The Bridge International Academy (BIA) came across my gaze this week in a feature article from Wired Magazine. Guest edited by Bill Gates, the issue highlights several of his philanthropic investments around the world.
What strikes me about the model of BIA is the conspicuous lack of edtech in the hands of the students. In stark contrast to frequently cited education experiments like Negroponte’s airdrop of tablets into Ethiopia and Sugata Mitra’s similarly hyped computer in a wall experiment, that emphasize the transformative power and compelling nature of computers for the learner, the BIA schools do not give students any new technology at all.
There is edtech, of course, but it is supporting instruction behind the scenes. This global network of schools uses frequent formative pencil and paper assessments, the results of which are compiled into the cloud by school personnel away from the students and assessed at a central office far away, to drive instruction and shape teaching practice.
The results are noteworthy. BIA schools serve more than 50,000 students in Kenya (with plans to expand in Africa and India) and outperform their local neighboring schools on nearly all measures of Reading and Mathematics performance.
I have nothing but praise for the BIA team, founded and directed by former SV entrepreneur Jay Kimmelman, but I do have questions about whether the model would translate to the relatively impoverished and underserved in our industrialized nations. BIA schools are tuition schools. In a place where families make less than two dollars a day, BIA schools charge five dollars per month of tuition. Does this select for a more (relatively) entitled population that is likely to test higher anyway? Does the commitment a family makes when they pay for their child’s education have a psychological effect that increases performance? Regardless of the answers to or relevance of these questions, it seems that BIA is expanding quality education in places where it is scarce, and they are doing it with frequent formative assessment.