Using technology to promote education has been a subject that has been hyped, attacked and even breed controversy and disappointment. Many a government have been on the forefront in championing the use of technology in classroom. Kenya's current government pledged to promote digital literacy by distributing computers to all primary schools in Kenya. This was one of their election pledges in 2013. Information on the number of primary schools that have received the digital devices was scanty by the time I was writing this blog.
Away from this, there has been overwhelming research works that have shown that quick fixes do not work. There have been mixed outcomes in students learning across the world on the same. One laptop per child project in Peru for example was considered by critics as a flaw from the start. When these plans were being conceived, there seemed to be little discussion and forethought about the infrastructure and support for use. Five years into the Peruvian project, one education official admitted was that what they did was to deliver gadgets without preparing teachers adequately. We must therefore be cautious and seek to learn from some of these failed projects. It would be worthless to spend so much time and effort in rolling out something that might end up failing at the end.
In my own experience, introducing technology in learning is not an end in itself. Considerable efforts must be spent training teachers. While working with rural primary school teachers in Western Kenya, I have realized that you must exercise a lot of patience while training teachers. It would be naïve to think that a one week training would make these teachers tech savvy.
It is also important to note that you cannot impose change. In my experience at the school, learning is a two-way process. The teacher must be willing to learn new methods of teaching. They must be ready to experience challenges while learning. Seeing teachers eager to learn about how to use technology in learning was a motivating factor for us. Three months down the line, these teachers are comfortably using these tablets to plan their lessons and teach in class without any form of support from us. An education official from the national government made a surprise visit to the school where we are implementing a digital literacy project and found one of the teachers from the lower classes busy in one of her sessions teaching sounds. She revealed to us that she had transversed in so many schools at the county but she had not encountered a class like this. She actually revealed to us that some schools, despite receiving tablets have not started using them simply because they do not know how to use them, mind you a training was already done. This reveals that it takes effort to train teachers on how to use these gadgets.
Even with failed projects, a pilot program in Liberia albeit by NGOs revealed that extended use of technology in learning can boost learning more than using the traditional methods. This was made possible not by dumping technology in a school but by providing sufficient educational content to the school. This was according to the results of an independent evaluation of The Samuel Morris Scholar’s Pilot Program initiated by Innovative Education Liberia (IEL) in a remote, rural county of Liberia during the 2015-2016 academic year. The aim of the pilot was to find and evaluate instructional methods that have the potential to accelerate the learning processes of Liberian students by introducing a personalized approach to mathematics education using KA-Lite, an off-line version of Khan Academy.
In order to have tangible impacts in learning, quality education content, thus, must also be made available in these gadgets. This is where partnerships between the government and an array of NGOs and enterprises such as BRCK, AMI, One Billion etc. which are spending considerable time and effort in developing educational content for schools. In my interactions with an English teacher at Wekhonye Primary School, she handed me a composition of one of her class eight students who had made a remarkable improvement in her writing.
A close look at the composition reminded me of a storybook that was in one of the devices we are using to promote literacy at the school. She had borrowed ideas from a story book that was in the RACHEL Plus device by World Possible. This device was made available to them in their free time and the students could read storybooks and access other educational materials in Science and Mathematics. The device has hundreds of story books by African writers and thus partnerships with such organizations could ensure that children from across the country have access to numerous materials
Teachers at Wekhonye Primary School where we have been promoting learning using technology have had interesting things to say about the resources available on these devices, technology has transformed their own teaching. In bloated classrooms without enough textbooks, it is usually difficult to concentrate on individual students who might be weak. The deputy head teacher reminded me of a student who was weak in Mathematics. She spent time with the devices between September and November last year. Upon completing her KCPE she had a score of 46% which the deputy head teacher indicated was an improvement from scores she used to get previously.
Thus, while implementing a project of such magnitude we must be careful. It would be worthless to implement a project simply because it is a populist idea that will get you re-elected and in the end, fail spectacularly because you failed to learn from past mistakes in similar projects. A considerable amount of time spent in training teachers and having sufficient educational resources might be one way to creatively destroy the traditional ways of teaching as well as promote self-learning among school going children.
Written by Patrick Njoroge
Digital Communications lead
African Maths Initiative