By Wanda Bedard, Founder and President of the 60 million girls Foundation
On November 18th, 2016, I left Montreal for Kabala, Sierra Leone, in the northern district of Koinadugu. I brought with me, on the plane, 100,000 school books in our Mobile Learning Lab.
This is the heart of the Mobile Learning Lab: the RACHEL-Plus. RACHEL for Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning. It is a WI-FI server, a $400 device smaller than a dinner plate, weighing only 600 g and easily fitting into my backpack, on which we can store up to 500 GB of content: the equivalent of 100,000 books or over 4,000 hours of video content .
To complete the Mobile Learning Lab, we add thirty 7-inch tablets and headphones and voilà!! A learning centre that can be set up in minutes anywhere – literally – even in the most remote and underserved communities in the developing world!
Travelling from the northern town of Kabala to outlying villages only 23 miles away takes over two hours by truck – assuming the almost impassable roads won’t break an axle or puncture the oil pan and leave you stuck by the road with no roadside assistance, no mobile phone connectivity and no local mechanic to get you out. And this isn’t considering the rainy season when, for 2-3 months, the roads are literally rivers of water and mud.
While reaching these communities is a costly and time consuming investment even when it’s possible, the Mobile Learning Lab’s value is immediately apparent. For $5,000 we can fully equip a Mobile Learning Lab (MLL), including the solar charging system. It requires no special IT support and the MLL has been designed with user friendly academic content so that students can use it completely self-directed: i.e. no adults or teachers required!
The Mobile Learning Lab looks like this:
It’s a small sturdy hand-luggage sized suitcase with foam inserts to store the tablets and the RACHEL-Plus. Using the BBOXX solar charging system, the whole system can fully equip a community (with no electricity or access to the Internet) providing students, teachers and adults with wireless access to a wealth of content.
Educational content uploaded onto the RACHEL-Plus includes: Wikipedia Academic, Khan Academy math and science tutorials and Khan Academy Health, Fantastic Phonics literacy software tutorials, Sierra Leone reading books from CODE Canada, reading books from the African Storybook project, hundreds of classic e-books from the Gutenberg Project, Hesperian Health Guide, academic textbooks, information on agriculture, interactive maps, MIT Scratch coding, music, PowerTyping, videos on science lab experiments and more.
And what’s truly amazing is that the content can be updated, modified or changed at any time at no cost! By simply bringing the RACHEL-Plus to an Internet connection, the content can be modified by World Possible, the developer of the RACHEL-Plus, from California.
The RACHEL-Plus also has a five-hour rechargeable battery capacity and an Apache log to enable us to see what the students are most often using and interested in. We can follow their needs and adjust the content accordingly!
The Mobile Learning Lab is an after-school activity that students can participate in for free. They can work on any subject matter they feel they need help in, completely on their own, at their own pace and with the most up to date, interesting and interactive content available. Up to 50 devices can connect wirelessly to the RACHEL-Plus at any one time working on any of the content on the server.
The first test of the Mobile Learning Lab was a huge success! After three years of research and planning, 60 million girls and our partner in Sierra Leone, CAUSE Canada, officially launched the Mobile Learning Lab in Kabala on November 25th to give thirty grade 5 students access to an IT tool for the first time in their lives.
With no instructions whatsoever on how the device works (the tablets were given to the students turned off), the students discovered on their own how to work with the tablet and within 15 minutes were able to access the RACHEL-Plus server and start working on Fantastic Phonics, Khan Academy math, Wikipedia and watch TED Talks.
The real problem was convincing the kids to turn off the tablets after an hour and a half. However, we promised that they would be able to come back again in a few days and continue working on the devices.
These pre-trial activities are allowing us to fine tune the content and the structure of the Mobile Learning Lab for our next step: scaling up to 5 communities in Koinadugu in September 2017 to reach close to 1,000 students.
And, of course, follow up is crucial. With the recent support of McGill University and ISID (Institute for the Study of International Development), we developed a series of tests and surveys to evaluate the impact of the MLL and self-directed learning on the students’ math and literacy outcomes. These tests will also look at the impact on non-cognitive skills such as self-confidence, intrinsic motivation and level of aspiration. Non-cognitive skills are known to have a sustainable and durable impact on learning and positive life outcomes.
60 million girls deeply believes in the transformative power of education for all children and very specifically for girls. Research clearly shows that girls’ education decreases maternal and infant mortality rates, increases potential income, and decreases the rate of early pregnancy and child marriage. It also decreases the incidence of a whole range of illnesses and diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. Educated women are more resilient when faced with the impact of climate change and catastrophic events. Educated mothers are more likely to send all their children, both girls and boys, to school, thus breaking the cycle of poverty.
In communities with over 100 children per class, with 50% of teachers not paid and therefore difficult to recruit and retain, and with few fully trained and qualified teachers available, with a chronic lack of textbooks and classroom teaching aids, no laboratories or hands-on experiments, an alternate model to support learning needed to be created.
The Mobile Learning Lab provides these students with the high quality, rich and interactive content and support they need in a low cost model with the capability of being immediately implemented in any community.
Special thanks to our amazing all volunteer 60 million girls team – and particularly our R&D team members – as well as the many NGOs, businesses and individuals who have supported the development of this project pro bono and, of course, our generous donors. We couldn’t have succeeded without this great collaborative effort.
Thank you to:
Bureau en Gros (Staples)