In 2002 David Rogers was a headmaster in what is now Mundri Town, South Sudan. A war was raging, and the high school he'd been given charge of was one of only seven in a region of several million people. Students were desperate to learn, but space and teachers were limited, and bugs were eating Rogers' books. He wondered if technology could solve the problems he faced.
Today the company Rogers started, Allogy Interactive, is proving it can. Its 11 employees build software applications that run on mobile phones and allow students to take classes and read digital textbooks from anywhere. In a pilot program in Kenya that Allogy ran in partnership with Campus Crusade for Christ International, students in a pastors training program at the Nairobi International School of Theology watched instructor videos on Android-based phones. After the initial class, "Even with the cost of all of the technology it ended up saving the students money and generating a profit for the academic institution," Rogers says. The students took quizzes and asked questions through the app while professors tracked their progress. They took a final exam on campus.
"Most software today is built around the idea of peer relationships," says Rogers. In contrast to the friend-to-friend dynamic of much social networking, he wants his software to reflect the dynamic of hierarchical relationships, such as parents and children, doctors and patients, pastors and church members, or teachers and students. "The idea of education in its original form was mentorship," he says, but today many big institutions are mechanical and expensive. Rogers thinks mobile technology can allow students to learn outside the geographical constraints of a classroom while providing "some measure of mutual accountability" between student and teacher. Allogy's goal is to make its software platform usable and affordable for any university.
The company has ongoing projects in India, the Philippines, and Tanzania. In the United States, Allogy is developing digital textbooks and medical apps for use in schools and hospitals, such as an infectious diseases app for McGraw-Hill, and a series of videos for trauma surgeons. It has also created an iPad browser for the Federal Register.
Creative education runs in Rogers' family. Now 34, he remembers learning to read at the Christian school his grandfather started in his basement-initially just for grandkids-until it ballooned so much he had to buy property in northern Virginia to host it. Now a grandson follows a similar path.
Hundreds or thousands of Indian schoolchildren could soon be learning math not on their traditional black slates but on scaled-down tablet computers powered by the sun. Rice University professor Krishna Palem has created a device called the I-slate that is perfect for regions where electricity and teachers are scarce: It displays preloaded math, science, and social studies programs on a 7-inch screen that students can scribble on with a stylus. Palem has already field-tested battery-powered prototypes among Indian 10- to 13-year-olds, but he hopes to have a solar-powered model in production by mid-2012. It should cost less than $50 and run on three watts of power provided by solar cells in its frame.