Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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Childhood in the digital age

2.3 Tablets and apps in Malawi

Described image
Figure 5 Tablet computers are particularly easy to use for all ages

The following video focuses on an initiative from the charity One Billion, which uses an app provided on tablet devices to support the poor maths abilities of primary school schildren in Malawi, where pupils’ access to resources like teachers, computers or tablet devices is necessarily very limited.

Download this video clip.Video player: ou_futurelearn_21st_c_childhood_vid_1059.mp4
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Spencer Kelly
This is the music technology room at Brockenhurst College in the South of England, and this place has been working closely with IBM to study that most peculiar of creatures, the student. More on that, later. But we start in the developing world, where schools can't possibly offer this level of technology. Now we often feature projects which try to address this by, for example, distributing tablets and laptops to the kids, but, worthy as they are, we do find ourselves asking how effective they can possibly be. One project that we've been following in Malawi has actually proved to have so much educational benefit that it might be brought out of Africa, and back to the UK.
Welcome to the school run, Malawi style. The seventh poorest country in the world, educational resources are already over stretched, and that was before the recent population boom which now means that nearly half of Malawians are under the age of fourteen. There are a huge number of children in the classroom, 90 per teacher, on average. In some schools, there are classes of 300 or more. This is the solution, at least according to one charity. It's something called the one billion app. For half an hour a day, each child gets a special maths teacher all to themselves.
It’s been developed by Andrew Ashe, who with his long connection with Malawi and his business developing language teaching apps, thought this might make the difference. Children are taken out of their class a few at a time, and each given a tablet running the app. It only takes a few minutes to learn, and all the instructions are in the local language Chichewa.
Spencer Kelly
[children listening to their tablets in Chichewa] The app assumes that kids have had no previous formal maths learning, and, crucially, each can progress at their own rate. Learning is broken down into fun tasks and easy steps. And there's a test at the end of each level. If you pass, you get a certificate and you can move on to the next. The kids in the small groups trialling this program have found that in a short time their scores are not simply improving, they are rocketing.
Now this project is a little different from the similar schemes we've seen before, because it caught the attention of researchers at Nottingham University in the UK, and they wanted to try a little experiment.
Back home, they decided to test out the app they'd seen in Malawi on children in this Nottingham school. After translating the app into English, it was handed out to these four and five year olds at the Dunkirk Primary School. Group learning was carried out in the same way as in Malawi - daily, 30-minute sessions with their progress monitored. Now in Malawi, the choice is an app teacher, or almost no teacher attention at all, but surely here, where schools have far more resources, this app wouldn't make that much of a difference. Well, it turns out, it did. Nottingham University's study found that six weeks using the app accelerated the maths learning of these children by between 12 and 18 months.
Dr Nikki Pitchford
So what was incredible about this was that in both countries we saw the same gain. One week of working on the iPads for thirty minutes a day led to three months of formal education.
Spencer Kelly
 I mean, that sounds incredible. How did you feel when you saw those results?
Dr Nikki Pitchford
Well, we were amazed.
Spencer Kelly
One thing that the Malawian and British children have in common is that neither started with any formal maths learning. That seems important, but why did they get such good results?
Dr Nikki Pitchford
So one of the reasons I think the app works is that the children get immediate feedback on getting a question right. If they don't get it right, they can't progress, but when they do get it right, they get a big yellow tick and a nice ping. And that immediate feedback is really rewarding to the children.
When you get close, when you get them all, you can win a certificate.
Spencer Kelly
Oh, no, what are we gonna do, now?
Spencer Kelly
Do you like playing these computers?
Yeah. It's not a computer, it's an iPad.
Spencer Kelly
Oh, I'm sorry.
Spencer Kelly
And those rewards were doing their job for sure. But, even if the children enjoy using the tablets, is it right to encourage it? After all, many parents are trying to cut down their kids' screen time.
Rachael Jurkiw
And those rewards were doing their job for sure. But, even if the children enjoy using the tablets, is it right to encourage it? After all, many parents are trying to cut down their kids' screen time.
Spencer Kelly
Thank you very much. Thank you. He’s busy. My little boy goes to school very soon, so I'm a nervous parent and I'm worried whether he's going to be learning enough and if he's going to have enough fun. I'm sure these guys, for the rest of each day, do have a riot and throw things and make things. What's really interesting is that the half hour that they spend doing this each day seems to be really quiet and really focused. I really do get the feeling that they are actually learning stuff here. Kids in the UK have a future guaranteed to be more or less connected to technology like this.
In Malawi, that is far from the case, but one billion believes its ambition of teaching the entire nations children just the very basics in maths will have a profound effect on their future.
Andrew Ashe
 If you haven't got access to basic education if you're not even numerate you can't do anything, even selling tomatoes at a market stall is denied you, so, these children, it's so important that they get these basic skills and numeracy is a key skill, it's fundamental. It's almost a human right.
Spencer Kelly
Running this app nationwide, in Malawi, will certainly be a challenge, but after seeing plenty of technologies being stripped to basics, and re-purposed, for use in the developing world, it is refreshing to see that something originally made for Africa can work, just as well, in the rest of the world, too.
  Now, if you can give me a couple of minutes, I really want to get that next certificate!
End transcript
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The findings are quite remarkable, showing an accelerated improvement in maths performance despite the constraints. Professor Nicola Pitchford from the University of Nottingham has taken the initiative one step further, and provided the same app and access to a cohort of children in the UK.

As the video suggests, the use of apps can have a significant effect on children’s learning, and this study is a clear example of how new digital devices and educational applications can help transform the lives of many children both in the UK and abroad by improving their educational experiences and success.

Activity 1

Following on from the explanations and examples, think about the following questions and make notes on your views.

  • Do you think children can really speed up their own learning with the use of digital technology and limited teacher input?
  • Could the same set of skills be achieved with a carefully designed piece of technology alone and no teacher input?
  • What do you think teachers can bring to children’s learning and development that computers and other technology cannot?

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