Mobile teaching assistance provides a model for teaching

Education increases social mobility and socio-economic advancement. It is a vehicle for social progress.

Although significant progress has been made in making education accessible to all, there is a need to develop and maintain communication, garner strong financial support and establish working relationships to ensure sustainability over time for collaborative educational projects, especially those on an international level.

Institutions of higher education, in particular, have a major role to play in increasing access to education for all.

The education of students and the general population, to nurture ideas and promote peace, are major goals of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP). Recently, the IAUP and the IAUP-UN Commission wanted to create a project that would further their efforts in promoting peace through education for all.

How the project was born

While at the WISE Summit in Qatar, in November 2009, the ‘seed’ of a possible collaboration was sown between me and Dr Paul Kim, chief technology officer at Stanford University and founder of Seeds of Empowerment, a non-governmental organisation based in California.

Kim gave a presentation on the ability to provide educational assistance through a mobile electronic device called TheTeacherMate Handheld Computer System, the world’s first affordable means of providing computer-assisted instruction for all students.

This innovative use of technology was ideal for the commission’s new international project.

A suitable host for such a project was found in Jennifer Harding and Jiamini, a non-profit with the mission of providing orphaned and vulnerable children in Newala in southern Tanzania with a quality local education and a safe living environment, empowering them to become self-reliant members of their communities.

With all members for a potential project committed, the goal was successfully to launch a pilot programme – Bridging the Technology Gap: Bringing TeacherMates to Tanzania – while using the TeacherMate to provide English language assistance to students and teachers in this region.

It would support more than 140 boys and girls ranging from ages 14 through to 19 years currently at Nangwanda Secondary School, being sponsored by Jiamini.

In between primary and secondary school, the language in which all students are taught abruptly changes from their native language of Swahili to the English language. Hence, this would be a great opportunity for intervention, as the TeacherMates would be used to facilitate the students' English language learning.

All partner institutions – the IAUP; the IAUP-UN Commission; Holy Family University in Philadelphia and Stanford University; Seeds of Empowerment, the non-profit arm of XRI, a 501(c) (3) organisation and a spin-off of Stanford University; and education technology company Blackboard – recognised the importance of the project.

But it would not have been possible without external support from UNESCO and the International Foundation. External financial support is crucial in such an endeavour so that it can have a long-term impact.

Project roll-out

In February 2012, a team of nine individuals travelled to Newala to distribute the TeacherMates, which contained critical thinking assessment tools, Storymaker for literacy development and math games, and the phones, which contained the SMILE (Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment) application for teaching, learning and assessment to be used in multiple subjects.

The aim was to empower the participants to become active content generators and to learn how to generate material for their own use in their own language.

The team encountered special challenges that international projects typically face, that is, the need to account for language barriers and different cultural, economic, political, legal and logistical systems.

Effective communication during the planning and implementation process was key in dealing with such difficulties.

The team, while on site, purchased a generator to deal with the lack of electricity, in addition to stereo speakers and two microphones for the school. This will also aid in the continuity and future viability of the project over time.

External communication or publicity to engage as many individuals as possible to participate in and view the project is crucial for its viability. The project was well publicised through the team’s communications with the Mtwara school district leader, which included visits to their model schools to deliver a series of workshops.

The local NGO organisations in Mtwara were invited to attend the workshops that took place during the project’s commencement. A symposium was held in Dar es Salaam and was organised by the International Youth Foundation and the Ministry of Education. And meetings with other programme leaders from the International Youth Foundation’s Bridgeit project were conducted.

This and a follow-up visit in October 2012 will ensure the teachers’ understanding of digital literacy overall and may also help bolster their operational model. It will assist Jiamini in implementing a plan to provide this valuable teaching resource to future students since they have retained all of the equipment.

It will also be paramount in assessing the effectiveness of the TeacherMates in terms of students’ improved understanding of the English language, in order that students can proceed with and succeed in their required courses of study during the current academic year.

The outcome of this project is being shared globally, on an ongoing basis. The best practices the team developed are making a tremendous impact on strategies for future mobile learning initiatives by Stanford and Seeds.

The team strongly believes that their pedagogical models coupled with mobile technology tools clearly demonstrated the outcome of teachers and students becoming more creative in enhancing overall learning experiences while leveraging existing resources.

This project planted the necessary ‘seed’ for future activities and, by sharing their findings through international publications, the researchers are ensuring that many others will benefit tremendously.

* Sister Francesca Onley, CSFN, PhD, is president of Holy Family University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US (since 1981) and an executive member of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) as well as co-chair of the IAUP-UN Commission on Disarmament Education, Conflict Resolution and Peace (chair since 2002, co-chair since 2011).