A piece of the future of learning unfolded before me over the past week.
At a school in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, 38 children in the second grade took off their shoes, washed their hands and filed into a room with mostly bare white walls. Exposed wooden beams supported a corrugated metal roof above them, and a single piece of slate hung at the back of the room. The children sat on two different straw mats in assigned spaces.
Using iPads and software created by onebillion, a nonprofit and one of the winners of the Global Learning XPRIZE, the students received headphones from the teacher and, once the teacher unlocked the tablets with a stroke of her hand on a master iPad, began learning.
One group learned math while the other studied Chichewa, one of the major languages of Malawi.
There were technical problems of one sort or another, but for the most part, it was orderly. At any one time, over 80% of the students were focused and engaged, despite the fact that many of them had likely come to school hungry that morning, and several were underdressed for the cooler weather of the season.
The children had clearly learned a lot over the course of the school year from the tablets. One child expertly worked through a unit identifying the first letter of different images shown on the screen. Another looked at images on the screen and then ordered syllables to form the corresponding word. On the math side of the classroom, another student used a number line on the screen to solve double-digit subtraction problems.
A couple of students guessed at some of the questions, as they randomly tried all the choices in certain exercises until they got it right. But their attention didn’t seem to flag. Were they worse off than the students in buildings nearby with class sizes of 180 students and 220 students, respectively, that we also visited? It didn’t seem like it.
The children I saw are part of the most audacious, and in my opinion, important, initiative occurring in education today.
Roughly 250 million children worldwide have no access to school of any kind. Countless others are among those who attend school but do not learn to read or write, as they sit in classrooms with hundreds of other students and, in some cases, teachers who work admirably to facilitate learning in the most difficult of circumstances, and, in others, with teachers who just don’t show up.
The question this initiative is asking is can students learn to read, write, and do basic math through technology with little to no adult instruction?
To help learn the answer, 800 children age 6 to 10 who started the year as largely illiterate are taking part in a randomized control trial in Malawi.
The effort in the school I visited is part of a larger initiative of using tablets to help students learn in Malawi called “Unlocking Talent,” which the VSO, a leading independent international development organization that offers volunteers the chance to work abroad to fight poverty in developing countries, is running. Imagine Worldwide, a nonprofit where I’m a board member, is helping facilitate the research with Dr. Antonie Chigeda, the Director of the E-Learning Centre at the University of Malawi.
In the research trial, students learn math or reading for roughly 45 minutes a day through the onebillion instructional software on tablets that are charged by solar power.
To give a sense of the challenges, the first school I visited in Malawi has 3,683 students with 48 teachers. Absenteeism among the students is a major challenge, as are facilities and learning materials. Many classes take place with no books for the students underneath a single tree. The photographs that the children partaking in the study took to ensure that the correct students are signing into the tablets with their correct accounts, was, for many of the students, the first time they had seen what they look like.
Attempting to help students learn without teachers might sound like a surprising strategy, but even a quick look at the numbers involved suggests it’s worth considering.
Training the vast numbers of necessary teachers—69 million by 2030, according to the United Nations—to serve every student without access to schooling in the developing world would take decades and cost billions of dollars, and it’s not clear that such efforts would succeed ultimately. But spending a relatively small amount of money to test whether learning primarily through a tablet could be a viable and sustainable way to leapfrog how the developed world educates students seems like a worthwhile bet.
After what I saw over a few days in Malawi, I’d say it’s a no-brainer.
During the trip, I visited two public schools—one urban and the other peri-urban—as well as an informal school and an informal learning program at a center called Takenolab in the Dzaleka refugee camp.
Parents and educators at all the schools talked about how much the tablet learning had helped address chronic absenteeism and led to significant learning gains.
One father spoke about how his child had learned to count up to 300. His child showed off her counting prowess in front of a group of at least 15 adults.
Two parents with multiple children talked about how their younger child in the pilot could now read and count better than their older children.
A mother spoke about how her child could now read any verse in the Bible, “something I never expected a child of her age to be able to do,” she said. “My child encourages me a lot. Every day we ask her to explain what she did [at school] and then to read to us. I’m so thankful.”
Another mother told us that before the program her child could not read and now her second grader is able to read above his grade level—even books at the sixth-grade level. She said, “He has become a teacher to other children out of school and is teaching them to read.”
A father talked about how thankful he was for the program saying, “My appeal is that this project should not end so that others can benefit.”
Teachers and the heads of school expressed similar sentiments.
One teacher said, “The innovation has lessened our work because the kids are able to grasp those concepts [we used to have to teach] from the tablets. The [learning center] students’ understanding has improved. Most are doing well in counting and simple mathematics. In Chichewa, they are learning a lot to combine sounds to form words and read words and sentences.”
The teacher also talked about how the use of technology to ease the overcrowding they face in the classroom is a significant benefit, and how helpful it is when “the teacher becomes a facilitator.”
Educators said that the ability for students to move at their own pace was particularly important. Every child essentially had a personal tutor now.
The students said they loved the learning and wouldn’t change a thing—with the exception of some wishing they had more time learning on the computers and more math content.
The big opportunity it seems to me for this to take off right now is in the refugee camps. In Dzaleka, of the 20,000 children in the camp, roughly 15,000 are out of school. There simply isn’t enough capacity to educate them.
The informal learning I observed at Takenolab was powerful, as students showed unbridled enthusiasm for the opportunity. Parents spoke about, just weeks into the pilot, how much their children were learning and how important it was that their children could come somewhere to de-stress each day.
That might be a hard statement to believe in the United States where we think of school as stressful and technology as sometimes over-stimulating students. But in the refugee camp where families might stay for lengths of time measured in years if not decades, the learning and tablet weren’t causing the stress. They were alleviating it.
As groups like the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid, relief, and development NGO, work to provide emergency support and long-term assistance to refugees, tablet learning could be a significant scalable solution to the shortage of schools and trained teachers.
No, it’s not perfect. There is plenty of room for the curriculum to improve. Boredom still sets in on occasion—although arguably less than in traditional school. Balancing the need to keep students progressing but also properly assessing learning and mastery is a work in progress. There are equipment challenges, like headphones that break constantly. And the research is anything but final and clear at this stage. Whatever the results, the research will need to be replicated in a variety of circumstances. There is much more work to be done.
But for students in refugee camps, my gut is that what I saw would already be far better than their alternative, nothing at all—the classic makings of a Disruptive Innovation.
And from the steady improvement of these informal learning experiences, I expect that we will see new, more tailored and flexible forms of schooling develop that—to be clear—still embrace the role of in-person adults for providing social and emotional support, wisdom, mentorship, application of knowledge, social capital, moral guidance, encouragement, and guardrails—but not necessarily topical expertise and not in a structure that most would recognize as what we today call “school.”
As we await the results of the research and the steady improvement of these early models of tablet learning, I’ll hold in my mind the image of Nicolette in the Dzaleka refugee camp telling a room full of adults in a church about the colors she had learned from the tablets and the addition and subtraction she could now do—4+4=8 and 4-3=1, she proudly told us. And I’ll remember a boy named William sitting on the floor in the peri-urban school, calmly and correctly identifying numbers on the iPad, followed by ordering sequences of three and four single- and double-digit numbers from smallest to largest, with the onebillion software reinforcing the logic behind his success each time he answered correctly.
As the Pastor at the church in Dzaleka told us, “All children are intelligent. With these tablets, they are their own teachers.”
I’m excited to see that talent unleashed across the world.