Children using tablets during the roll out of the 60 Million Girls Mobile Learning Lab program in November 2016.
CREDIT: 60 Million Girls/Wanda Bedard
We know that a quality education is crucial to economic development. It also has a lifelong impact on individuals’ health, women’s empowerment, the environment and peace building. In short, investments in quality education reap massive dividends.
On a personal level, families want to know that the investments they are making in their children’s education are worth the sacrifices. They want to know that their children are learning and that they will be able to get ahead in life.
Quality education requires many more teachers
But the impediments to getting a quality education are significant. On the one hand, large class sizes and lagging teacher training in many countries mean that, while more children than ever are in school, they are not necessarily getting the attention they need.
In Sierra Leone, for example, while almost all primary-school aged boys and girls enroll in primary school, the gross enrollment ratio for secondary school is just 43%. Given the dearth of qualified teachers, it will be difficult to meet the demand for more and better schooling.
The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that, globally, schools will need another 69 million teachers by 2030 to make up for attrition and higher school enrollment.
Using mobile technology to give children more learning tools
For the 60 million girls Foundation, technology is the way forward, not to replace the local curriculum or compete with local teachers, but to supplement their efforts.
The after-school Mobile Learning Lab is designed to do just that.
The Mobile Learning Lab is based on self-directed learning, which personalizes education and mimics the way learning occurs outside of the classroom in the real world, and throughout life.
This method not only makes sense, it is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals’ education objective to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
The children who need a little extra help will have the tools at their disposal. Those who want to advance their learning on a particular topic will be able to do so as well.
Easy access to technology is key
The technology used in the Mobile Learning Lab is simple, inexpensive, easily transportable and does not require the Internet, a crucial feature in remote villages where online connectivity is not always readily available.
Our project, based in Sierra Leone’s Koinadugu district, offers students in grades 4, 5 and 6, in five different communities, hours of learning per year at an annual operating cost of less than $0.08/student hour (including a solar charging system).
A RACHEL-Plus (Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning), a small device that can fit in the palm of your hand, can store up to a maximum of 500 GB of content and acts as a Wi-Fi server to connect up to 50 tablets simultaneously. This enables the children to access pre-downloaded educational software, such as math and science tutorials on KA Lite (the offline version of Khan Academy), interactive literacy software Fantastic Phonics, story books, and much more.
Tailoring content to context
More generally, the content is totally customizable based on local needs, and can be updated by bringing the device to a location where Internet connectivity is available. As the RACHEL-Plus is a “plug and play” device and the components are all open source software, there is no need for IT specialists.
When setting up the Mobile Learning Lab, we paid significant attention to the quality of the content available to the children – it had to be interesting, fun, relatable and available offline.
To this end, we worked with a Montreal-based technology company to translate Fantastic Phonics into an offline format so it could be downloaded on the RACHEL-Plus. We also found reference materials with content of local interest and electronic books written by local authors – as we all know, the power of reading stories comes from the lessons we can take away from them.
Ensuring the community is involved
Local community involvement is crucial to the success of the program. Our partner in Koinadugu works closely with the communities and families to ensure parental support so that the children can stay after school to participate in the Mobile Learning Lab learning activities.
The local community is also a key component in the security and functionality of the Mobile Learning Lab: a coordinator has to hook up the tablets to the solar power charging stations in the evenings and store them away in their secure box when not in use, to maintain their usability and to prevent theft and damage.
It is our hope that the program will not only improve learning outcomes but will also work with children’s natural intrinsic motivation to learn. Results from an early pilot project suggest it will.
One of the main takeaways is that the children enjoy the new learning tools: 86% of them kept returning to our initial learning center and math scores improved (though it should be noted that children in the initial pilot project only had access to KA Lite).
Additional measurement in the children’s math, literacy and non-cognitive skills will take place at the end of the current cycle to further evaluate the impact of the program on learning outcomes.
Supplementing classroom learning even in crisis situations
We know that the barriers to education for children in poor, rural communities are very high, yet we feel that this self-directed, after-school concept can supplement traditional classroom learning, particularly where textbooks and fully trained teachers are in short supply.
And in times of crisis, the Mobile Learning Lab can go to the children. When Ebola hit Sierra Leone in the middle of our small pilot project and children were no longer able to go to school or gather in large groups, our partner was able to take the Lab to the children.
Ultimately, the Mobile Learning Lab is designed to improve the quality of education to achieve higher learning outcomes and to foster children’s intrinsic motivation for learning.