by Joanne Carew

Q&A: Using cloud, data to supercharge African education

Apr 19, 2020
Big DataCloud ComputingEducation Industry

Prudence Louw moved into tech from a career in photography and is now pushing traditional education into the digital era by leveraging data to focus on user experience. rn

education / abstract technology imagery / laptop / keyboard / circuits / graduate / certificate
Credit: Monsitj / Getty Images

Johannesburg-based ed-tech startup, IDEA Digital Education, deploys interactive and data-driven educational content to thousands of students. As the CIO at IDEA Digital, Prudence Louw ensures that the students and teachers using their interactive digital education content platform have the best experience. This isn’t always easy. With users living across different regions, some with low or no connectivity, often sharing devices and with limited infrastructure and restricted resources, providing a standardised, seamless user experience can be a challenge.

So, what does it take to challenge to change career and shake up the traditional education status quo? We chatted to Louw to find out. 

You have a background in photography and microbiology and now you find yourself in tech management – how did you get here?

prudence louw Prudence Louw

Prudence Louw is CIO of Idea Digital, an education tech startup based in Johannesburg.

I’ve always wanted to do work that has a positive impact on the lives of others, especially marginalised communities. While I was working at Gallo Images, I heard about the work that Dr Corrin Varady, the CEO at IDEA, was doing and I made the switch. I started out as head of production, leading a team of animators, graphic designers and coders. During this time, I started to get curious about how end users are using our platform to learn. Sure, I was keen to create amazing content but I quickly became interested in the technology behind this content and how our solutions can be bettered to improve user outcomes.

Were there any projects that convinced you (and your superiors) that you could make the move?

I am the kind of person who just throws myself, head and feet, into everything. I did loads of on-the-job learning with our CTO to find out more about what we do, especially from a technical perspective. And I also did a fair amount of research on my own. What convinced everyone else that I could do this job? Well, back in 2017, we embarked on large-scale numeracy and literacy testing to assess student competencies before designing our platforms so that we could effectively measure our impact. We tested over 45,000 students over a six week period and at times we had around 6,000 students working on our platform at the same time. I had to make sure that our servers didn’t crash, that our app was running smoothly and that we were maintaining the integrity of the data we were mining because there were so many calls being made to the server every second. The testing was successful and we were able to generate valuable results from all 45,000 students, which formed the baseline of some of the assessments we now have on our platform.

What business and tech initiatives do you think will have the most significant this year?

Data is obviously important; it’s on everyone’s lips. We collect extensive data – beyond student results, we track everything from how students navigate through the application to how long they spend on a page. We also track their behaviour so that we can get a feel for how much they’ve engaged with the content and this information informs further product development. As part of this, we even monitor the number of clicks on a page and have hotspots on some of our content so that we can identify and remedy any potential gaps in the material. Cloud is also a big one for us. Cloud technologies have changed how our business runs. We are hosted on Microsoft Azure. Because we have so many simultaneous users, the speed of the network is critical for us. We have to deliver content to user devices with no delay. High-speed networks and load balancing make this possible. The recent launch of local data centres has also made this easier. Our approach to learning is very self-paced, which is especially important right now during the coronavirus pandemic because students can work through the material at a speed they are comfortable with. We are looking at developing this further, using AI and adaptive learning, so that each student’s user journey is unique. I can’t elaborate too much on this just yet. Finally, given the recent shifts caused by COVID-19, we’re also working on an offline/hybrid platform so that those with low or no connectivity can access the content. This means we will incorporate our full cloud infrastructure into something like a Raspberry Pi.

Tell us about some of the technology projects you’ve implemented?

We’ve always focused on developing very student-driven, structured content. But last year, I spent a lot of time creating what I like to call the Spotify of education assets. Designed for those with limited resources, it’s essentially a cloud-based education “playlist” of all our education assets. Teachers can search for resources and compile their lessons using this learning material. In doing this project, I found myself constantly coming back to the end user and trying to put myself in their shoes. This perspective is essential because everything we develop has to meet our customers where they’re at. For example, when most of us download an app onto our phone or laptop, we’ll personalise the app based on our usage preferences. But when speaking to our users we found out that many of our teachers share devices. So we had to look at how information is stored on devices so that each time a different teacher logs into the device, any previous sessions will be expired immediately. So we spent a lot of time on the data encryption and storage aspects of the playlist. As mentioned earlier, this platform also had to have an offline function so that it can be used when connectivity is unreliable.

 What is some of the best career advice you have ever received?

Anything is possible. I just have to look at how my own career path has morphed and changed. But one needs to be proactive and invest time and energy into making the changes you want to make. It’s so important to keep learning, to speak to people and ask questions. For me, it has always been a case of try and try again.  

Any advice you’d like to give to aspiring IT leaders, particularly young women?

Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by what you think the industry is like. Male dominated, unwelcoming and super technical. There really are countless opportunities in tech. I think so many of us still have a perception about what a career in tech looks like. It’s not just sitting behind a computer developing software all day. There are different segments and spheres that may suit you. It’s important to do your research and see where you can find your fit. Tech firms also need people who are more creative are or who have business skills. Everything is more dynamic that it used to be.