By Jenny Gordon and Kerry Postlewhite
Wherever you are in the world, chances are good that one of the most talked-about public policy issues is the growing stress faced by the public education system. Nowhere is that stress more real and more pressing than in sub-Saharan Africa.
Spurred on by initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals, with its drive for universal primary education, and now Sustainable Development Goal 4, which seeks to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning, many sub-Saharan African countries have made big strides forward. As is so often the case, however, solving one challenge opens up another, as resources don’t keep pace with numbers. The challenge of resources is compounded by a rapidly growing young population—Africa has more people younger than 20 years old than anywhere in the world and the continent’s population is set to double to two billion by 2050. Asking whether that is a challenge or an opportunity isn’t really the right question: it is both. For Mwabu, the more important question is what innovative education solutions can minimize the challenge and maximize the opportunity.
Mwabu is an education technology company born and bred in Zambia. Like many countries in the region, Zambia has high primary school drop-out levels; children leaving primary education with low levels of literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills; and a growing shortage of trained and motivated teachers. Just to ensure that every child has access to quality education, sub-Saharan African countries need to recruit some 350,000 teachers every year.
Mwabu began by bringing the Zambian primary curriculum to life in interactive lessons on tablets for teachers and pupils. We wanted to find a way to address a host of challenges—demotivated and absent teachers, a lack of teachers, pupil under-achievement, and, of particular concern to us, repetitive rote learning that did nothing to develop teachers or learners.
Mwabu materials do not seek to replace face-to-face teaching with eLearning. They’re a resource teachers and pupils can use to get more and more out of the classroom experience. Unlike many other eLearningresources, they are entirely African in content and focus and drill in detail into national curricula. At present, Mwabu materials are pre-loaded onto low-cost tablets that can even be powered by solar energy, making them well suited to environments where power, security, and maintenance can be difficult. In the near future, Mwabu eLearning content will also be available to download onto any device, increasing accessibility further.
So far, 200,000 children have been learning with Mwabu, and early results show significant improvements in attendance, engagement, and learning outcomes. In Lukulu, in the remote Western Province of Zambia, UNICEF research showed a significantly greater improvement in early grade literacy in Mwabu schools over the period of just one year, compared to a controlgroup of schools. In mathematics, the average gain in performance for Mwabu pupils was also greater than the average gain in the control group. The same study showed that although girls in control group schools tended to fall behind, girls learning with Mwabu keep up with or get ahead of their male peers.
Children enjoy learning with the tablets: “I like coming to school because learning is now interesting,” said one Mwabu pupil, typical of the feedback received. Teachers are also enthusiastic. One teacher told Mwabu: “Thesetablets have really increased my interaction with my pupils and improved the relationships amongst pupils themselves. They are able to ask each other where they need help, where previously I’d just stand in front of them.”
But our intervention goes beyond the learning materials. For Mwabu, it’s really important to go beyond providing creative and interactive eLearning materials. We want to make sure that teachers provide input into design and user experience and we want to make sure that they know how to get the most out of the product. To that end, we provide training and connect teachers across the region with each other. Justin Reilly, Mwabu CEO, said: “Western developed countries have invested heavily in education technology, but it hasn’t had the impact that it should have. It’s not that the potential isn’t there, but without great project management, change management, and an ongoing support model, it doesn’t work. Africa is going to be able to leap-frog all that.”
He continued: “We are developing a strong, interconnected, intelligent network—one that enables teachers to grow and feel supported.It removes the isolated environment in which teachers currently work. It enables teachers to feel comfortable with their own mistakes and learn from the errors they are making. This helps them to become better teachers, who can self-improve on a continual basis.”
Moving away from traditional chalk-and-talk rote learning is hard, especially when there are up to 80 children in a class and resources are limited. Mwabu wants to make such transformation easier.
The company has an ambitious and exciting vision for the future, expanding further into other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, seeking to reach 100 million learners. We see mobile technology as an effective way of gettingquality interactive education into more andmore hands.
Mwabu firmly believes that the future is African and that the teacher and learner talent is there. Our job is to unleash that talent with the right technology, learning materials, pedagogy, and training.
Mwabu is an education technology company born and bred in Zambia. Like many countries in the region, Zambia has high primary school drop-out levels; children leaving primary education with low levels of literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills; and a growing shortage of trained and motivated teachers.
Mwabu brings primary curriculum to life in interactive lessons on tablets for teachers and pupils. Mwabu materials do not seek to replace face-to-face teaching with eLearning. They’re a resource teachers and pupils can use to get more and more out of the classroom experience.
This article was featured in the July/August 2017 issue of Childhood Education: Innovations.
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