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Social entrepreneurs want to make education ‘meaningful and enjoyable’

21:35 02/09/2018
Using valuable knowledge gained in Kenya, young social entrepreneurs are on a mission to match teaching with the needs of the 21st century

The world’s education system is lagging behind the times, says a Flemish social entrepreneur who believes he and his partners have found ways to pull it into the 21st century. “A lot of people are feeling there’s something wrong with our current education system, globally. Education is mostly stuck in the industrial age.”

Jente Rosseel, 26, co-founded education innovation company Elewa. The multi-faceted firm, which began in Kenyan schools and is now also operating in Belgium, aims to combine the benefits of technology – such as tools for assessing large numbers of students – with providing human expertise and “empowerment” for teachers within existing education systems.

The diverse activities of the company range from working directly with teachers in public schools and universities in Kenya, to consultancy for institutions, to running web development “bootcamps” in Brussels and the USA, and coaching professional trainers on how best to teach. 

“What unites them is attempts to update teaching methodologies and the structures of educational organisations to match the needs of the 21st century,” says US computer science educator Evan Cole, the 27-year-old managing director of the company’s Belgian arm, Elewa Education.

Waste of talent

Confident they have tapped into gaps in the market that people want to fill, and with hopes of a new funding announcement on the horizon, they feel they are “on the verge of explosive growth,” said Rosseel (pictured above in white shirt), who named the firm after the Swahili word for “to understand”.

The seeds were planted when, as a final-year engineering student at VUB,  Rosseel completed an internship with a development organisation in Kenya. He observed that the education system wasn’t preparing students for the workplace, with teaching methods that led to “parroting” information rather than  fostering critical thinking. 

“Poor quality education has led to a tremendous waste of talent and potential,” he says. So he and a Kenyan education expert, Mike Kipkorir Bill, decided to jointly set up Elewa to provide tools that aimed to improve results, make learning more enjoyable and relevant, and create a more fulfilling experience for teachers.

Among their services are training guides to help deliver “mind-blowing lessons” and cheap online tools to help teachers – who are often poorly trained and overwhelmed by the volume of classes – rapidly assess large numbers of students and diagnose problem areas. Assistants and facilitators are also sent in to help teachers use the tools and adapt them to their own situations.

After being established in 2015, Elewa was one of the first projects to feature on VUB’s Social Entrepreneurship platform, which provides a free space for people to crowd-source and crowd-fund social start-up ideas. 

The Kenya operation is now growing rapidly, and they are raising funds with the aim of expanding from the five schools they currently work with to operating “across the whole of Kenya in five years.” Rosseel, who grew up in Halle, moved to Kenya this year. 

Over on the Belgian side, Cole said they felt they could better meet the skills needs in the local market with professional tech training, rather than starting their work at school level – although that is being discussed for future projects in the country. So far their web development courses have attracted students from many different career backgrounds, he says.

Accessible, affordable, transparent

“The fact is that now, no matter what you do, you need to at least know about programming, you need to be able to talk to a developer, you need to be confronted with information about the internet and be able to decipher it.”

So they are looking at not just how to teach someone a programming language, he explains, “but  how you then teach them to incorporate those skills back into their work, whether that be marketing or engineering. So it’s not just about tech training.”

While their Brussels bootcamp outfit is currently a private coding school, they plan to develop it into something that is “accessible, affordable and totally transparent,” says Cole, adding that much of what they develop is available on open-source.

“Elewa has expanded in so many ways across three continents and many educational sectors,” says Rosseel, who describes himself as a “versatilist”. “In the beginning, and even as recently as a year ago, I don’t think any of us would have predicted where we would be today. What I can say is that we are a team of passionate people driven by a mission: to make education meaningful and enjoyable for everyone, irrespective of who you are or where you come from. We will keep going until we reach that goal.”

Written by Paula Dear (Flanders Today)