Lacking the skills to use a computer will soon be as limiting as the inability to read and write. That’s the view of an academic study published last year and a warning of what could be at stake for millions of students in developing countries unless they leave school possessing digital literacy.

Initiatives to roll out computers to schools to prevent the emergence of a rich-poor “digital divide” and to open up access to multimedia learning content have had mixed results so far, but ongoing refinements are enabling the so-called “ed-tech” to realise more of its pedagogic potential.

The European Commission’s Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO), has been looking closely at how computer-assisted learning can most seamlessly and effectively be integrated into classrooms. Getting that right needs a sound strategy centred on how teachers and students will use it, experts say.

Learning from experience

Providing the hardware to thousands of under-resourced schools, it turns out, may actually be the easy part.

“The overarching message is that we need first and foremost to think about how technology can be used in a way which empowers teachers and equips teachers to do their job more effectively,” said David Hollow, Lead Consultant at UK-based Jigsaw Consult, commissioned by DEVCO to contribute to a study on the evidence of effective use of computer-assisted learning in the developing world.

“I think we know now that it doesn’t work when you just deploy laptops into a classroom and expect students to learn for themselves and for teachers to be enthusiastic about the change. Ten years ago there was lots of that happening; quite naïve, optimistic, technology-led interventions which hoped [that] if you just give technology, then good will occur,” Hollow said.

In the following video, David Hollow discusses additional challenges to technology-led educational development:

Support for digitalisation in schools has not waivered however, with education and information technology ministries, donors, NGOs and multinational corporations resolute that technology can help with problems like high student-to-teacher ratios and lack of materials as well as imparting 21st-century skills.

But they are also keen to move beyond the experience of early and expensive efforts, aiming to ensure future initiatives have a greater impact on learning.

A key problem with programmes to date has been a lack of teacher training, Hollow said, not only in how to use computers, but how to integrate them effectively into lesson time to ensure they bring value to the learning process and do not hinder it.

He said he had also witnessed chaotic scenes in many classrooms in developing countries where technical problems or lack of familiarity with software wasted valuable lesson time. But these episodes have become less common and teachers are now more welcoming of new technology.

“The sector has definitely moved on since then in a very good way, so now there is far more focus on starting with educational problems that need to be solved, rather than starting with the assumption that technology will be the solution in and of itself,” Hollow said.

Digital textbooks

Recognising the potential reach of information technology accessed over small devices like smartphones, Kenya’s government in October decided to pilot the home-grown learning application Kytabu, supplying it on a quarter of the nearly one million tablets it is distributing to schools.

Kytabu, the Swahili word for book, was created by start-up entrepreneur Tonee Ndungu, and provides digital access to textbooks covering Kenya’s mandatory curriculum. He created the app after spotting an opportunity to use Kenya’s widespread mobile phone cashless payment system to provide cheaper access to books through a pay-as-you-go model.

“We figured that instead of having students purchase digital content to keep, because in education you don’t need to keep the books as you pass through the education funnel, they can rent it only when they need it,” Ndungu said after presenting his initiative to DEVCO staff at their education seminar in Brussels.

Textbook content is displayed identically to the hardcopy version but with additional multimedia content designed by teachers, to liven up the learning experience and decipher complex topics. It can also be accessed on smartphones for homework or exam revision.

Ndungu was inspired to develop an educational application due to learning difficulties he had personally experienced at school, problems that later on he discovered had been rooted in dyslexia.

In the following video, Ndungu explains where Kytabu’s content comes from and how his company is involved with the European Commission:

Similar to how the arrival of mobile phones helped African countries and others “leapfrog” the infrastructure problem of landline access, Kytabu is helping to overcome an economic barrier to accessing printed textbooks. A day’s access to a book costs a fraction of one cent.

“The publishers are still making their revenue and you can scale the product much faster than if you print out a book and try to use it in schools or in a country where probably forty percent of the roads are inaccessible during the rainy season and where [income] disparities are very high,” Ndungu said.

A valuable feature of Kytabu, Ndungu says, is “peripheral learning”, which draws students more deeply into the topic they are studying by recommending additional content related to what they are studying. Online assessments and tests it offers also provide a time-efficient way for teachers to track students’ progress.

At the forefront

While some teachers were wary the application might be designed to replace them altogether, Ndungu said many also feared the opposite – that it would add to their workload and prevent them covering the curriculum in the limited time they have.

Both Ndungu and Hollow say heeding these concerns in the design of any technology deployment project is critical to ensure personalised teaching is enhanced by it.

“There have been some initiatives based on the assumption that technology can replace a teacher and that the teacher actually takes a smaller role, and that the technology can lead,” Hollow said.

“Some of the worst examples of that are when you simply record a good teacher in one location and then you beam that out across all classrooms and the teacher in the classroom becomes a passive observer. That’s an unfortunate situation because what that does is remove some of the dynamism of the personal interaction between teacher and student.

“If you want to embed technology within the rhythms of the classroom then you need the teacher to be trained not just in basic digital literacy but to undergo quite a complicated process of how to change what they’ve been taught in teacher training college and actually start to embed technology within their day to day practise,” Hollow said.

Though digitalisation in the school environment still has hurdles to clear, the rapid expansion of technology into more aspects of the economy, in the developed and developing world alike, means failure to integrate it into learning may prove more costly than dealing head-on with the inherent challenges it brings.

As the World Economic Forum noted last year, the most in-demand jobs in many industries did not exist a decade ago and meeting that demand will require ever more sophisticated computing skills.

“In the future there’s going to be AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning and IOT, or the Internet of Things,” Ndungu said. “You need to know how these things work, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in.”

Image credit: Mwangi Kirubi/Flickr via Creative Commons license 2.0

WISH TO CONTRIBUTE? Would you like to propose a topic for a Voices & Views article? Would you like to feature as external contributor? Check here our editorial guidelines and submit your idea!

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

Join or log in to comment

More actions

Topics & Subtopics

Regions & Countries