A student on the Unlocking Talent programme smiles as she works on her tablet in Mdzobwe Primary School
Jeff DeKock

How tech is helping improve learning outcomes: Mike Barnes’ story

Mike Barnes enjoyed a 25-year teaching career and was headteacher of four UK primary schools before sharing his expertise as a VSO volunteer. He worked as a headteacher when computers were first rolled out in UK schools, which ignited his interest in understanding how technology can help improve learning outcomes for school children.

In 2017 Mike travelled to Malawi to join VSO’s Unlocking Talent project, providing students with tablet computers loaded with local language numeracy and literacy courses. Here he helped teachers overcome the technical hurdles posed by the tablets, improving the learning potential of thousands of children. In Malawi, where Unlocking Talent has been active since 2013, the pupil to teacher ratio is 74 to one, and the dropout rate at primary age is over 50%. Since it began, the project has shown a 47% improvement in learning gain for children using the tablets, compared to control schools. Here Mike recounts some of his experiences as a volunteer.

VSO education volunteer Mike Barnes. Malawi.
Mike Barnes
Mike Barnes pictured here in Malawi, while working as an education volunteer.

"It was Christmas Eve in 2016 and I saw an email from VSO about volunteering opportunities. I clicked on one role and it evolved from there.

"My family knew I wanted to go and were all very supportive and proud of my decision, though a little apprehensive. I had an interview with the VSO team in Kingston and was very excited about going, and never had any concerns about my safety or worries, I was just focused on getting prepared for the journey. For two months, I was in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, developing technology and writing manuals.

"I then travelled to Mangochi to support teachers with using the tablets in the classrooms.

"We also looked at how the students should access the room and the technology – we asked students to walk in the room one by one, wash their hands in the bowl, take their shoes and bags off and go in. Instead of handing out the tablets to them, we taught them to pass them on from one child to another, learning sharing and teamwork.

"I tended to visit three or four schools a day. When I arrived at a school, sometimes the learning centre would be shut due to a shortage of teachers. I wanted to make sure the learning centre was always being used but the teachers already had 240 students in a class to manage. You can put 30 children in one room with 30 tablets, but you still have 210 students to attend to. But the students were amazing and their grasp of using the technology was stunning. We started with numeracy and then later added literacy to help students learn the local language, Chichewa.

"We built five learning units in the ten schools I supported. The children mastered using the tablets very quickly, even though they’d never seen a tablet before. I have photos of the learning centre windows crowded by children, looking at the 30 children using the tablets, dying to come in. Children would come knocking on teachers’ doors after school asking if they could open the learning centre. Sometimes the teacher would say no, and the students would respond, “You’re depriving us of our education, we want go to the learning centre.”

Teacher
Mike Barnes
A teacher assists a student to complete maths and literacy exercises using a tablet.

"We had one little boy with severe special education needs, there was a photo of him kissing the tablet. Before introducing the technology, he would never go into the classroom, and the teachers would struggle to teach him. When we introduced the tablets, he would sit still for half an hour absolutely glued to this tablet. Technology is a way to encourage children to look at all possibilities and not have a limit on their ambitions.

"All the teachers could see this technology was hugely beneficial and contributing to the children’s learning. The challenge was fitting it in with the teachers’ already full day. As a volunteer, you have to set up an environment which allows change to happen. We created an environment where children sat down with tablets working in absolute silence, without any disruption at all, and you could see the advancements in their education. Seeing this you realised you don’t need to tell children what to do all the time. Create the environment, and then leave them to it, and then they’ll change.

"Volunteering confirmed my belief that it’s all about relationships. It’s about meeting people, sharing your expertise, about kindness, being friendly and having a sense of humour. I made some great friends, and still keep in touch with them. I also still keep in touch with the teachers, even two years since leaving the project. They often pose questions and I’m always happy to offer advice.

"When you volunteer, you have to understand why you want to do it, and you have to be resilient. I came to Malawi to give my expertise and knowledge, as limited as it is – knowledge that people in Mangochi don’t necessarily have. I still volunteer now.

“Everyone should volunteer in one way or another just because of the amazing experience you get

Mike Barnes
Education volunteer in Malawi

"Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve volunteered to take people to hospitals; I can do up to 500 miles a day twice a week taking people across the country. I do it on a voluntary basis, and I enjoy it. Everyone should volunteer. Where else would I get an opportunity to do what I did? I had an amazing time, and I honestly think everyone should do it."

Become a VSO volunteer

The communities we work in need teaching and education professionals with experience of:

  • school management and leadership
  • education in emergencies
  • primary and secondary education
  • literacy and numeracy
  • inclusive education
  • disability education

You can find out more and apply below.

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Mike Barnes

How tech is helping improve learning outcomes: Mike Barnes’ story

In 2017 Mike Barnes, an ex-primary school headteacher, joined VSO’s Unlocking Talent project in Malawi, providing students with tablet computers loaded with local language courses in numeracy and literacy. Read how he helped improve learning outcomes for thousands of children.