In the backwaters of what many in the US consider a backwater, a quiet revolution is brewing.
Eighteen years after civil war ended in Liberia, in a school located in a rural village that helps make rubber for Bridgestone, the revolution isn’t around political power or guns. It’s about using technology to personalize learning and unlock progress for children who otherwise would struggle to learn to read and do math.
When I recently visited the school, which is a little over an hour outside of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, just under 30 students sat studiously learning how to read and do basic math on small, green tablets with headphones. Rising Academies, a fast-growing education company in Africa, works with the village-based government school to do everything from improving its teaching and learning to implementing more humane disciplinary practices—and now, implementing this child-directed learning program.
Imagine Worldwide, a nonprofit where I’m a board member, has helped to knit together the program—and is now working to scale it. The implementations consist of several aspects:
There’s the interactive software from onebillion, a nonprofit that provides a complete curriculum and pedagogy for foundational reading and numeracy in a range of languages—from Chichewa to French and from Swahili to English—that is offered offline because Internet access is unreliable. Intermittent access to the Internet allows onebillion to collect data and accordingly improve the product.
There’s the sourcing and curating of tablets that can be charged by solar power, offer 10 hours of battery life, are durable for rugged conditions, can be repaired in the field, and each is inexpensive at roughly $50.
There’s the procurement and installation of solar panels and batteries across schools, as well as durable headphones. Solar panels also help provide lighting in schools, which improves the learning experience for students.
There’s the creation and implementation of security solutions, such as cages bolted to the concrete.
And there’s the work with partners in the field—like Rising—to implement the solution, get the buy-in of the community, and make sure teachers and the schools have the right training, schedules, and security personnel. As one partner told us as we toured the schools, “Once they [the community] accept it, then they protect it.”
With Imagine Worldwide having conducted eight randomized control trials, the solution is achieving effect sizes in the field that are mind-blowing. For example, the reading curriculum produces an effect size of roughly 0.4 standard deviations and the math curriculum is producing effect sizes up to 0.7 standard deviations. The Imagine Worldwide website offers a variety of ways to understand those outcomes in context.
This isn’t to say the solution is a panacea, but it’s extremely promising. And the complete solution is producing these results for roughly $7 a year—which is critical in countries where that can account for almost 10% of a country’s total annual spend on a child’s education.
Take Sierra Leone, for example, where Imagine Worldwide is working with partners like Rising and EducAid to implement the solution, and where we also visited and toured several schools. According to the World Bank, the country spent roughly $69 per pupil in primary school in 2019. That’s in a country where the GDP per capita is less than $500.
In other words, in the efforts to build foundational numeracy and literacy in a country where, according to the World Bank, only 17% of children ages 7 to 14 possess foundational reading skills, there aren’t a lot of resources.
The picture in places like Liberia isn’t much better.
With the problem clearly identified, the appeal of a technology solution that costs roughly $5 per child is clearer. Getting more teachers—let alone getting them to show up and training them—isn’t a likely solution given these countries’ cash-strapped contexts.
Structured pedagogy, which means scripted whole-class learning, is another favorite intervention. The idea is that having teachers follow a central script on a smartphone or tablet—including when to call on students and how to respond to their answers—can boost instruction. On our visit, we saw plenty of examples of structured pedagogy.
But while it’s a clear step forward from the instruction otherwise occurring on the ground and it’s backed in research, the problems with it as a solution are also numerous.
For starters, as we toured schools and spoke with students, it was clear that in classrooms of up to 75 students, the differing levels of student comprehension are vast. Given the overcrowded nature not just of the classrooms, but also of the schools themselves, the resulting volume can be deafening. One introverted member of our group remarked how she would have just shut down in such a school environment. Whole-class instruction worsens the dynamics. For students in the back row, it’s almost impossible to see what’s written on the chalkboard—never mind that there is no system in place to screen students for hearing or vision needs. Add that all up, and it’s all too easy for students to get literally lost in the crowd. They can keep progressing in grade levels, but it doesn’t mean they are learning. Teaching to a mythical average through a scripted lesson plan leaves behind significant numbers of students.
To address this, places like Rising are starting to track students by ability level. That’s another improvement, but it also creates situations like the ones we saw where there were 14-year-olds mixed in with 7-year-olds to learn math and reading. That doesn’t do much for a child’s confidence, self-esteem, agency, and the like. It also replicates some of the worst parts of the predominant time-based learning system present in most wealthy countries today.
But an affordable solution like tablet-based learning that personalizes to the ability of each and every child without the resulting stigmas and with a level of quiet and calm carries much more promise.
It’s not just the research that supports this assertion. Teachers have far more time to engage in one-on-one conversations with, and support, each child while they are learning on the tablets. And as one child in a study of the program in Tanzania said, “The tablet does not choose another student when I get it wrong. I must try again.”
Governments with few resources can also theoretically afford it in a sustainable way at scale. That’s why Malawi, where I first traveled with Imagine Worldwide, is committing to scale the program in its roughly 6,000 government-run primary schools with 3.5 million children over the next six years. If the country is able to pull it off, it would be a staggering achievement. The big idea is that Imagine Worldwide and its partners are temporary support organizations as the government implements the solution, and the model established is so simple and affordable that the government can maintain it over time by itself.
This question of affordability—and choosing solutions that governments can actually maintain—is critical. As my colleague at the Christensen Institute, Efosa Ojomo, often reminds me, providing a solution that a government can’t sustain might feel good in the short term, but it doesn’t typically help the country move toward prosperity. To do that, you ultimately need market-creating innovations.
That means avoiding the siren songs of simply replicating the current infrastructure of wealthier nations and assuming that that is what is required to help a country and its people become prosperous.
Instead, the focus must be on solutions that are fit for the context and help people on the ground make progress on the things they are prioritizing.
Against that backdrop, my visit to Liberia and Sierra Leone caused me to reflect on how America’s own education system arose. In 1905, just one-third of children who enrolled in first grade attended high school. But competition with a fast-rising industrial Germany constituted a mini-crisis. The country shifted by creating a new role for public schools: to prepare everyone for vocations, which were often in factories at the time. The US delivered on this priority by building today’s time-based system, which was designed to deliver instruction to the masses in the most economical way then known.
This isn’t a novel set of observations. As I toured the National Museum of Liberia, I was struck by how so many of the functions of different societies across geography and time are similar, but the tools and the means change to fit the state of technology and a place’s current priorities. For example, the 16 native tribes of what we today call Liberia had distinct masks to denote their tribal identity for their annual festival. Today, nations use flags. Back then, the tribes used huge drums to communicate across a village; fast forward and the technology switched to radios and now smartphones. And, historically, the tribes held contests to determine the best hunter. Now we have things like the World Cup.
These same tribes also had their own schools well before the formation of Liberia. But instead of lessons in reading and math, they were in cooking, braiding hair, hunting, and childcare. Graduates knew how to do these things so they could survive and thrive.
Of course, times have changed. To build a schooling system that helps individuals survive and thrive today, learning foundational reading and math skills is critical. And to accomplish that in today’s world, a country doesn’t need to do what America did and turn to the time-based, “factory model” school system. Instead, it can build around something like the child-directed, tablet-based program that Imagine Worldwide is helping implement.
There seems to be no limit to the demand for that. Whether heard in the communities we visited or in the halls of the ministries of education, everyone wanted us to move the implementation of the tablets faster. At the school we visited in Liberia, after implementing the tablet program, enrollment soared by 30% and daily attendance rose from 55% to above 95%.
In other words, what we heard isn’t just lip service. Let the revolution progress.
This piece was originally published here on Forbes.