Alison Anniversary Interviews: Origene Igiraneza

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Alison Anniversary Interviews: Origene Igiraneza

Origene Igiraneza is the CEO of O’Genius Priority, a Rwandan education technology company he founded in 2014 while still in university. O’Genius Panda, the company’s flagship educational platform, was selected by the UN Sustainable Development Solution Network as one of most innovative global youth-led solutions for advancing the Sustainable Development Goals. 

O’Genius Panda allows students to perform science experiments remotely and thus gain valuable practical knowledge. The platform is accessible anytime, anywhere through digital devices and, over the last year, it has become a cornerstone of the Rwandan Ministry of Education’s remote learning programme, allowing thousands of children to access high quality education for free during the pandemic. 

What inspired you to choose a career in education?

The motivation for my career was based on the challenges of my personal experience. During my time at secondary school, I spent the first three years without any access to digital technology and without access to materials that we needed to understand some of the courses we were taking. We were without access to the resources that would have helped us excel. That always resonated with me and I wondered how I might change the status quo.

Then I went to university and I remember, in my first month, we were studying in the workshops. Now the resources were all there but no one was telling me how they worked. We were studying, theoretically, those things which I should already have been familiar with. I could see I was at a disadvantage and it made me think about how my schooling might have been different. I started thinking about how technology might be used to resolve some of these issues – the scarcity and expense of certain learning materials, the lack of digital learning content, the issue of accessibility.

When our company began working on the product O’Genius Panda, 78% of secondary schools in Rwanda still didn’t have access to science laboratories. Yet these schools were still teaching science subjects. The students were graduating without getting the chance to enter the lab and were then supposed to pass the national practical examination in science. It just wasn’t fair. Some students walked to better schools just to be able to conduct some experiments but how often can they be expected to do this and how much are they really learning under such conditions?

So the motivation was, how do we make quality educational resources accessible to everyone across the nation? How can I use the skills that I have and the technology that I love to impact as many people as possible and for generations to come?

What’s your proudest achievement in the education sector?

There have been a lot of achievements. Right now our platform has reached over 20,000 learners across the nation. We’re reaching users from over 500 schools across all districts in Rwanda. This isn’t something we take for granted. Students who use O’Genius Panda have testified that it helped to increase their academic performance by 10% on average, compared to how they were performing before starting to use the platform. It’s also very inspiring for us to see that the platform has been visited by people from 109 countries across the world.

During the pandemic period, the platform became one of the cornerstones for education in Rwanda. We were humbled to work in partnership with the Ministry of Education, the Rwandan Education Board and the Mastercard Foundation to advance accessibility and to make education available to all of the kids who needed it. The schools were closed for over 8 months but, through our platform, students could continue to learn and access materials as if they were still in school. Though they were in a homeschool set up, they could still learn and have access to teachers to support them and to a community in which they could share. It has really made an impact in terms of making sure that thousands of teenage students, who might otherwise be exposed to drug abuse or other distractions, could focus on learning and access a platform where they could keep up their studies.

What has been the most important development you’ve witnessed in education in your professional lifetime?

In a country like ours, which is still developing, there are so many things that are currently changing, but the biggest change is the one happening in mindset. You find that many people still don’t understand the role of technology in supporting children’s education, including teachers, parents, school representatives, even some students. You still find teachers who believe that the only way to deliver a class is by using chalk on a blackboard. You also find that some parents can’t believe that a kid can learn on a computer or on their phone and get the same quality of education that they could get when sitting in front of a teacher. I’m not undermining the presence of a teacher or of face-to-face learning but there are other alternatives that people can leverage.

This shift in mindset in which parents understand that their child can learn from anywhere is really important. It has meant that parents have started supporting their kids by paying for subscriptions for certain educational resources and purchasing devices so they can keep up their studies. It’s been a fascinating shift because before, if you asked a parent to give their kid a phone, they’d only think in terms of social media or things that were going to distract them as opposed to focusing them on learning. But over time, they have accepted that there are alternative learning models that young people can access.

I really advocate this model because when a young person is given access to technology at an early age, they don’t just use it to learn the skills that they are being taught but they also learn how to use technology effectively. If we look to the future, the skills that will be needed are mostly based on technology. We need to prepare young people so that they will be competent and know how to make technology work for them.

Why is free education so important in addressing global inequality?

I believe it’s important to support people who are coming from an underprivileged background to get a quality education so they can improve their lives. If you ask a parent in a rural area who is struggling to pay for health insurance for their child to pay tuition or to pay for an online resource, they’re not going to consider that. It’s not going to be one of their priorities. There needs to be support for people who are living in poverty-stricken or rural areas who need access to tools and resources to get an opportunity to learn. That’s where development partners need to come in so that these kids can have access to the materials that they need to shape their own lives.

 

Why do you think that digital learning has been such a game changer when it comes to democratising education?

Online education is a game-changer when you think of its scalability, portability, accessibility, flexibility, and affordability. These factors highlight the importance of digital learning and online resources versus in-place learning. Learning is longer defined by the four walls of the classroom. It can happen anywhere, as you can now access quality education without necessarily attending a classroom from morning to evening. The flexibility of this alternative is the beauty of technology.

In countries like Rwanda, we have few qualified and trained teachers, who are only available in elite schools. How might it be possible that these teachers could reach as many young people as possible, without overwhelming that teacher and without asking the children to move around? This is possible through technology, as one teacher can now reach thousands of children. Technology plays a huge role in making sure there is an equal distribution of resources.

What in your opinion is the most pressing educational issue globally?

There is an issue with old-fashioned teaching styles and practices. You find that some of the ways people are teaching do not reflect how the current generation is willing to learn. This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed by education systems as it hinders the motivation for learners.

This goes hand-in-hand with the issue of some teaching materials not being up-to-date. If a curriculum remains static and isn’t updated, then this affects the skills that learners are graduating with. If an education system is not dynamic and flexible, then learners find that the skills they have acquired are no longer what is needed by the labor market and this frustrates them.

If you were to recommend one online course to our Learners, what would it be and why?

I think everyone has their own individual motivation and inspiration to learn. So it’s hard to say that any one course would work for everyone. As they say, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its lifetime thinking it’s stupid and I don’t want to put anybody into that category. What I would do is advise learners to choose something that is cross-cutting, something that you can use not only in your professional life but also something that will contribute to your interpersonal relationships. Also something that is flexible, so that if you change career you can still use the knowledge that you have acquired.

I think something like Customer Service Skills falls into that category. Developing Customer Service skills means also developing negotiation skills, marketing skills, and learning how to take care of others as you try and make sure the customer is satisfied and feels valued. These skills are important because they can help you improve your communication skills and even your public speaking. All of these are lifetime skills which you can use anywhere, regardless of your workplace.