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Leveraging Technology for Education

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Voluntary Service Overseas work on edtech in Malawi

The poor child in Malawi, if we go by current prospects, is bound to remain poor and serve his/her rich counterpart enjoying bacon and eggs in Area 10 and Nyambadwe. Our education has lost the unique equalizing power it had before multiparty democracy made its way to our country’s governance systems in 1993. Access to affordable and quality education has eluded the poor child, while the changes in the socio-political system have robbed him/her of the equal opportunity to a transformed livelihood that remains the average Malawian’s dream today. It no longer harbours the unique ability to allow the brushing of shoulders of rich and poor children in the same hallways and verandahs of our public schools at all levels; nor does it enable smart kids with humble beginnings espouse their rich peers.

The structural-political transition that took place at the break of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s brought universal primary education as well as the restructuring of secondary and university intakes. These shifts eroded the quality of education left behind by the deposed single party regime. Under the guise of almost free education in Malawi, success has become the product of wealth more than wit. One ought to be lucky to have guardians who will afford more than just tuition, and take the extra mile normally run by the government, to supply the student with amenities that the schools and universities can no longer afford. In addition to the loss of quality, Malawians are foregoing an education they can demand from their government’s promise, and slowly shaping a society where the difference between rich and poor becomes more lucid.

This website takes this opportunity to hone in on universal primary education in this column, which has, by all intent and purpose, failed to deliver for the common Malawian child. The proliferation of private education facilities has itself a lot of cause for concern as the education children will take away from these institutions even continues to fall short of family education expenditures. We believe the abolishment of the private schooling system is probably the most appropriate solutions for Malawi (we have good reasons in an earlier article accessible on this link). However, for this article, we would like to focus on the public school primary system, the country’s most primary foundation of socio-economic inequality today.

One of the greatest challenges affecting our public primary schooling system is the dearth of qualified teachers, many of whom appear to be in dire need of an enlightenment themselves.

We think education technology (or edtech, as they call it) will have the agility to take over from Mr. Mwale, the teacher, to fill the quality gap and circumvent the high pupil-teacher ratio. All this while he reverts to teacher education for his own development, or expend effort to impart other important knowledge that is usually involuntarily neglected due to his numerous pupils. Indeed, the imposing high pupil-teacher ratio in our primary schools, at 69.51 in 2015, remains very high and leads teachers to only delivering the lesson of the day. It matters less for our Mr. Mwale to work with individual pupils who may need his extra attention to prop up their understanding and talent to navigate the higher demands that climbing the education ladder imposes on them. It further compromises the pupil’s chances to profit from the full teacher’s training in nurturing behavior and skills that complement education.

The cover picture above shows movement towards experimentation with edtech in Malawi, courtesy of the Volunteer Service Organization of the United Kingdom (VSO).

With proper regulation, curricula and support to maintain equipment, virtual teachers sitting on tablets may well be several times better at imparting education on Malawi’s children than the traditional – JCE trained – Mr. Mwale and Ms. Phiri would. The lessons, for starters, would be delivered in the exact same fashion to all students and will not really suffer the subjectivity of an unpaid teacher who is likely to enter the classroom for lack of anything else better to do. The ability to set up personalized accounts for each pupil will ensure maintenance of a track record on the child’s development. And technology’s ability to work in offline settings nowadays opens up chances of delivering education in remote settings of the developing world, while it dissipates images, numbers, spellings and course work on the backdrop of the increasingly affordable solar power.

Learning through tablets may also serve the identification of talent that would otherwise remain hidden due to the crowded schooling environment. Martin Ford, a technology veteran and entrepreneur, tells of how a Stanford University professor got the shock of his life when his 400 highest-scoring candidates in a computer science exam were once composed of foreign online course attendees who would never afford the prohibitive Stanford fees, let alone ever dream of flying to the United States. On a plane.

So, it may well be that tablets could signal high performers while allowing progression to higher levels follow a gamified platform to direct attainment of various levels of complexity and learning. Some exceptional students may advance much faster than others, and Ms. Phiri may have to work with others to figure out tailored tricks to accelerate learning. Or, she may instead teach handwriting, or essay writing, for that matter.

Virtual classrooms will not be the sole solution for bridging the income gap and social status for the poor. Critics are somewhat right in pointing out the challenges that a mechanical teacher may face vis-à-vis a warm human body in a classroom. We believe there will always be the need for a combination of the two, if education in Malawi will prove beneficial for every Malawian holding the right to quality training. Virtual teachers will be easy to scale up at a consistent level of quality. And it will free up time for the current cadre of teachers to concentrate on other tasks that will develop the child.

The long-term effects of virtual schooling are also positive in the respect of consistency. Most importantly is that, once a school management system is built (and this may admittedly pose its own novel challenges), teachers will always be present in our schools, will not demand a well-deserved salary hike, and will persistently teach the same level of quality to all students across the country. For the current situation of teacher quality in our Ministry of Education’s payroll, the argument of teacher displacement will not arise, as we are as good as having no teachers in most schools where poorer households are sending their children today. In fact, it allows for a handful of well-trained teachers that can sharpen other skills in our children to be present in our schools.

We need to be candid with ourselves and acknowledge that the value of our education has eroded into oblivion. We are churning out graduates who are under-par and who will have a hard time navigating a contemporary world. Malawi needs to move out of its comfort zone and embrace modern and affordable means of reaching global education standards as quickly as education policy can make it possible.

We must move forward from the ubiquitously humble disposition that makes our children aspire for nothing beyond aspiration the best servant there ever was.


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