Malawian students  - Photo:SJS RNE

Unlocking Talent

Can technology offer an innovative solution to the huge learning gap in the Malawian schooling system? Results from the ongoing research project of the Norwegian-funded project Unlocking Talent: Learning through Technology, imply that interactive reading and maths apps might be one solution to accelerated learning, if managed well at school level.

In Malawi, a high percentage of primary school learners only have basic numeracy skills. Girls drop out early and classes are crowded with pupils of different ages because of repetitions, and with few resources for teachers to teach and for pupils to learn actively. Malawi’s teacher-to-student ratio is amongst the highest in the world, with an average of 1 to 80, and in many cases, 1 teacher to 250 learners. In sum, the learning environment is not conducive for learning. Norwegian development cooperation for education in Malawi seeks to enhance the learning conditions in schools.

The Unlocking Talent through Technology (UT) in Malawi is funded by the Norwegian Embassy and implemented in partnership by Voluntary Services Overseas, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology of Malawi, Onebillion, DfID, UNICEF and Scottish Government. The project, which is a pilot that recently attracted the three last mentioned actors, aims to improve learning in the early years through maths and literacy for children in Malawi. It operates in 128 schools with an estimated 55,000 learners currently. The project seeks innovation through assessment given on a tablet. In mid-December 2016, the education counsellor at the Norwegian Embassy, Vigdis Cristofoli, participated at a roundtable meeting in Nottingham where the preliminary data/results of the project were presented and discussed. The big question was if technology offered through this approach is a solution to challenges in the primary school system? The answer seems to be yes.

The learning progress in primary schools, standard one and two, is significantly higher after only eight weeks with the math program on the tablet. Girls respond to apps just as well as boys and low achievers make the highest learning gains. Apps even reduce cognitive load associated with poor memory skills and it is particularly useful for vulnerable children “at risk” with learning difficulties. Furthermore, the use of tablets reduced absenteeism and increased levels of self-confidence and excitement to learn. From a teacher perspective, it also encouraged their commitment and engagement as it enhanced their practice. The combination of tablet technology and national curriculum is proving to be highly effective in terms of inclusive, child-centred learning in primary schools in Malawi.

In the wake of the positive reports, delegates from the embassy have visited several schools participating in UT, among others St. Joseph Primary School and Moonekera Primary School in Dedza. The principal of Moonekera confirmed the positive learning progress and added the significant positive development of girls’ enrolment. She underlined that parents, because of UT, encouraged their children to attend school more often. This effect is believed to additionally impact on early marriages and pregnancies, and consequently on women’s health. Moreover, the teachers have remarked that learners in standard three has improved their knowledge compared to previous classes that did not use the tablets in standards one and two.

St Joseph Primary School is a dedicated centre for children with disabilities and provides teachers’ special tutoring. Latest data from Malawi Special Educational Needs (SENs) studies demonstrate that the tablet technology and interactive apps have a significant effect on the SENs learners’ ability to progress basic mathematics, albeit at a slower rate than mainstream pupils.

The Norwegian Embassy is enthusiastically following the continuation of the programme and the positive results in enhancing the learning conditions for children in Malawi.