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Malawi’s school kids are using tablets to improve their reading and maths skills

A group of children, most in blue school uniforms and yellow headphones, work on red computer tablets
Children in Malawi work on their tablets, which are loaded with activities, games and stories., Author provided (no reuse)

Malawi introduced free primary education in 1994. This has significantly improved access to schooling. However, the country – which is one of the poorest in the world – still faces a high learning poverty rate of 87%. Learning poverty is a measure of a child’s inability to meet minimum proficiency in reading, numeracy and other skills at the primary school level. Malawi’s rate means that 87% of children in standard 4, at age 10, are unable to read.

Only 19% of children aged between 7 and 14 have foundational reading skills and 13% have foundational numeracy skills. This leads to social and financial dependency. It also limits the extent to which individuals can actively participate in society. Children become especially vulnerable to pernicious social issues such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and child labour.

The primary education sector also has many challenges. These include overcrowded classrooms, limited learning materials, and a shortage of trained teachers.

There is a pressing need for innovative, transformative approaches to providing foundational education to meet the goals envisioned in Malawi 2063, the country’s long-term national plan. To accomplish this, the government of Malawi is using scientific evidence to enable meaningful and effective learning happen at scale.

This evidence has been generated in parallel by researchers from the University of Nottingham in the UK and the NGO Imagine Worldwide in the US and Africa. We have been testing the efficacy of an interactive educational technology (EdTech) developed by UK-based non-profit onebillion to raise foundational education by different groups of learners in Malawi.

The EdTech delivers personalised, adaptive software that enables each child to learn reading, writing and numeracy at the right level. Children work on tablets through a carefully structured course made up of thousands of engaging activities, games and stories. Over the past 11 years, we have built a complementary and robust evidence base focusing on different aspects of the software and programme.

In 2013, I conducted the first pupil-level randomised control trial at a state primary school in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. Randomised controlled trials are prospective studies that measure the effectiveness of a new intervention compared to standard practice. They are considered the gold standard in effectiveness research. We wanted to test whether the EdTech could raise young children’s numeracy skills. The study showed that after eight weeks of using the EdTech for 30 minutes a day, learners in grades 1-3 (aged 6 to 9) made significant improvements in basic numeracy compared to standard classroom practice. Teachers were also able to put the EdTech to use with ease.

Now, after many studies, Malawi’s government, in collaboration with Imagine Worldwide, is embedding the EdTech programme in all state primary schools nationwide. This will serve 3.8 million children per year in grades 1-4 across all 6,000 state primary schools in Malawi.

Rigorous testing

After our initial 2013 study, we kept testing the EdTech through rigorous studies. One showed that the EdTech programme significantly raised foundational numeracy and literacy skills of early grade learners. Our results showed similar learning gains for girls and boys with the EdTech. This equalises foundational education across gender.

Read more: Five things South Africa must get right for tech in schools to work

Another study showed that children with special educational needs and disabilities could interact and learn with the EdTech, albeit at a slower pace than mainstream peers.

The EdTech wasn’t just tested in Malawi. We wanted to see if it could address learning poverty in different contexts, thus equalising all children’s opportunities, no matter where they live.

Research in the UK demonstrated that the same EdTech raised the basic numeracy skills of children in the early years of primary schools compared to standard classroom instruction. It was also found to support numeracy acquisition by developmentally young children, including those with Down Syndrome.

It was also shown to be effective in a bilingual setting. Brazilian children’s basic numeracy skills improved compared to standard practice after instruction with the EdTech delivered in either English, their language of instruction, or their home language, Brazilian-Portuguese.

Alongside the research from the University of Nottingham, Imagine Worldwide undertook a series of studies in Malawi and other countries to investigate how this EdTech could raise foundational skills over longer periods of time and in different languages and contexts, including refugee camps.

Imagine Worldwide conducted six randomised control trials, including two of the longest over 8 months and 2 years. They showed robust learning gains in literacy and numeracy. They also found that children’s excitement about school, their attendance, and their confidence as learners improved.

The EdTech programme also mitigated against learning loss during school closures. During Imagine’s 2-year randomised control trial in Malawi, programme delivery was interrupted for seven months by COVID-related closures. Yet, results showed that children who had participated in the EdTech programme prior to schools closing returned to school with higher achievement levels than their peers who had received standard instruction only.

Applying the evidence to policy

Read more: Nine out of 10 kids are not developmentally on track in literacy and numeracy – study of 8 African countries

Malawi’s government was pleased with the early results and the programme was expanded to about 150 schools, with the help of UK non-profit Voluntary Service Overseas. A national steering committee was established by Malawi’s government to monitor the programme and review additional emerging research. In 2022 the Education Ministry formally launched the programme through which the EdTech will be rolled out; it was introduced in 500 new schools at the start of the 2023/2024 school year, in September 2023.

To achieve the promise of the early research, ongoing implementation research and monitoring is helping to ensure programme quality and impacts are sustained as it rolls out nationwide.

Strong evidence

Basic literacy and numeracy are the keys to unlocking a child’s potential — improving their health, wealth and social outcomes. Our combined research has shown that child-directed EdTech can deliver high-quality education for millions of marginalised children worldwide. The evidence is strong, diverse and replicable. Now governments need to follow the lead of Malawi to abolish learning poverty and make foundational education a reality for all children, everywhere.

Dr Karen Levesque, head of research at Imagine Worldwide, co-authored this article.

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