iSchool: using low cost tablets to change learning methods in Zambia
Mark Bennett, is the Managing Director at iSchool – Zambia. iSchool is built on the belief that many of Africa’s deepest-routed problems can only be overcome through radical improvements in education. This means building a generation of thinking, problem-solving children who will be able to unlock the great potential of the Continent: who will grow economies; rethink democracy; improve health, and greatly increase the life chances of their children.
This interview was initially featured on http://smartmonkeytv.com/
SmartMoneyTV: What is iSchool?
Mark Bennett: iSchool is an attempt to introduce modern blended e-learning in to the African context and by doing that change the way learning is done in schools.
SMTV: What are the key changes that you are trying to make in teaching?
MB: We are trying to get teachers to move away from the chalkboard, to move away from their traditional way of memorised learning, and to introduce more modern requirement-based learning where children are thinking for themselves, and coming out of school able to change the lives they would otherwise have led.
SMTV: And you are doing this with a tablet?
MB: Yes. The low cost tablet that arrived a few years ago, will make major changes in Africa particularly in education. Everything is pre-loaded on to this device so there is no need for internet connectivity, and it lasts a full school day on its battery. What we provide for the teachers is a full year of lessons, which is about 5000 lessons across a primary school career. The tablet provides lesson plans, helps them plan the resources that will help them shape the open questions for the children and to break into activity groups within which the children will be doing creative writing tasks and reinforcing their learning.
The teachers can also see what the children are doing on their own tablets. We’ve created multimedia e-learning content for the children that is illustrated in the African context, translated into local languages and is meaningful to children wherever they are.
SMTV: How much does this tablet cost?
MB: We are putting out this tablet, along with all the pre-loaded content, curriculum updates, reading schemes, reference material, support for the life of the device, and many other things for US$200.
SMTV: And you’ve got three kinds of tablets?
MB: Yes – one for the pupils, one for the teachers and one for home use. There’s one for students in school which we assume will be shared among a number of students in a day which they can change the language for and see what they are expected to go through in a day.
Then we’ve got a simplified one which is for the home market. It can remember profiles for a number of different children and can provide them with stories and homework to do for the day. That along with the school tablets as well has got a function for parents and community members so that they can also do adult numeracy, literacy, languages and life skills such as farming, health, financial literacy. It also provides methods for people to come back to school in case they left early and would like to finish their primary education.
SMTV: How many of these individual tablets have you sold in Zambia?
MB: We’ve sold about 10,000 so far and the next batch is on its way from China .The rest we’ve sold out to the school market.
SMTV: And what are your future expansion plans?
MB: Within Zambia, we are hoping to get the tablets out to a wider network within the private, and community school network. At the moment we are in about 100 schools out of about 10,000 schools. We are only dealing with primary school level at this point. And we are trying of course to get into the government school system and are very keen to be working with them. We’ve also set up a micro finance institute to be able to lend to schools that need to pay over a longer period of time at lower rates of finance.
And then further afield, we are looking at being able to get into other countries in the region with a similar education system. We’ve started piloting in Lesotho for example, we’re working with people in Kenya and Nigeria and trying to get pilots in those places. We’re also doing a pilot in Tanzania before we then go into full operation in those countries
SMTV: You’ve been doing monitoring and evaluation of this work. What has been the result of that?
MB: It’s very positive. On the quantitative side, we are seeing improvements in numeracy, literacy and were putting a lot of emphasis into monitoring critical thinking skills because we want to see that people are getting better at learning how to learn, problem solving and so on. Were also seeing absenteeism in schools pretty much disappear among students. Children even want to come into school when they are sick. We are seeing more children applying to schools, re-enrolling into schools. We’re seeing parents coming into schools with their children to learn more about the project
SMTV: And in future you are looking at putting this software onto low cost cell-phones?
MB: Yes, Africans are opting for cheaper phones and since we are on the android platform it works equally well on low cost devices. This means we will be able to provide these life skills and information to a wider community.
For more information on iSchool, visit http://ischool.zm/