When Andrew Ashe volunteered as a teacher in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s, personal computing was just in its infancy, expensive and hardly user-friendly. He can hardly have imagined that more than 30 years later, he’d be helping launch an innovative education project with VSO.
The Unlocking Talent project, launched in September this year, uses tablet computers to accelerate learning in Malawi - hopefully for more than 30,000 children. The company that Andrew founded after his experience as a VSO volunteer, onebillion, produces the education software that is drastically improving school results.
“Even though it was 32 years ago, [volunteering] confirmed to me the massive value of education. When you see children who haven’t got that chance it’s very humbling,” Andrew explains.
“We realise that we, who are the luckiest in the world, who have been given this gift, have to do what we can to bring change.”
Teaching with tech
In Malawi it’s not uncommon for children to have to share a teacher with 100 or more others. Research has shown that the quality of learning in many schools is poor, as demand for schooling has outstripped supply with overcrowded classrooms and a lack of resources.
Andrew notes that even the very best teachers struggle to give children what they deserve in a class of 250:
“Almost none of us would be able to teach with that number of children I am a teacher myself originally and I would find it an impossible situation.”
“USAID said that after a year at school, 93% of children can’t even read one word. It’s an emergency that we address this.”
This is where the Unlocking Talent project comes in. Onebillion is developing maths and learning-to-read apps for tablet computers that give children the instant feedback on their progress and one-to-one instruction that are so difficult to deliver in huge classes.
“Our goal is absolutely clear: we want every child to have these core skills; we want them to be fluent, to be able to write, to be numerate,” Andrew explains.
Though Unlocking Talent has only recently been launched, there is good reason to be excited. Nottingham University’s independent evaluation of our pilot project found children to be making the equivalent of a year’s worth of numeracy progress in just eight weeks using the apps.
For VSO, technology is no magic bullet solution. We are dedicated to building a sufficient workforce of well-trained, motivated teachers in Malawi and other countries – whilst innovating through technological approaches that could allow more children to access quality learning, more quickly and efficiently.
“Where technology has a role is that if you get something that really works and evidence shows that it works, then it is scalable. That’s the way we can move forward quickly, and it is possible to have this massive impact. We couldn’t have done this 20 years ago.”
Technology could help break the cycle of illiteracy on a broad scale, by reaching many children, and by delivering educational equality to girl learners who can pass on a love of reading to any children they raise in later life.
Advice to future volunteers
Andrew’s experiences as a volunteer teacher in Papua New Guinea were certainly formative. He sees volunteering as a turning point that allows the individual to develop a new perspective on life and a more proactive attitude:
“If you volunteer there is one life you will change massively - your own. I think we see this from many VSO volunteers around the world, that it has changed the direction of their own life.
“Go and volunteer. Go with great humility, with two ears and one mouth, and listen and learn from the people you’re working with. Use this as one of the most amazing experiences for you, because it is very likely to affect and inform everything you do from that point on.”
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