COVID-19 and education systems in Tanzania: Brainstorming for a true ed-tech disruption?

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“Let’s go invent tomorrow instead of worrying about what happened yesterday.” – Steve Jobs 

The opportunity: tackling the learning crisis with technology. We now realize the world is facing a ‘learning crisis’ worldwide; and recognize there needs to be a shift from focus on schooling to focus on learning (World Development Report, 2018). In Tanzania, more children are now enrolled in school. With the introduction of the fee-free basic education policy, enrolment increases have been found across all levels. By 2020, 15.4 million students were enrolled in Mainland Tanzania from pre-primary up to advanced level secondary education, but schools remain with a shortage of teachers and basic infrastructure. With such an environment, the addition of school closures from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (March to June 2020) brought on new challenges. We witnessed a big ‘technology rush’ with the government and education stakeholders exploring what solutions to school closures technology can offer. In this blog I want to reflect on some successful examples of use of ed-tech in Tanzania during the time of school closures. In my next blog, I will share some ‘disruptive’ ideas for a post COVID-19 Ed-Tech world.

Tanzania is home to award-winning innovations in Ed-Tech! 

The country’s ed-tech space has expanded over the years, and now it is home to award-winning innovations:

 

Each of these ‘innovations’ has pushed hard to reach as many children as possible by:

Ensuring the use of multiple platforms to expand outreach. Ubongo Kids and the Tanzania Institute of Education (TIE) have made content for TV, radio (community and national), online, and YouTube, to maximize outreach to children even in the most remote areas. A paper written on the impact of watching Ubongo Kids TV program over four-weeks, concluded that children improved their drawing, shape knowledge, number recognition, counting, and English skills at a faster rate compared to the control group. However, the treatment group started with higher scores on the skills and showed a lower score for emotion recognition or letter identification (compared to control group). For now, there is limited published research on the impact of radio (more equitably accessed) on children’s learning. In addition, there is a need to better understand how and in what cases technology works for children’s learning.  

Roll-out with strong communications. Both TIE and Ubongo Kids have rolled out the platforms by targeting parents. Awareness raising efforts focused on making parents aware of the tools they can use to help their child learn at home. Adverts for the platforms (and schedule) are found on social media, WhatsApp, TV, and radio, encouraging parents to log on and tune-in for their child. Ubongo Kids additionally has created a ‘Toolkit’ to allow parents to filter and access the content they need. 

Making e-content zero rated to ensure equitable access. Many of the e-content platforms mentioned above (i.e. Shule Direct) have partnered with mobile providers to ensure the platform is available without any internet bundle required

Introducing fictional teachers for Q&A. Both Shule Direct and the Mtabe App have built using Artificial Intelligence to allow for interaction with a ‘virtual teacher’. The platforms are both for secondary school-age students and in the case of Shule Direct, ‘Teacher Kidevu’ provides a real-time teacher to answer questions for subjects or social issues.

Making sure content is multi-lingual and has monitoring by stakeholders integrated. Great examples of this are the recent XPrize Winners, Kitkit and One Billion, that used simple Tablet-Apps to improve early learning skills for out-of-school children (aged 7, 9 and 11). The Kitkit Tablet provided content in Kiswahili and English at community centers, students would attend and be monitored for their progress. What is interesting about Kitkit is that it focused on children out of the system with limited knowledge of technology. The program was simple and encouraged self-directed learning (no teacher needed), but also integrated monitoring at the community center to closely follow the children.    

Reaching rural schools and providing internet to the community. One last area that the innovations have made headways is by equipping schools in rural (and urban) areas with tech-enabled classrooms, with teachers trained to be ICT masters and the community having a point for internet connection. The IKnowledge project has turned schools into hubs for the community. In a school in Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam, I was told that it was now a space where the community would congregate on weekends to connect to good internet and learn! 

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COVID-19 has really highlighted the inequity in the Ed-Tech space, and the need for a ‘disruption’ at its core. The innovative examples shared in this blog highlight how far we have come in Tanzania in using technology for improving the learning environment and reaching more children, but there are challenges both in terms of conceptualisation and application to reach all children.

As children across the country return to schools after the long period of closures during which we were relying on parents to carry out ‘learning at home’, I have been wondering why so many children were outside playing during the closures? Why did the government have to use forceful reminders to keep children at home and hopefully continuing to learn there? And why despite dissemination of the government strategy, not all parents were teaching their children at home? In my second blog I will try to answer some of these ‘why’s.

Authors

Gemma Todd

Education Specialist

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