Students using touch pad laptops.
Michael Conteh

How technology is improving early grade children’s learning in Sierra Leone

VSO has implemented the Unlocking Talent through Technology project in Sierra Leone to improve and accelerate learning outcomes for children in early years education. At its core, the project uses innovative education technology to help overcome the education challenges that hold learners back.

In 2018 the Sierra Leone government committed to a universal primary education but was challenged by the lack of the suitable infrastructure to implement it. A shortage of schools, trained teachers and a scarcity of learning resources meant children often failed to obtain basic foundational literacy and numeracy skills. The Unlocking Talent project, previously implemented in Malawi and other countries, helps to address these challenges.

In collaboration with the Sierra Leone government, Save the Children, local teachers and school leaders, VSO brings together the implementation, technical and research expertise to improve teaching methods in the country’s primary schools, expand teaching resources, and ensure that teachers are confident in using the technology to improve children’s learning.

Michael Conteh, a Sierra Leonean aged 31 years, joined the Unlocking Talent project as a volunteer Community Engagement Specialist in January 2021. In his role, he focused on mobilising and engaging the community, ensuring they are an integral part of the project and, together with international volunteers, supporting teachers in overcoming any challenges in using the technology in the classroom.

Here in his own words Michael describes his experience on the Unlocking Talent project.

Michael Conteh, VSO volunteer, and his wife. Sierra Leone.
Michael Conteh,
Michael with his wife Elizabeth.

"I came across a VSO job advertisement for a Community Engagement Specialist in November 2020 just before my wedding. The vacancy offered an opportunity to volunteer in schools as a teacher trainer, coaching and mentoring teachers on the Unlocking Talent through Technology project. I shared the job advertisement with my now wife and was excited to try my luck and apply for the role. It felt like the wedding had opened the door for me to be able to create positive impact and see a change in the community and I remember thinking to myself that this was the place I ought to be due to VSO’s core principles and ‘people first’ approach.

"The job took me out of my comfort zone. I was from Makeni, the northern part of Sierra Leone and the placement took me all the way to the southeast of the country. I had never left Makeni in my entire life before. It really gave me the opportunity to let go and start afresh. It also pushed me be adaptable: as a Sierra Leonean, the culture and language were all unfamiliar territory to me and the people I worked with could see that I wasn’t from there.

"However, I received an induction in my district prior to my placement, which helped me see how I can best relate to people. I came away from the whole experience much more resilient.

Michael with Class 1 teachers at a learning exchange visit. Ngiehun.
Michael Conteh
Michael with Class 1 teachers at a learning exchange visit. Ngiehun.

"I went to St Francis School in Makeni, Northern Province as a volunteer teacher. My role as a community engagement specialist, entailed putting our primary actors at the centre of everything we do. We mobilised and engaged people, and supported the distribution of tablets /headphones /projectors and stickers for the billboards to highlight that it's an intervention school so that the communities feel part of the project. 

"I worked together with international volunteers who were experts when it came to technology, explaining to the teachers how it can improve learning. It was a collaborative process, with the international volunteers transferring technical knowledge to us, while we gave knowledge to them with regards to our culture, our way of life, and what works and doesn’t work within the community.

"We would wake up in the morning, go to the schools, check the student’s access to the technology and liaise with the teachers to see if what has been taught is being applied in practice. We would also engage with the community stakeholders on any key issues. We would collect their responses, come back to the office and draft reports if there were an area for follow up.

"This is the very first time in West Africa that digital education technology has been used to enhance learning outcomes, especially with regards to maths and English. When we started, I was very optimistic to see what the outcome of this project will be and the feedback I’ve collected and analysed has been positive.

"There was one particular day that stayed with me. I heard the kids singing what they had learnt from the tablet. I thought to myself 'Wow, for the very first time in Sierra Leone kids are using technology to learn. They’re following the teacher’s instructions and absorbing everything.' It’s an incredibly empowering moment when you see that breakthrough.

“Wow, for the very first time in Sierra Leone kids are using technology to learn. They’re following the teacher’s instructions and absorbing everything.”

Michael Conteh
National volunteer, Unlocking Talent project. Sierra Leone.
Primary school students working with laptops. Yendema. Sierra Leone.
Michael Conteh
Students working with tablet computers. Primary school, Yendema.

"Volunteer teachers lacked the formal training and some of them have not had the opportunity to use a touch tablet before, but they have really come into their own and now they can solve technical issues. You can see their commitment to the project succeeding. It has brought about increased enrolment, where previously pupils were in and out of school or parents would instead take their children to farm, demonstrating the importance of community engagement. Retention has also improved because the children hope to get to use the technology, so we're stepping in the right direction as a team.

"Whilst I have a master’s degree in Education Administration and Leadership and a bachelor’s degree in Education, the support and feedback from colleagues on the project and being in the field is what helped me rediscover myself most. I was very pleased with being paired with an international volunteer, a very good friend of mine now, and who is now working for VSO in Malawi.

"We were able to develop by learning from each other’s approaches. It helped me evolve as a person and I'm seeing huge improvement to my confidence, self-esteem, and my ability to coexist with other people in harmony. I hardly used to mingle with different people so coming here has given me the opportunity to get to know new people and mix.

“It is a fantastic experience to wake up every day knowing that you are creating an impact in people's lives.”

Michael Conteh
National volunteer, Unlocking Talent project. Sierra Leone.
Michael explains Unlocking Talent to the Deputy Minister of Education Madam Elivina Grogera.
Michael Conteh
Michael explains the Unlocking Talent programme to the Deputy Minister of Education.

"The respect, the space and the platform given by VSO to us as volunteers to showcase our talents stands out to me. We respect each other and have a strong collaborative ethos in the team. You cannot tell who the boss is. I'm not surprised that people respond well to us. You feel like you are one. You are equals, and you're all working together towards the same goal. 

"VSO volunteers accept the community for who they are, we believe in them, we are there to work for them. They are not there to serve us - we are there to serve them. I’m excited to see what the future holds and wish to stay on with VSO."

Thinking of volunteering with VSO?

If you’re interested in volunteering with us, we’d love to hear from you. VSO continually recruits experienced education professionals to support our education programmes in Asia and Africa.

Check out our current education volunteering opportunities

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