A new way of digital learning

Digital learning is often seen as a magic bullet for educational success, especially where teaching quality is low. Give a student a tablet, so the thinking goes, and they will learn.

But a promising new pilot project in remote southern Tanzania is showing that this is only half the story. Computers must be introduced with sensitive, ongoing -- and on-site -- training and support to be useful aides to learning. 


Without this, both students and teachers will struggle to adopt the flexible and self-directing mindset needed to use digital resources successfully. Introducing technology opens up an exciting debate with teachers about how to help their students most effectively.


Lyra launched the pilot this January in three rural schools near Iringa to tackle students’ very low success rate in maths. Only 10 per cent of girls and 20 per cent of boys pass the end of secondary school maths exam.


Much of the problem is that teachers are trained to continue on through the national curriculum whether or not students have grasped preceding concepts. As a result, maths classrooms are full of students who don’t understand what is being taught.


Lyra gave students in the pilot schools tablets so they could practise basic maths concepts and learn in their free time.Each school has thirty tablets and a RACHEL server loaded with educational materials including an offline version of the global online Khan Academy.


However, it also introduced a digital learning coach to each school, and these coaches have been vital in organising hardware, supporting students and teachers to use it, and tackling local problems.


The coaches are all young Tanzanian women proficient in maths and with a willingness to cope with the kind of difficulties that can crop up in rural, undeveloped regions. Power supplies in schools are often poor, so they have had to learn to charge tablets off-site, while students who are completely unfamiliar with computers may take up to eight sessions of patient tuition and encouragement to master the basics of connecting, signing in and navigating the materials.


Generous Lyra supporters donated the first batch of tablets, and the work of the coaches has been funded by $15,000 from the Michael Matthews Foundation, Lyra trustees and anonymous donor.


Now that initial barriers have been overcome, students love having their own tablets, and are growing in confidence as they use them. Girls living in school hostels, who can use them at weekends, are making especially good progress.


Students have accessed over 5,000 hours of digital learning to date. This is already a huge achievement in a context where teaching resources are so scarce they are often kept locked up for safety.


Schools are keen to incorporate digital learning, but many teachers remain sceptical of digital learning and suspicious of materials from outside the national curriculum. That’s where the coaches play a vital role in supporting teachers.


Lyra is working on a training programme that empowers teachers to change their teaching style. “So many training workshops are given – teachers return to their schools and nothing changes. We understand the challenges and know how hard it is for teachers.” explained Lyra’s advisor, Naomi Rouse.  “We’re working on a model that will encourage innovation and reward pioneering teachers who dare to try something new.”


Lyra’s approach of having an open dialogue with teachers and schools, while also accepting and working with the realities of life in rural schools is attracting interest from the Ministry of Education, donors and other partners.


Meanwhile Lyra is confident not only that students will be making significant progress in maths by the end of next year, but also that the model of digital learning it is developing could eventually be applied widely, both within and beyond Tanzania.