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Sub-$100 tablet could lead Africa learning revolution

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Many African pupils leaving schools these days lack the skills to secure them a place in the job market. RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD of Smart Monkey TV speaks to Mark Bennett of iSchools about a sub-$100 tablet that will be launched in Zambia.

Many African schools are failing their pupils. Through a combination of lack of resources, low teaching skills and many other factors, the students who come out at the other end do not have the skills and understandings required. In a fortnight’s time iSchools in Zambia will launch a tablet or under US100 pre-loaded with the curriculum for schools and parents. I talked to its founder Mark Bennett about what it wants to do.

Zambia has 8,800 schools, 500 of which cover the full secondary syllabus. The majority of these schools are in rural areas. Access to Internet is fairly widespread but as with electricity, not always reliable. Nationally, only 17% of the population have access to electricity. 60% of primary schools have no power. Most children are without text books. Eighty per cent of children leave school functionally illiterate and with poor numeracy skills.

iSchools was set up by Mark Bennett as the CSR programme of the ISP he ran, Africonnect. After it was bought by Vodacom, he decided to take the organization independent and devote his full energies to it. Initially, it did two things: firstly, it spent time translating the secondary curriculum into eight local languages with localized audio-visual material: and secondly, it delivered this to a set of pilot schools using Intel Classmates, Wi-Fi and solid state, local servers.

When the Internet was working, the server would update itself with any new materials generated by iSchools. Whilst successful in terms of its education objectives, it had some obvious weak spots. It needed electricity all day and if someone ‚”kicked the server by mistake‚” the whole system went down. It was pretty robust but not yet robust enough.

A year ago it decided to switch its delivery strategy:‚”If we wanted to be able to hit the big numbers, we would be able to do so using tablets the ZeduPad – costing under US$100 each. Sourced from China, these have a 7 inch screen and 32 GB of memory and are solar chargeable. They can work without the need for the Internet and the battery lasts for a very long time‚”.

‚”Also, you can add stuff that’s useful for the local community on them like things about agriculture and health. The Internet is nice to have but not essential. If a tablet fails, you can send it back to Lusaka and we can send another one. It’s tightly locked down so you can’t add apps but this means there’s less chance things will get messed up.‚”

The new strategy came out of a 15 school pilot, with training for teachers, and full monitoring and evaluation. It is targeting the tablets at two main audiences: teachers and school students and parents:‚”The key to selling to schools is getting financing. If they can pay over 30 months it’s going to be possible. We’ve been working with donors and banks to get low interest rates of 5%.‚”

It has a big order from UNICEF schools in the Western Province and when it launches in a fortnight’s time, the tablets will be in 25 schools and owned by hundreds of individual. The Government is considering a purchase proposal of 1,000 machines:‚”People are beginning to see the link between things like tablets and smart phones and providing all kinds of materials in local languages and finding it very interesting. The Ministry of Health want to put training materials for community health workers on them in vernacular languages.‚”

However, it’s not just aimed at the education system. It wants to sell to parents who care about their children’s education and can afford to help them by buying a tablet:‚”There’s a lot of interesting demand from both schools and individuals and I’m not sure which of these will take off more quickly.‚” It’s already opened a shop outlet in the capital Lusaka and will open another 50 outlets across the country.

None of the work in schools was done without training the teachers first. They discovered that some schools suffered from as high as 40% teacher absenteeism and that the there were often not enough teachers present to teach:‚”The number of children out of school is exploding.‚”

When they started training the teachers they faced other challenges. Most of the teachers were used to teaching by rote where they were the authority figure with all the knowledge:‚”Some changed quickly but others resisted. Those who resisted would say I’ve done it like this for ten years, why should I change what I do?

The huge difference was that once they started teaching differently and using the tablets, children stopped being absent.‚” Teachers liked the tablets because they contained model teaching plans which freed them up to think about other things. The ZeduPad contains individual lesson plans for over 5,000 lessons.

Tablets and computers act as an incentive both to be in the classroom and to explore, often using a game-ified learning environment. In Rwanda, both with Teachermate and One Laptop Per Child with primary school children, it proved hard to get the primary school children to give back the machines because they were so excited by what they were doing.
See video clip interview with Jacques Murinda, Open Learning Exchange on these experiences:

In the case of South African games programmer Danny Day, he worked with teachers to create a game to teach maths. The teachers were hesitant about the teaching level he proposed, seeing it as too difficult. In the event, students raced through the more basic levels and relished the challenge of the harder parts.

Over all of this hovers the spectre of self-learning pioneer Seymour Papert. He created the educational programming language Logo and used small ‚”robot‚” devices that children could programme and learn a variety of mathematical ideas. In July, I was at a Tech Salon on the experience of using technology in education in Rwanda. Several of those who spoke emphasized the importance and centrality of the teacher in the education system. The same thread was picked up in a Tech Salon in London in August (about technology and children), where again development workers who were formerly teachers made broadly the same points.

All over the world the public education system is fraying at the edges particular in poorer neighbourhoods, wherever they are. Teachers are understandably defensive when they are criticized for the lack of educational achievement of their students. However, like many professions faced by these circumstances, change does not come easily to them. In the case of Africa, I have talked to an extremely wide range of people both employers and individuals who have gone through the education systems in many countries. There is one consistent thread in all these conversations: there is too much rote learning and not enough teaching of the ability to think critically and solve problems. Patrick Awuah of Ashesi University in the video clip interview articulates this point well (see video clip interview below):

After several minutes of former teachers ruminating somewhat defensively at the London Tech Salon, one contributor to the discussion pointed out that teachers were now facing the same sort of crisis of role that librarians faced some years back. They had to learn how to be both guides and curators of information. They needed to provide structure to self-learning and expand curiosity. If that needs to happen globally, then nowhere is the need more acute than in African schools.

And what of the argument that there are better things to be spending money on in terms of African education than technology? Mark Bennett again:‚”We don’t need new buildings. We can teach more children this way and can raise the standard of teaching. They will become used to thinking for themselves and become life-long learners. And all this can be done at a lower cost.’

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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