Notes from Sierra Leone: The First Test

Introducing the Mobile Learning Lab

By Wanda Bedard, 60 milllion girls Founder and President

I’m overwhelmed…. If I had to script the results of our first test of the Mobile Learning Lab, I couldn’t have imagined a better scenario. And, if I hadn’t been there to see it myself, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.

The team is comprised of:

Samuel and Matthew – CAUSE IT specialists who work with the Peer Literacy (PL) program and mobile library and after school ILRC (Integrated Learning and Resource Centre) programs.

Balla Musa – the CAUSE staff member who oversees the PL program and part of the CAUSE Kids program.

Barb – the CAUSE staff member who specifically works on our evaluation project as well as the PL program.

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Some context

We had set up the Mobile Learning Lab, the RACHEL Plus and 30 tablets, in the ILRC and asked four local primary schools to each send us 5-10 grade five students. None of these students has ever been part of CAUSE’s Peer Literacy program. Thirty-two students showed up: 19 boys and 13 girls. CAUSE let the schools’ teachers decide whom they would invite.

Our initial objective was to see how the children reacted to the tablets – this would be an important first step in understanding how our idea of self-directed learning would unfold. The idea behind our project, as explained in our previous blog, is to offer after school access to offline educational software to improve learning outcomes and enhance intrinsic motivation to learn. With large class sizes and poorly trained teachers we were looking for another way – using technology – to get children to learn.

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The Test

The session was to start at 3 pm at the ILRC. We set up 40 chairs with arm table support. We had water for each of the kids and a ledger book so they could sign in. The teachers came with the kids though they had been told they could only observe. They had not been told much other than CAUSE wanted to try a new learning tool with the kids. They insisted on staying because they were curious.

Half of the kids arrived at 3 pm, the other half at 3:30 pm. So the first group of kids had to wait 30 minutes with nothing to do. Samuel and Matthew chatted with them and “worked the crowd”. When the students finally arrived, they sat next to their classmates and the teachers sat at the back of the room.

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At 3:45, Samuel and Matthew handed out the tablets, which were turned off. Each child received a tablet except for two pairs of students who had to share. We did not hand out the earphones. Just before handing out the tablets, Samuel asked the children one by one if they or their family had a cell phone. 3-4 children answered yes. None had had access to a computer before.

Each child received the turned off tablet on their desk without instructions. Samuel and Matthew then went to the front of the class talking to each other with their backs to the children.

The students seemed surprised and intrigued to have this device given to them.

The children figured out how to use the tablet and how to access information. All with no adult instruction or interaction.

Within 30 seconds, one student figured out how to turn on the tablet. Within a minute, every tablet was on. In another minute, kids were taking photos and videos. They took photos of everything, including each other taking photos! Some figured out how to modify the pictures and put them together in a collage. They experimented with portrait and landscape and learned that, if they rotated the tablet, the image would change. This activity was so intense. The kids were posing and laughing so much and we all thought that’s all they would do the whole session.

But, after 15 minutes, a student was watching a Fantastic Phonics (FP) video. He had managed to get onto RACHEL and chose FP. In minutes, wave after wave of student from that section of the class to the opposite corner of the room, got onto FP. At 20 minutes, some kids were on Wikipedia.

At 24 minutes, I saw a student trying to sign in to e-mail. Not 10 minutes later, we heard the first TED Talk video, then another. By this time, the students were changing places, helping each other, talking to students from the other schools, sharing what they had learned. There were giggles, laughter and one young guy was so impressed with what he could do that he did a little celebration dance every time he managed something new!

Some kids were standing up by this time; some had a friend pose outside and took their picture. If they had to leave the room to go to the latrine, they gently placed the tablet on their desk. Every student handled the tablet with care. Some pretended it was a cellphone and put it up to their ear and pretended to talk.

Not once did any of the students ask an adult for help or advice. They went to one another for help or to see what they were working on when they heard new voices from the videos or saw cool pictures.

At 4:40 pm, Samuel told the students the session was over and asked them to return to their seats. He then told them to turn off the tablets with no further instructions. As each child was able to turn it off, they raised the tablet in their hand to show it was done. The tablets were then picked up. 30 tablets duly returned, covered in fingerprints!

Samuel, Matthew and Balla Musa then asked the students what they had been able to do: snap (take photos), take videos, read, do math, play games, read the Bible (I didn’t know that was on the RACHEL), watch films. Asked if they would like to come back next week, there was a very loud chorus of “YES!”.

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Was there anything they didn’t like? Very quickly they answered they liked everything. What did they enjoy the most about the tablets? “We like learning on our own peacefully. There was no yelling or threatening.” These were the students’ exact words and remember: their teachers were sitting in the room and heard everything. This was a different group of kids from just the hour before. They were still smiling, giggling and laughing.

I was overwhelmed. I was sure it would take the kids some time just to turn the tablets on. Once they were on, they intuitively tried touching and incessantly poked at the screen, then figured out they could swipe from side to side and up and down. They were in a frenzy to try every possible combination of buttons, clicks and swipes to find something new.

Most of the class naturally worked in small groups, moving around at will to get or give help and peek at what the other students had found. But a few students – about 10% – worked on their own, completely engaged in what they were doing and hardly moved the whole time.

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Balla Musa asked the teachers what they thought. They had been given computers with no instructions while the kids were on the tablets. Only one teacher had some computer experience. They managed to get on FP and were fully absorbed with their discoveries. They told us they saw the great value of the content available and that it could help them with their teaching and that they should have access to it. Balla Musa, with extraordinary tact and diplomacy, answered that it was under consideration but, as he was sure they would agree, these tablets were first and foremost to help their students.

Once the students and teachers left, I spoke to the CAUSE team. From the first sound of the first tablet being turned on, Samuel and I had just looked at each other in wonder. Both he and Matthew were amazed at what they had just witnessed. We didn’t think they would be able to get so far so fast – especially being able to log onto RACHEL, which requires a few commands in sequence. Balla Musa admitted he wasn’t sure that all the research I had explained about the impact of self-directed learning on non-cognitive skills would hold true. He said now he understands precisely what we meant.

Barb was also surprised at how the mood of the class changed and how much the kids could accomplish. Everyone noted that the kids never once asked for our help!

I don’t think I would have believed the transformation in these kids in just one hour if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. They are so hungry to learn and as curious as any other child in the world. They are smart, interested and so capable – and seem to be crying out for the chance to learn in a peaceful environment at their own pace doing what they want.  And, more than anything, I saw kids having a wonderful time! We badly underestimate what these children are capable of.

 

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