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Outside the Box: Heider, RaD Lab collaboration nets affordable educational technology for world's remote areas

Creighton President the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson, SJ, left, and Heider College of Business professor Charlie Braymen, PhD, CFA, charge mobile devices and check out the tens of thousands of educational materials that can be accessed through the BlueBox affixed outside Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library. The BlueBox is a collaboration between Heider and the RaD Lab to create affordable technology for charging and educational access.For being an economist, Charlie Braymen’s desk more closely resembles the workbench of a tinkerer — albeit one of the 21st century type — replete with small circuit boards and electronic bits, washers, nuts, bolts, and all the tools necessary to fit these components together.

“It looks a little crazy right now,” says Braymen, PhD, CFA, an associate professor in Creighton University’s Heider College of Business. “But we’re almost done with the box. We’re about ready for the trial run.”

The box is the Creighton BlueBox, a technological, educational and philanthropic enterprise jointly undertaken by Braymen, the Heider College of Business and the RaD Lab, Creighton’s main incubator for innovation. With the components scattered on Braymen’s desk and the developmental work done by the RaD Lab, the box, a simple composite plastic box, is a one-stop charging station for devices and a wireless hotspot through which educational materials — commensurate to about 10,000 webpages — can be accessed on mobile devices and tablets, potentially revolutionizing education and the general dissemination of knowledge in parts of the world where textbooks are a rarity.

A prototype of the box was installed outside the Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library on Nov. 3, and Braymen plans to fly to the Dominican Republic the week of Thanksgiving to install another Blue Box in a remote village where electricity and internet access do not exist. The whole apparatus is powered via a solar panel attached to a battery similar to that found in a car, meaning interruptions on the electrical grid won’t be as crippling a problem as they typically are for people who rely on cellphones and tablets for contact with the outside world.

The journey to the first Creighton BlueBox began when Braymen was on a mission trip to Tanzania in southeastern Africa. While there, Braymen learned the paramount place a smartphone has in the lives of people living on the margins of infrastructure, and how schools with few resources stretch what little they do have past the limits.

“When the electricity can be out for days at a time, a cell phone can be a lifeline,” he said. “And when 10 students are gathered around a single textbook or tablet, and that tablet is reliant on the electrical grid to access the internet, and the internet is enormously expensive, I just got to thinking there has to be a better way.”

Looking for an affordable, sustainable means of keeping phones on and kids learning, Braymen encountered World Possible, a nonprofit organization maintaining a series of open-source educational websites — tens of thousands of them offering information on everything from learning basic math to managing livestock to building a greenhouse.

“If a village doesn’t have a doctor — and many of the remote ones do not — you can find basic health care information,” Braymen said. “Beyond that, a lot of schools in this world don’t have access to updated textbooks, don’t have access to the number of textbooks they need in a class with 10, 15, 20 students. To be able to install this device in the middle of a village, make it solar-powered and get students access, there’s huge potential here for learning.”

For under $400 for the box with solar equipment, Braymen, with his economist’s purview, imagines the BlueBox could be an efficient, sleek alternative to potentially pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the latest hardware and internet streaming services that are intermittent at best in the world’s far-flung regions.

All Braymen had to do was figure out a way to get the websites in the hands of the people — mostly by ensuring a power source and a means to making sure the content was always available and could be supported on at least 10 to 12 devices at any one time.

These are just the kinds of problems in which the RaD Lab specializes.

There, Steve Maaske, an innovation analyst, and Josh Nichols, a senior studying multimedia journalism and digital development, lunged into the project.

“I was immediately excited about it because it’s one of those projects where you can see an end result that is enormously helpful to people,” Maaske said. “When Charlie came to us and talked about the light in people’s eyes when they had access to this content, we couldn’t wait to get started. Even before it was assigned, the interns and I were building out the basics for the prototype.”

Loading the open-source World Possible software onto a playing-card sized computer — the Raspberry Pi card — and wiring eight USB ports inside a composite plastic box, Maaske and Nichols completed an initial prototype of the BlueBox in August. Also in August and aided by a Heider College of Business summer grant, Braymen traveled to the Dominican Republic with tablets and did training sessions on using the World Possible software for 40 teachers through the Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC).

With a few refinements in consultation with Braymen, Maaske and Nichols have cooked up version 2.0 of the BlueBox, now affixed to the stone latticework outside the library, and the version Braymen will take to the D.R. in a few weeks and a future trip to Tanzania.

“We’re hoping students will use it and see its value,” Maaske said. “And in doing that, they’ll be helping us ask the questions we need to answer when this thing goes with Charlie down to the D.R. Will it stand up under conditions? Can it handle the demand? Everything about this is testing it out.”

Moreover, Nichols said he’s interested in a research component Braymen has attached to the device in to examine which informational resources are used most by the school, thereby offering an opportunity to hone further software on the BlueBox.

“That’s the part that’s more interesting to me,” Nichols said. “I’ve seen so many efforts like this start up, but they get kind of crushed under their own volume. I want to make sure we’re providing exactly the kind of information and educational material that people want and need so that the next time we do this, we’ve got it more catered for them and that we’re being efficient with their time. The potential is there to grow this quite a bit.”

Braymen is also hopeful the research will streamline the process. Next fall, he also envisions a practicum course in international development that would tackle technology and development and help expand the BlueBox program. Students would take a fall break trip to the Dominican Republic to see the device in action, deploy more boxes, and help train teachers.

“I want to see students from business, from Spanish, from business information and analytics — an interdisciplinary team that deploys the technology and gets deep into it and reflecting on it, coming up with better ideas than I’ve had here,” Braymen said. “And I hope out of that practicum course we’re developing a sustainable program to carry forward and that uses the unique skill our students have acquired at Creighton. It speaks to the overall mission of the University.”

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