Innovations That Inspire

The BlueBox Project

Recognition Year(s): 2019
School: Heider College of Business, Creighton University
Location: United States

Innovation Statement

Through the BlueBox Project, students and faculty develop and deploy open-source educational materials through electricity- and solar-powered computers and charging stations located in remote regions worldwide.

Call to Action

While on a church mission trip to Africa in 2015, Charlie Braymen was trying to install educational software in six less-than state-of-the-art computers at a school in Northern Tanzania. A task that should have taken a few hours took over two days—and only two computers were functioning a week later. Frequently during the process, Braymen and his coworkers thought, “There must be a better way.” So Braymen began to search for existing solutions and created his own when needed.

Numerous regions of the world do not have access to current educational materials. Full classrooms of children frequently share a handful of textbooks or simply rely on notes taken from a chalkboard. Often, available textbooks can only be viewed at a library after class, with students taking turns accessing information. Many times these textbooks are outdated. Electronic information is equally sporadic. Internet connections are spotty, and power outages render functioning wireless devices useless.

But what isn’t lacking, even among the remotest of populations, are cellphones. The BlueBox Project capitalizes on this fact to address the isue of access to educational materials. The BlueBox is a simple composite box that houses an inexpensive mini-computer capable of disseminating open-source (free to use, modify, and/or give away) educational materials to anyone with a cell phone. In areas without electricity, a solar version can be deployed with USB ports to charge tablets and other wireless devices.

Innovation Description

Within the BlueBox is a simple Raspberry Pi, a low-cost (35 USD) mini-computer board just a little larger than playing cards. It can host an array of educational webpages, e-books, and videos designed by a variety of open-source providers, including World Possible’s RACHEL digital library, the learning management system Moodle, Wikipedia for Schools, and Kahn Academy. A solar version of the BlueBox with USB charging ports for mobile devices has been deployed in areas with little or no access to electricity.

Colleagues Dustin Ormond and José Miguel Lemus, as well as Creighton's RaDLab, have joined the BlueBox Project to help it grow in numerous directions. Included in the BlueBox Project is a research component that can track which informational resources are used the most by a school or community, providing an opportunity to tailor future software installments to meet the needs of those using BlueBox.

The Heider College of Business has developed an interdisciplinary practicum course centered on international development, with students participating in three tracks: technology, business and economics, and Spanish. Students travel to the Dominican Republic to deploy BlueBoxes and train teachers in their use. Upon their return, students engage in a development effort to further enhance the project with ideas of their own. Students are currently developing an Android application, have designed an on-BlueBox digital course for use in refugee camps, completed an IRB research proposal, and have facilitated a partnership agreement leading to one of the first open-source translations of elementary school reading materials in Haitian Creole.

Innovation Impact

Within 15 seconds of installing a solar-powered charging box and computer—a BlueBox—in a remote village in the Dominican Republic, a resident appeared to charge his phone. Cellphones are not exclusive to inhabitants of developed countries; those living far away from established infrastructures also have cellphones. These mobile devices are their only link to more populated villages and cities, but the use of phones can be limited by lack of electricity and cellular service, and by the high relative cost of data.

As with most technological innovations, the implications of the BlueBox Project are boundless. Education is a path out of poverty. If people have access to educational materials via a reliably powered source, then it will be possible to “attend” high school in a sub-Saharan African village, earn a college degree in a refugee camp, and learn English in a marginalized town in India. Learning, and the advancement that stems from learning, will not hinge on physically attending a school and hoping there are enough textbooks to go around. Education will be at students’ fingertips. Literally. And for those villages without doctors, having access to basic health information is potentially lifesaving.

Future applications of BlueBox include the creation of an app, like Kindle; development of an English language course; and crafting of reading curricula presented in students’ native language and dialect, such as Haitian Creole. With the means to disseminate information tackled, the only challenge that remains is determining what programming is offered. The possibilities are limitless.

Reference Links

Innovation Partners

Jesuit Worldwide Learning (JWL); Yspaniola; Northern Diocese of the Lutheran Church of Tanzania; Codevi | Grupo M; Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC)