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©Lucy Vigrass

How tablet technology is transforming learning in southern Africa

VSO and onebillion's 'Unlocking Talent' project is bringing one-to-one learning to schools in Malawi. Chris Moss reports on the ground-breaking scheme being rolled out across the country. 

Biwi primary school in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, has 3,000 pupils and class sizes often exceed 100. There’s rarely sufficient classroom space and some children have to sit on the floor. Others have to do their learning outside.

For teachers at Biwi primary school, managing classes and delivering effective lessons are a big challenge. But, in a small classroom on the edge of the school, a group of seven-year-olds are lost in concentration, engrossed in what looks like a game that guides them through the basics of addition and multiplication. They’re quiet. They’re engaged. They’re learning.

Unlocking Talent Through Technology class in Malawi ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

Prince Mfumuwayo is busy listening to instructions as he does class exercises on his tablet during the Unlocking Talent Through Technology class session at Biwi Primary School in Malawi.

In 2013, this school was chosen to pilot Unlocking Talent, an ‘edtech’ (educational technology) project between VSO and non-profit organisation onebillion. The project’s main learning tool is the tablet (wireless portable personal computer with a touchscreen), installed with bespoke learning apps in the local language (Chichewa) tailored to the numeracy, literacy and ESL (English as a second language) goals of the Malawian curriculum.

“It has made teaching simple,” says Stembile Naming’ona, 25, a teacher who has worked at Biwi since the project was introduced. “We take around 23 children at a time to have one-to-one time with the tablet. Each class is around 30 minutes long. It helps them to understand numeracy and reading; for example, one exercise gives them numbers to arrange in order.          

  “Lessons are taught at a good pace. The students participate really well and they are very attentive - in other lessons it tends to be very noisy. Students are rarely absent because they don’t want to miss those classes,” she continues.

Since January 2017, the Chichewa language app, designed for pupils with no previous language skills, is providing one-to-one learning and has introduced students to sounds, letters, syllables and a graded library of stories. Children receive praise and rewards, such as certificates, at each step.

Progress is recorded on low-power servers, and education managers and other stakeholders can access the data remotely to track student development. At schools that adopt Unlocking Talent, a dedicated solar-powered learning centre is built to power the tablets, as many rural schools do not have electricity.

Unlocking Talent Project in Malawi ©Lucy Vigrass

VSO's Unlocking Talent project is being delivered across schools in Malawi.

Fred van den Brug, 53, from Enschede in the Netherlands, worked in two rural districts of Malawi, Dedza and Ntcheu, as a VSO volunteer teacher from August 2015 until last month. He has witnessed how Unlocking Talent has opened up a completely new way of learning for pupils and teachers.

“Before Unlocking Talent, most of the children that went to school were unable to read, write and do mathematics after four years of primary education. We witnessed our learners began to learn quickly, were more motivated to come to school, and were enjoying the tablet lessons,’ he explains.  

He feels that with good training for teachers and educators, the potential of Unlocking Talent is vast. “It’s a very powerful programme that can change the next generation’s future completely.”

Malawi is one of the least developed countries in the world. In 2013, per capita income was $270 (per year), and it ranked 174 of 186 countries surveyed by the United Nations Human Development Index. About 28% of the 18m population is enrolled in primary education, including many children over the age of 13, some schools have 8000 students. And it’s against this backdrop that Unlocking is enabling children to experience one-to-one learning.

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Pupils in Unlocking Talent class in Malawi ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

Pupils concentrate in their lessons on their respective tablets during the Unlocking Talent Through Technology class session at Ngwenya Primary School in Malawi.

Jimmy Kadongola, 39, senior programme manager (education) for VSO, outlines the challenge faced by schools and teachers. “The country is poor and resources are scarce. Malawi’s overstretched school system fails to provide students with quality education at basic grade levels. With only one teacher to every 60 pupils, and class sizes often exceeding 100 pupils, even the best educators struggle to deliver lessons that engage every student,” he says.

“Malawi’s youthful population is one of our most precious assets. Delivering quality primary education to 6 to 13-year-old girls and boys is of strategic importance if the country wants to raise itself out of poverty,” he continues.

Unlocking Talent project in Malawi ©VSO

The 'Unlocking Talent' project uses tablet computers and apps to improve numeracy, literacy and English. 

Unlocking Talent’s role in primary education in Malawi is expanding rapidly - as of July 2017, the project operated in 72 schools across nine districts, reaching more than 20,000 children and it’s secured funding that will see one-to-one tablet-learning become available to 55,000 children in 130 schools across 14 districts. In April, Malawi’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology assumed responsibility for Unlocking Talent and is integrating it into the national curriculum.

“Technology can provide the scalability necessary to meet the needs of an increasingly large number of learners as well as cost-effective access to a large quantity of teaching and learning materials,” says Vicki Shimizu, VSO’s digital education manager in Malawi.

“As the cost of the technology decreases and electricity and Internet infrastructure in Malawi improves, this project is providing the ground work and learning in the use of education technology that is vital to meet the country’s educational needs.”

Find out more at https://unlockingtalent.org. You can also read more about the Unlocking Talent project and watch a video on how VSO's Unlocking Talent project featured on the BBC's Click programme here