality.org. They focus on totally offline use cases but have a huge global partnership network and could definitely give you hardware advice.

Thank you dlnb ! I really liked the idea, nice to know about it !! this will be very helpful !

Meta question, do all text submissions get to include active links in the text or is that handled manually by the HN team? I noticed some Launch HN: submissions over the past year have been doing it but AFAIK this is the first for a non-YC company.

Refurbished Chromebooks would be hard to beat. Lots of sub $200 choices, and has the keyboard and monitor built in. You can also download a new Seabios ROM for most of them and run regular Linux.

Affordable rural internet access might be a bigger hurdle.

Thank you @tyngq! Chrome OS will be beneficial to us, as it already supports all of our web based solutions. But even with the prices of refurbished solutions, it still expensive, as we target a maximum 50$ solution for each child. Also, our business model is not the hardware part.

Hmm. As you mentioned, you can get developer boards for less than $50. But, does your demographic have HDMI televisions to connect them to? Keyboards? Storage?

For keyboards, we can deal with refurbished or used. For storage, you are right, SDcard is the primary option, in a standalone product, it's not cheap (about 20%) comparing the total board price but we can find a more suitable formula if it will be included within the board. But the display will still a challenge if we choose to build custom board. HDMI TV are not such used in rural zones, they still need some time to be accessible in price and popularity.

Nice to see something new going on in EdTech space! I'm the CTO of bibliotech.education, a subscription textbook company and happy to have a chat regarding collaboration or contacts in either the US or Europe.

Design the app to work in smart phone. Families might benefit have cheap smart phone for multi purposes. Cheap smart phones will help students as they grow up to familiarize the mobile technology.

I know of a company Learning Equality(https://learningequality.org/) they also work in this space.

I'm sorry; but the cheapest laptop I've seen is $90; don't think you'll get to $50 unless you want a cheap tablet.

Thank you ronsor ! We really need a web browser, enough memory and kind of 'performant' CPU / GPU to run html and js applications. So, a customized os like chrome os will be suitable if we choose to build our custom solution.

These guys do a cheap computer https://pi-top.com/

Hey, check out zaya.in, they too are solving similar problems.

Would this be helpful? Https://build.games

Check out Kiwix.org There are different cheap options.

Thank you hux_ !! will check it !

Do you have any reason to believe computers are a better learning medium then the no-power-needed, high resolution device known as a “book“?

We don't aim to replace the standard ''book' support, our goal is to provide the inaccessible tools and based on child curiosity we open new opportunities to learning subject such as astronomy, music... I'm a computer engineer who born in a such region, and i only touched the keyboard at the university. We are talking about places where the school is the first and the only source of learning and the TV is the only source of entertainment. No public libraries, no clubs, no house cultures .... Our education system is designed to provide a standard vision for all kids in the country regardless their interests, cultures, communities background. They are designed based on 'old' vision for the industrial jobs needs, and as these jobs still decreasing, the unemployment rate in Tunisia is about 20% for graduated people (this rate does'nt include the dropouts). So, we all know sure that something wrong with current system, but this is not our first goal. Our main goal is simple, provide fun learning tools for kids (virtual telescope, piano, guitar ...)

The question might or might not be relevant to this post. But you might or might not want to think of this as a supplant to books, or books as a suppliant to this. Maybe?

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