Read, Debate: Engage.

iTeachers and Apps in Malawi: Downloading or Downgrading Education?

August 12, 2013
tags:#Africa, #public education
by:FairPlanet Editorial Team
What do you do when there are 80 pupils per class and not nearly enough teachers to go around? One option: download an app.

At Biwi Primary School in Malawi’s capital of Lilongwe, the ‘Unlocking Talent’ Learning Centre is under construction. It is being readied for an all-important evaluation project this autumn, when it will host a range of British academics who will examine a new and potentially revolutionary approach to primary school learning.

The initiative under the spotlight will be an app called ‘Masamu’, which means Mathematics in a number of Southern African languages. Created by EuroTalk, a language learning publisher which has been involved in a not-for-profit project in Malawi for eight years, the app, which can be used on electronic tablets, is designed to help improve numeracy among children in the first two years of primary education.

The software has been translated into the local language, Chichewa, and the app’s colourful interplay provides children fun and engaging ways to learn simple numerical processes. Additionally, in order that students are not held back by limited reading ability, the ‘teacher’ who appears on screen delivers instructions and feedback orally. Good work is rewarded with ticks and stars, with a certificate at the end of each successful quiz.

The software also runs offline, something EuroTalk’s Managing Director Andrew Ashe believes is crucial. “That’s important not just because of the poor bandwidth in places like Malawi”, he says, “but also because children online migrate to the lowest common denominator – they’ll do Angry Birds all day if it’s accessible”.

Since 2010, the Scottish Government has funded EuroTalk’s project with the Malawi Ministry of Education to pilot this tablet technology in 30 primary schools. When he visited the project in Lilongwe earlier this year, the Scottish Education Secretary Michael Russell said that it had “exceeded expectations”.
Malawi’s primary issues

Malawi’s educational challenges are monumental. Reaching the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015 is looking unlikely. Enrolment figures are getting better – rising from 78% to 83% between 2005 and 2009 – but dropout rates remain high. The proportion staying to complete primary school at age 13 is still just 53% for boys and 45% for girls.

When primary education was made free in 1994, attendance boomed, adding over a million students to the school system in a year. But the school system was ill-equipped to cope with the sudden influx and, nearly 20 years later, both teachers and classrooms are still in desperately short supply. Average class sizes are more than twice the Global Campaign for Education’s recommendation of 40, and many are much larger. Some schools have mushroomed in size, with the country’s largest having 33,000 pupils.

Until now, the aid sector has tended to respond to Malawi’s struggling education sector with traditional solutions such as supplying more text books, changing curricula, decreasing class sizes, and building infrastructure. But this could be starting to change.
Simple sums

Some critics of educational initiatives using electronic apps and tablets say that it is ruinously expensive to promote high-tech projects in countries where textbooks and even paper and pens can be unavailable. But proponents say that tablets can provide a more cost-effective and reliable way of delivering the information; that they can easily carry the textbook information as well as bespoke apps; and that they often run on solar power.

Furthermore, while the tablets are still expensive, new tablets costing just $20-$50 are already being made in India. Other cost benefits highlighted include the relatively low cost of scaling up projects and the possibility of using tablets outside classroom situations.

Nicola Pitchford, a psychologist at the University of Nottingham who is carrying out the evaluation of Masamu, says that the successful introduction of tablet technology could revolutionise education in countries such as Malawi, where the traditional models of delivering education are failing. “This can be a real way of providing quality education” she says. “This can be groundbreaking in terms of how tablet technology can be used to spread learning.”
Virtual teachers

Another criticism of such schemes is that they are trying to replace teachers with machines. Sceptics argue that without a teacher guiding the process there cannot be true learning. But Ashe replies that the goal is not to replace teachers but to bring learning opportunities to children who, under current circumstances, don't have access to education.

“With a well-designed programme, the child enjoys the equivalent of one-to-one interactive teaching, even in a crowded classroom”, he says. Lessons are of consistent quality, children set their own pace and progress is easily tracked.

Pitchford agrees that such programmes can enhance rather than replace traditional learning environments. “Tablets can really support child centred learning. The key is to have good software that captures a child’s imagination. The teacher’s time can then be used much more effectively”, she says.

The Malawian Government has already included the tablet initiative in its National Education Sector Plan but much is resting on the results of the evaluation in October. Should the outcome be successful, a further evaluation will take place to work out how to scale up the project, not only to the rest of the country’s 5,000 primary schools, but also to locations where teachers are not present, such as churches, hospitals or at home.

And while Ashe reserves the right to change direction if the results of the evaluation are not encouraging, EuroTalk’s Flickr account ‘One Billion Children’ provides an ambitious target of how many children he believes the technology one day might reach.


This story was originally published by Think Africa Press.

Article written by:
FairPlanet Editorial Team
Editorial Team