Interview with Toni Maraviglia, CEO of MPrep

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Toni Marvaglia at the Edtech Meetup
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Toni Maraviglia is quite a busy lady. To get us some time for this interview I had to fit in her calendar, luckily there was some slot which we could fit in some 15 minutes for this interview, I got some information about her and the awesome work she and her team are doing for primary school children’s learning process over at Mprep. Mprep comprises of a team of 5 who run it on a daily and a curriculum team of 15 teachers who assist in the smooth running of the educational platform that is run mainly on mobile phones. Lets move over swiftly and see what we got, shall we?

What is mprep? What is the motivation behind the project, what is its significance to the society?

Essentially MPrep is an educational platform designed for both teachers and students. On the technological side we offer student tutorials and quizzes via SMS on every single topic from class 7 to class 8. On the teacher and school side we give the teachers and actually even parents the ability to tap into the data of how their students are performing and compare the data to other students across the country. So we have very nuanced and high amount of data, to the point where we even have a hold on how the country is doing on topics such as kinyume from the Kenyan syllabus. The whole point of it is to technologize what happens in the classroom already and what works within the classroom. And its a very teacher-centered tool but at the same time makes what kids are doing fun and engaging.

So its only for primary schools?

Right now its only for primary schools, we are targeting class 7 and 8. During their review years up to their KCPE. We are expanding our content to include class 5 and 6. And also a literacy tool to it for students that are in the lower primary grade.

What is the number of students and teachers using the this service so far? How many text requests are initiated everyday by students?

We don’t have the data on how many text messages are initiated each day. We have 5000 student users right now. We lauched the student part of the platform in February who are averaging around 3000 users per week. It really depends on how often we demo and where. Its extremely accessible for students and very simple. So we found that, as soon as we demo students go home and start using it immediately. And also because it is on simple mobile phones they can use it from any device. Where present, the students that we do have signed onto the system are in over 100 schools across every region of Kenya right now. So what we are finding is that students have access no matter where they are.

From your website, you express the need to expand your services into the multimedia platform. When and how do you plan on doing this?

All of our content is already pushed to the web. So we could offer a web service to students just as soon as we’ve created the portal. So in terms of the student aspect and the content, what we’re more interested in right now is in expanding what we have through SMS to make tutorials, not just quizzes. We want to create some voice tutorials as well so that students can activate information and content via voice. And eventually we’ll extend what we have already, the content that’s pushed via SMS to the web. We are not concerned about that right now cause most students don’t access the web portal.

How do you measure the success of mprep and how do you make students keep coming back to use the service?

There’s a couple of ways we measure success. The obvious one is through end of term exam and through the mock KCPE exam scores. So we have an impact study group of 30 students from Chandaria Primary School in the Babadogo Area, that’s Thika Road that we’ve been working with since February and we’re measuring how much they’ve improved in relation to their peers because they use MPrep for 4 hours a week. We really wanna measure that. To me I don’t think that’s as important as the attitudinal changes that we are seeing in the educational commitee. I don’t think there’s going to be an immediate drastic improvement. We are creating a way for students to only become fluent in technology but to also enjoy school. And the continuous assessment that we are providing to teachers are also going to be a big help to them. What I would say is that the measure of success is a variety of factors that’s not just exams, that’s not our ultimate aim. To be complete honest is that we wanna prove that technology can be a gateway to content. I mean we’ve seen so many ICT things in education fail, moreso because its not coming from the perspective of an educator. So we really want technology work and work for the educational community and have it come from the grassroots level.

What are the lessons to be learnt from mprep? How does this affect the established system of education?

There’s a lot. Its really hard for me to pin point this. In terms of the educational sphere, there’s too many. We are not successful enough for it to influence education in any major way. To us 5000 is nothing, when we get to 2 million then you can ask me. Right now I want to see it effective in a much greater scale, microscopic scale in terms of individual students going home to study more, using technology more, an anecdotal evidence that I could get you. Ask me in 2 years when we have affected 2 million children and kids enjoy learning more.

Does your work from Wiserbridge help with the decisions you make at mprep? How have your experiences from working with Wiserbridge helped with mprep?

Wiserbridge was a program I co-created with the community at Muhuru Bay. And those ideas came from teachers. Really I would say more than anything that my work with being in the classroom, being a teacher and then also being in a community that doesn’t have water, electricity influences MPrep completely. I mean all this is geared around access and quality that makes sense for the community. So everything we are doing with MPrep obviously was influenced by the work of Muhuru Bay.

You also brought experience from Teach for America Corps?

Teach for America, teaching in general, you are just able to understand the classroom complex a lot better. I guess, maybe this is the lessons learnt but we didn’t really have to learn it because we have a 15 teachers on our team. It’s really hard to develop something that works in the educational system if you don’t come from it. And I’m a very big advocate for that.

What are the challenges that you face when bringing this service to teachers or students who haven’t used it before?

I don’t think our challenges are in bringing MPrep, because Mprep was designed and created by teachers. So that’s not a barrier for us. The biggest barrier is the cost for students right now. Because it’s too expensive for them to access the service on a regular basis because of the cost of SMS. We are working with two partners so that we can decrease the cost of SMS. Teachers see the value pretty quickly.

So you not under any pressure to create a profit?

We are not worried about the short term aspect of it. We are an educational organization, we are worried about the long term where we are able to create good network of kids. Eventually five years from now we will be able to create a profit.

How does one qualify to be a contributor? Are there qualities that you prefer in a contributor?

To be able to create the content? It’s through referral only. You have to have been trained by KNEC in order to set questions for us. Usually we also ask for people who have been verified by either KEPSHA or UNICEF. And then the final authority a lot of times is me. I go through a lot of the content myself and correct things in it. If its not high quality, then it doesn’t make it.

What about Kiswahili?

Luckily we have a fantastic Kiswahili teacher on our team.

Could you tell us how your product works? How do the students get the quizzes?

If they are registered by their school they can start answering quizzes immediately. They enter a code through SMS, they open up a message through SMS to 8512 to Safaricom. All of those codes are usually given by the teachers. We are going to make them accessible on our websites but kids don’t look at our websites anyway. If they are not registered they send a blank SMS to 8512, it will lead them through the process of registering.

What is your vision for mprep in the coming years?

Our vision, and after talking to the team about this too. What we really want is to become a full educational platform where kids can go for quality content but where also teachers can get data. And for the ability to also save time and energy in the classroom. And we want our reach to be big. I think that kids doing this right in Kenya and the atmosphere we have right here could be a great model for other developing countries. Especially developing countries in Africa.

So you could end up expanding to the african countries?

We plan to do that.

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