While on a church mission trip to Africa in 2015, associate professor of economics Charles Braymen, PhD, CFA, 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 co-workers thought, “There must be a better way.”
So, Braymen returned home and began to search for existing solutions. When he couldn’t find one, he solicited the help of fellow Heider College of Business colleague Dustin Ormond, PhD, assistant professor of business intelligence and analytics. The two professors partnered with Creighton’s Radlab to create a completely new solution. The result of their collective efforts is The BlueBox Project.
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 Many times these textbooks are outdated.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 cell phones.
The BlueBox Project capitalizes on this fact to address the aforementioned concerns. The BlueBox is a simple composite box that houses an inexpensive mini-computer capable of disseminating open-source 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.
Included in The BlueBox Project is a research component that can track which informational resources are used the most by a school or community, thus providing an opportunity to tailor future software installments to meet the needs of those using BlueBox.
The potential impact of The BlueBox Project is staggering, and thus the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) has recognized Braymen and Ormond by highlighting the project as a 2019 Innovation That Inspires. The professors traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, in April to attend the AACSB International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM), where they presented their project to those in attendance and received their honor.
“The other Innovation That Inspires projects were very interesting and would be amazing resources to help aid us in teaching and research. Some of these required millions in capital to implement,” says Ormond. “Seeing our project amidst these other projects was incredible. As attendees came around, I thoroughly enjoyed answering questions and seeing the excitement in others about the prospects of The BlueBox project.
The success of the project, Braymen and Ormond says, stems from its collaborative nature. When the Heider professors approached Creighton’s Radlab in fall 2018, the BlueBox required grid-based electricity. The Radlab was tasked with making it solar powered.
Junior physics and mathematics major Mason Rhodes was interning at Radlab at this time. He says being part of its commitment to The BlueBox Project has been amazing.
“Aside from the technical skills that I learned was the feeling of making a difference,” he says.
“Every obstacle we encountered, and there were many, was overcome with persistence and the desire to provide these educational tools to those in need. Just when we were on the edge of throwing in the towel, we would find some breakthrough to get us back on track,” Rhodes adds.
It takes a village to distribute the BlueBoxes as well. Cue the Faculty-Led Program Abroad (FLPA) program.
The Heider College of Business and the College of Arts and Sciences have developed an interdisciplinary practicum course centered on international development, with students participating in three tracks: technology, business and economics, and Spanish. Students traveled to the Dominican Republic over fall break to deploy BlueBoxes and train teachers in their use.
Within 15 seconds of installing a BlueBox in a remote village in the Dominican Republic, a resident appeared to charge his phone. Cell phones are not exclusive to those living in developed countries. For those living far away from established infrastructures, mobile devices are their only link to more populated villages and cities.
Upon their return, students engaged in a development effort to further enhance the project with ideas of their own. They are currently developing an Android application, have designed an on-BlueBox digital course for use in refugee camps, completed an Institutional Review Board research proposal, and have facilitated a partnership agreement to create one of the first open-source translations of elementary school reading materials in Haitian Creole.
In June, another group of students participating in the FLPA course in Peru will deliver and install charging boxes and computers in the rural district of Ayacucho with the help of Creighton faculty members, Tom Kelly, PhD, professor of theology and director of academic student-learning, and José Miguel Lemus, PhD, associate professor of Spanish.
“After seeing Charles’ group install BlueBoxes in the DR, I realized this was something that could benefit our community partners in Peru,” Kelly says. “So, I approached him. Creighton faculty from various schools and disciplines can and should collaborate for the common good.”
“We are literally sowing seeds of knowledge. Twenty, 30 years from now, someone will remember when she/he discovered science, literature, art… thanks to the digital library contained in BlueBox,” Lemus adds.
Creighton professor emeritus, the Rev. Donald Doll, SJ, visited India over spring break as well, bringing four BlueBoxes with him to the new Jesuit university that the Rev. Paul Coelho, SJ, is establishing for the Khashi people in Meghalaya in the Northeast Kohima province.
“Fr. Coelho was thrilled to get the units because the local indigenous people’s English is not that good,” Fr. Doll says. “It’s incredible that there are 400 English books available.”
Braymen believes the spirit of service at Creighton has been integral to the project’s reach.
“The success of The BlueBox Project is made possible by the collaboration from so many areas of the University. This includes faculty colleagues and academic administrators across several colleges, the Radlab and numerous other individuals from Creighton’s Division of Information Technology and Library Sciences, staff members at the Institute for Latin American Concern and the Academic Service-Learning Office, and so many others,” Braymen says. “Most of all, students here at Creighton have helped to push The BlueBox Project forward in so many directions. It has been great to see them grow in both their academic knowledge and cultural awareness, while also embracing the opportunity to serve others.”
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, 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 the students’ fingertips. Literally.
The BlueBox Project is currently working to advance the underlying technology in the BlueBox and to collaborate with partners to develop educational materials presented in students’ native languages and dialects.
With the means to disseminate information tackled, the only challenge that remains is determining what programming is offered. The possibilities are limitless.