Bringing ICT into rural Kenyan classrooms has been challenging. Shipping and installing equipment has been time consuming. Reaching remote schools during the rains has been difficult. Project staff even had to work out how to stop ants moving into a server at one point. But the Girls’ Education Challenge iMlango project has successfully managed to put in place the three Cs of Connectivity, Content and Capacity.
The project is the result of strong partnership: partnership between DFID and the iMlango consortium (led by Avanti) where each of the two partners contribute 50% of funding; partnership between the four members of the consortium - Avanti which provides the satellite broadband, sQuid, which provides real time swipe card-driven attendance tracking, Camara, providing labs with 25 refurbished desktop computers in rural schools, and Whizz Education which provides an online maths tutor: and partnerships between iMlango and the teachers, children and their parents, many of whom don't even own mobile phones and are being introduced to the new technology for the first time.
All the children in iMlango schools were very keen to tell me that iMlango means 'the internet at your door'. As well as the Maths-Whizz, a story book and an encyclopaedia, dedicated content in literacy and life skills will also be available to students and teachers through the iMlango portal once it's entirely up and running by the end of this year.
I have visited many computer labs in schools in developing countries over the years. Most of these failed on one of the three Cs. Either they had all the computers but no connection to the internet, or they had a connection to the internet and maybe even content, but no one in the school understood the technology and so no one had the capacity to use it. And maybe, more often than not, they had the connectivity, some capacity to use but no simple first steps to using the internet or dedicated content to enhance teaching and allow children to learn more effectively. But the iMlango project seems to have managed to join up all the necessary components, and the excitement it has generated in schools is very evident on the faces of not only the children but the head teachers and teachers too.
The unique aspect of this project is that it generates real-time data on children's attendance and learning. At an iMlango school, the head teacher and her team get the attendance records for each child, each class and the whole school emailed to them every week. Each teacher using the Maths-Whizz programme that is on the portal, has information every day on her pupils' progress in numeracy at an individual and class level. She can log in to see how individuals are managing and she can also see how her class as a whole is performing. She can even see which of the curriculum areas they are having most difficulty with, and is directed to whole class lessons at the correct level to address those areas. At an individual level the children go through topic sessions, Maths-Whizz assesses the progress and if the child is struggling, it adjusts so that the next few sessions will be aimed at strengthening those areas.
Teachers who have been trained recently are enthusiastic and full of ideas for using this new technology in their classes. The children have invented a new word "squidding", to describe the process of tapping their individual sQuid cards on a tablet to register their attendance every morning and afternoon. They, their teachers and parents say that they don't want to miss school now that they can 'squid' every day and attendance has increased.
The children use their sQuid cards to log onto the portal too so after a few months we will be able to see the link between attendance and learning in maths initially but in other subjects too in the future. An independent literacy and numeracy assessment at the end of the project will give us valuable information on how this technology can improve learning. And a control group will show how much of that improvement is due to the iMlango project.
There is no doubt that there is huge potential here. Realising that potential though, needs a few more things to fall into place. With 25 computers in each lab (24 plus a server) using the lab to complement maths or English and Kiswahili lessons, for classes of up to 80 is difficult. The children can't all access the portal at the same time and teachers need to do some clever logistical work to allow children to get access for the recommended 45 minutes per week, especially where they do not have teaching assistants and electricity supply is erratic.
Similarly, whole class teaching is possible using the new projectors and laptops but there are only two per school and so teachers need to work together to share. However, the Kenyan government is serious about education and has recently promised that all schools will have their own electrical supply in the next few months and they will also have more computers. Unfortunately, more classrooms and more teachers are also needed, and as I gingerly picked my way throughout the mud to get from one overcrowded classroom to another I couldn't help wondering when it would be that these children would be able to enjoy all of the components of a healthy school environment.
The iMlango partners are determined though. They have a range of plans that they intend to implement to establish ways in which the schools will be able to continue, sustain and even maybe expand their new facilities. For instance, the satellite that serves the school can be set up to serve the local community too at a small cost, or schools could charge a little for access to their labs when children aren't using them. They could even show important football matches or popular films to raise enough to support their ICT facilities. And in the long run, all four of the consortium's partners would like to see the intervention not only succeed but be expanded across the country and beyond, so that more children can benefit.
Chris Wallace is Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) Programme Lead. She has been working in international development for the last 30 years for INGOs, UN agencies, DFID and the European Union. She joined the GEC in 2012.
Photo Credit: iMlango