The dramatic educational progress made by children in Malawi using a mathematics app may result in significant long-term benefits for one of the world’s poorest countries
* Images copyright of Onebillion.org
Eurotalk have been successfully developing language-learning software since they were founded in London in 1991, but it’s their Onebillion project that has made the headlines – from the BBC to The Huffington Post. A maths learning app provided for children in Malawi was shown in a study by Dr Nicola Pitchford, a psychologist from the University of Nottingham, to accelerate learning – children using the app tripled their knowledge of maths within eight weeks.
The idea for the maths app in Malawi began in the culture of Eurotalk’s Corporate Social Responsibility project. ‘We were working in different countries with very young children and out of that we realised that technology has massive potential with children who aren’t getting an adequate education,’ explains Andrew Ashe who started Eurotalk with Dick Howeson and is CEO and co-founder of Onebillion. The name comes from what Ashe says is the ‘rather non modest goal of reaching one billion children’ and is roughly the number says Ashe of children who miss out on numeracy and literacy.
When in 1994 primary education in Malawi was made free, the one million leap in student enrolment also put pressure on teachers, classrooms, resources, and infrastructure. Educating children in developing countries has a significant social and economic benefits. For example, explains Ashe, ‘there is very strong evidence that if you can get the basic core skills right at primary level for girls, they have fewer children, healthier children, and more likely to be part of the economy. An average girl in Malawi will have 5.9 children and it’s unsustainable at the moment.’
Jamie Stuart Chief Technology Officer of Onebillion explains how the app is used. ‘Over the past ten years, we’ve worked in about 60 schools across Malawi trialling different ways of getting this learning to children. The model we think works the best is this learning centre model we call the Oneclass where children are pulled out in groups of 30 or even 60 and taken to a dedicated classroom to spend 30 minutes every other day with the device.’ One tablet device can serve ten or twelve children each day, each oneclass is managed by a volunteer from international development charity VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and there is a virtual teacher character guiding the student through the app.
The learning is conducted via interactive video lessons in the local language – Chichewa – and devices are solar-powered. ‘We’ve really focussed on the software itself,’ says Stuart. ‘We’ve worked with the best authors in the country to come up with something that really works for the individual child, all of the children in oneclass are all learning at their own pace. The teachers are almost catering for the individual child as every child is going at their own speed.’
The apps are designed to be as culturally inclusive as possible, not least in promoting a positive image of girls, and its why they work closely with the education ministry in Malawi to make sure there are no cultural missteps. As Andrew Ashe points out, the success of the project depends on the project, ‘working with existing structures. One of the things we are most happy about is that they do see it as their project.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and in effect the project is funded by people in wealthier countries buying their own language version of the app. ‘Every single penny that we earn from selling those apps goes towards developing our literacy material and scaling in Malawi,’ says Stuart. The key to the success of the app is how it taps into the enthusiasm of young children to learn, and the next step for the project is developing a literacy app. ‘The children are so engaged and able to progress at their own pace ,’ says Ashe. ‘They are like sponges they absorb so much information at this age and we think this is why we are getting such a good learning.