23 October 2020
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E-learning: raising hope for Malawian learners

Written by  Kenneth Jali

Learners are kept busy with the tablets at home instead of playing in risky places. Pic by Kenneth Jali (Mana)

Blantyre, August 18, 2020: Parents in Area 44, a stone-throw away from the Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe each morning brace themselves for high-level supervision as their wards become subjects of a rare home learning programme.

Since the advent of the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) on March 23, 2020 schools in the country have remained closed in an effort to arrest the increasing cases of the viral-disease that as of Sunday August 9, 2020 recorded 4,658 cases with 146 fatalities.

Parents whose children are enrolled in 112 junior Primary Schools in the country are invited to put faith in Unlocking Talent through Technology (UTT), a programme that works to improve the quality of primary school education through digital education technology.

Through the programme, marginalized groups such as children with special needs and out-of-school youth are provided with lifeline to their stalled education, directly benefitting early grade learners.

A parent, Dorothy Mandala acknowledges that the initiative has reduced the risk of her daughter, Promise, from catching the deadly Covid-19.

“The risk of the disease on children has reduced because they do not have a lot of time to play. If there is time, it is very limited; thereby, reducing the risk,” she said.

Despite dating back to 2013, the programme has come-in handy in these days of Covid-19 with learners studying through applications (apps) installed on mobile tablets. The apps teach a comprehensive course designed for children to work at their own pace.

Each morning, Mandala ensures the tablet her Standard 2 daughter uses is fully charged.

She has to trek almost a kilometre to a nearby barbershop to have the tablet fully charged ready for her seven-year-old daughter’s use.

Once fully charged, Promise has 24 hours’ power in her gadget to go through the lessons before power runs out again.

“I usually have the tablet charged every morning because my house does not have electricity.  The tablet helps my child go through the lessons they were learning before schools were closed. It reminds her of the things they were learning while in school, apart from keeping her preoccupied,” Mandala added.

Funded by One Billion, but implemented by Voluntary Service Oversees (VSO), a leading international development organization, the project has to date reached out to 150,000 learners in 14 of the country’s 28 districts in phase one.

In the second phase which begun in 2019, there are plans to cover 370 schools in 22 districts covering over 225,000 learners.

The country in total has 5,300 primary schools, targeting roughly 4.4 million children.

Similarly, the project has excited learners. For Precious, she can now easily make mathematical calculations.

She said she would be a shining star of her class once government announces re-opening of schools because she has acquired various numerical skills.
“When I go back to school, I know I will perform so well, thanks to this tablet,” a visibly proud Precious challenged.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, VSO Malawi has adapted the project to ensure learners from poor households continue to learn from home.

A planned national lockdown by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led government to manage the spread of Covid-19 was challenged in the courts.

Although there is a new government following the June 23 fresh presidential election, the cases are yet to be determined.

However, schools are not likely to re-open any time soon with the increase in infections in the country.  

VSO Malawi has since distributed 1,000 tablets to children in marginalized communities to ensure they continue to access the same high-quality learning solutions.

One of the facilitators of the project in Area 44 in Lilongwe, Saili Mwale, overseer of the project at community level said his role was to monitor how parents and children are using the tablets.

He observed that households are not finding it difficult to operate the gadgets because the tablets are user-friendly.

“This project has helped to curb further spread of Covid-19 because it keeps children closer to their parents. In fact, every household that has kids of primary school going age received a tablet and this ensures that the children stay home instead of wandering about aimlessly,” Mwale pointed out.
The tablet has been designed to work in challenging environments.

It has a protective cover, bright screen, loudspeaker and durable solar charging connector to ensure it responds to daily uses by children in the home.

The software being used on the tablets is closely aligned with the Malawi Education curriculum where learners with special needs access the lessons and make good progress.

Another learner at New State House Primary School, Brian Banda valued the lessons he gets through the tablets.

He said he keeps in mind the care instructions that he was given by her mother at the time the tablet was being surrendered to him.

“I was told to learn through it and never drop it down on the flow. My Mum told me to start using it at least at 7 o’clock in the morning up to around 8 o’clock in the morning,” Brian stated. 

According to VSO, learners are required to have at least a minimum of 40 minutes of study using the tablets.

Meanwhile, VSO Malawi will provide solar equipment in phase two of the project that is already underway.

Learner’s progress is recorded by a small low power server which sends real-time data over the internet, allowing key information to be tracked by education management and other stakeholders.

Through the online dashboard, it is possible to see the results of learners all over the world.  

Standard 4 learner at New State House Primary School, Caroline Lyson, confessed that she had serious problems with mathematics.

She said it is a thing of the past now since she acquired the tablet and has made steady progress in the subject and that she could competitively challenge her classmates.

“I was not doing well in Mathematics before I received the tablet, but when we go back to school, that subject will no longer be difficult,” Caroline explained.

VSO UTT Programme Manager, Yesani Kapanda hailed One Billion for developing the application on which the programme is premised.

He said VSO was working with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to distribute another 5,000 tablets to learners across the country particularly in areas that do not have radio frequencies. 

According to Kapanda, plans are under way to upload other content on the tablets beyond the junior classes.

“With the Coronavirus, there is an opportunity for different organisations and partners to explore the usage of technologies in emergency situations like the one we are currently passing through.

“So, we hope that post-Coronavirus period, investment in education technologies is going to improve because it has proved that it can work in emergency situation while exploring the academic gains in learners. We feel that there is room to expand our programmes,” he pointed out.

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