The Grassroots Rise of a New Learning Technology
Lessons Learned From the Field in Potou, Senegal
By Jim Teicher, CEO & Director, CyberSmart Africa
CyberSmart Africa, a digital learning social enterprise, has been working with The Earth Institute and teachers and students in Potou, Senegal since 2011 to actively test and refine a whole-classroom learning technology solution that has the potential to achieve massive scale throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Our work in Potou Elementary School has led to the design of a new technology platform that makes it easy for an entire classroom full of students to benefit from interactive learning content and ongoing teacher training.
What we’ve learned: technology-integrated classroom learning works…but the technology must be improved
Our work in Senegal indicates that technology-integrated classroom learning – which is commonplace in developed nations – can be equally valuable, and practical in developing nations. Appropriate use of the technology can save instructional time, provide virtual resources that would otherwise be unavailable, and help enable meaningful student learning.
However, we have found that adapting and maintaining commercially available education technology equipment to meet the needs of rural schools is impossible. The reality is that computers, video projectors, and interactive display technologies were not developed for use in sub-Saharan Africa where, according to UNESCO, most schools have no electricity.
To effectively bring technology-integrated learning to our schools in Senegal, we needed to needed to develop a solution that would reliably work in all schools, including those off the electric grid—and that would enhance pedagogy rather than bog teachers down with cumbersome equipment.
Our approach: use less technology to impact more students
We adopted a whole-class learning model in an effort to minimize the need for equipment and infrastructure while impacting the greatest number of students as possible.
After testing a number of different technologies, we found that a large interactive display connected to a single computer enabled an entire classroom full of students to quickly and efficiently become engaged with digital learning.
The result is the CyberSmart Learning Platform
The CyberSmart Learning Platform features a large projected interactive display that can quickly move between classrooms. Teachers reported that the large interactive display we tested in their classrooms saved them instructional time. They no longer had to copy their lessons onto the blackboard. Maps of Senegal, reference photos, and videos—for example of the digestive system in action used for a science lesson—all previously unavailable, now enriched student learning and dramatically increased student engagement.
By using less complicated equipment, we also gained the advantage of refocusing the use of teacher professional development. Instead of extensively training teachers how to use equipment and software—traditional ICT skills—we switched the concentration to sustainable professional staff development—a proven way to improve student learning.
Wanted: Something as easy-to-use as a mobile phone
Teachers told us that all they wanted was to just press a few buttons and teach.
Our proof-of-concept learning platform has been developed and refined, step-by-step, with teachers in Poutou Elementary School, and in eight other Senegalese elementary and middle schools over time. We believe this will be the first classroom learning environment that has been designed entirely based on experiences at the grassroots level in rural schools.
Embracing Android, Tablets, and Smartphones
Based on the Android operating system, the new CyberSmart Learning Platform includes the functions of a tablet and smartphone – plus additional custom-built innovations. International Data Corporation (IDC) research notes that Android is the fastest growing and most widely used operating system, and both the GSMA and Deloitte cite sub-Saharan Africa as the fastest growing mobile market in the world. This means teachers in sub-Saharan Africa will require very little training because many of them will already own an Android-based phone.
Key features of the CyberSmart Learning Platform:
– operates without wires or the need to connect to the internet
– lightweight and portable between classrooms
– consumes very little power and integrates a solar-chargeable battery
– heat and dust resistant
– interactive whiteboard capability
– can share content with smartphones and tablets
A complete system, the CyberSmart Learning Platform includes just one box (containing the computer, projector, speakers, and rechargeable battery), quality learning content, and ongoing teacher training. Designed for massive scale, we estimate that the cost can be as low as $US1 per student/month.
Tackling the Expanding Digital Divide
Technology alone does not improve learning; but without substantial technology advancements designed for sustainable use in the developing world, the digital divide will only widen. Developing nations will find it difficult, if not impossible, to catch up to the rest of the world.
March 2015 will see us back in Potou with a working prototype of the latest CyberSmart Learning Platform for ongoing evaluation by the teachers and students.