Obami: the virtual learning environment

Social learning site is proving that technology has a place outside the computer studies classroom.
1 November 2011
photo: Sean WilsonBarbara Mallinson, founder of, believes learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom, during school hours., says founder Barbara Mallinson, originally started off as a generic social network, “back in the days when Facebook was still closed. When Facebook became  open to the public, I realised it was either adapt or die, so I went the niche network route and decided to focus on education.”

“This seemed the most obvious choice as schools consist of established real-life networks and – most importantly – there were  no competitors.”

In a world where there is a social network for just about every niche in our lives – professional, recreational and otherwise – it was important for Mallinson to differentiate her idea and to ensure that it didn’t become yet another social network. 

About relationships

“Once I’d realised that there were no social network structures in place for primary and secondary schools, I spent a fair amount of time changing the model, closing it off and addressing security issues. Obviously when it comes to schools and their learners, safety is the primary concern. We also customised for school relationships that form between learners, teachers and parents,” Mallinson continues.

“Learners, especially the younger ones, loved Obami but teachers were more cautious. I realised they needed a hook, something beyond just a tool to connect with their students and this is when the educational component was introduced.”

Education is key

A communications and e-learning platform, utilises social networking tools to connect pupils, teachers and parents. Barbara Mallinson,
An assessment application was introduced and Obami turned its focus to the three cornerstones of education: curriculum (specifically resource distribution), teaching and learning (facilitating the asking of questions, discussion and collaboration), and, lastly, assessment. “This led to Obami being classified as a ‘social learning site’ providing a free and safe platform for schools,” Mallinson says.

“What this means is that Obami is all about social networking in relation to creating a virtual learning environment. We now have a wide range of schools using it – from primary and secondary, private and government schools – they’re all making use of it in ways beyond the scope of what I could have imagined.”

Some top schools have used Obami for resource-sharing, homework, projects and even exams. It’s been used for long-distance learning when pupils are ill or need to travel. So-called ‘township schools’ are using it as an introduction to computers, the internet and social networking, as well as for resource-sharing. South African schools are being linked to schools in the UK, creating the possibility for cross-border learning and sharing.

“Some schools have gone so far as to use it as a marketing tool, creating their own branded resources and making them available to other schools,” continues Mallinson. “I’m particulary proud of one science teacher who has filmed all of her science experiments with the school name and badge being displayed as the credits roll. Her class will be presenting at TEDx-Youth, which is great.”

This teacher is just one example of how Obami can be used to change the classroom dynamic. She has her learners do their lessons as homework and then classtime is used purely for discussion and answering questions.

Obami clearly has the potential to flip the ‘one-to-many’ teaching model around and has created something that’s more interactive, participatory and engaging – a way of encouraging true learning, as opposed to merely being taught.

The Obami breakdown

So what does Obami have to offer? Says Mallinson: “It’s a communications and e-learning platform that utilises social networking tools to connect pupils, teachers and parents. Using Obami, teachers can create and assign homework, worksheets, projects and tests, upload newsletters, photos, videos, class handouts and other resources for their students. Learners can submit homework, collaborate with classmates and stay on top of school events, dates and timetables. Parents can keep abreast of their kids’ homework and progress at school and can interact directly with teachers.

“Obami is safe, free and productive – it brings an educational element to a social network and provides an engaging two-way communications channel to everyone within that network. It’s accessible 24/7, either at home or at school, and can be used on the web or accessed through a mobile phone.”

Online safety

On the issue of safety, Mallinson assures that Obami is a walled garden and that only registered schools are able to join the Obami community. Steps are taken to verify a school’s identity before a registration is approved. If a student makes any connections beyond their closed network, the parents are alerted. There’s also an Online Safety portal that strives to educate users about online safety and ethical behaviour on the internet.

“For the moment, is free for schools, and the basic offering always will be. We’ll be introducing freemium apps in due course,” says Mallinson, “plus partnering with advertisers to provide edutainment content sponsorship, as opposed to blatantly displaying ads. While we can’t reveal the exact nature of these freemium apps just yet, we can say that they will be in keeping with the rest of the Obami ethic – all designed to make the business of teaching and the task of learning easier, more convenient and as interactive as possible.”

‘Obami’ is a derivative of an isiZulu word meaning ‘my or mine’. A Zulu prince once told Mallinson that Obami also means ‘the destiny of humankind’. currently has over one hundred schools registered, with more than 13 000 users present on the network and Mallinson welcomes the challenge of scaling up and bringing on board more schools across the globe.