Introducing technology in the classroom may seem easy to some. Providing laptops or tablets to students looks simple enough, assuming budgets are available. But that does not mean that the laptops or tablets will be used properly, or even used at all! What matters much more than the devices is how they are used by teachers to enhance instruction and improve student learning. That is the hard part.
As noted by a recent review from the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) of the Results for Development Institute, a growing number of experiments and innovations on introducing technology in the classroom are being implemented throughout the world.
The benefits of technology in classrooms
The Center’s database lists 130 such programs in low- and middle-income countries. Mike Trucano featured the CEI database in one of his recent posts for EduTech. CEI also produced a brief summarizing some of the shared characteristics of many innovative programs.
These programs tend to:
- provide increased access to learning materials through the provision of technology;
- deliver software and learning content for free or at reduced prices;
- offer instructional materials and training for teachers;
- create a platform for students around the world to interact;
- deliver lessons on skills for work.
OLE (Open Learning Exchange) Nepal is one of the innovative programs featured in the CEI database (OLE Nepal is part of a broader OLE international network). It is also one of the longer running programs with now quite a few years of experience.
Last week Rabi Karmacharya, the Executive Director of OLE Nepal, shared his experience at a seminar at the World Bank co-sponsored by the Global Partnership for Education and the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill (the club is supporting the Rotary Club of Kathmandu Mid Town in expanding OLE Nepal’s programs). One of the objectives of the seminar was to share lessons from OLE Nepal on how to go from pilots to scale.
From software engineer to tackling education in Nepal
Rabi co-founded OLE Nepal after a successful decade as a software engineer in California and a technology entrepreneur in Nepal. As the founder of his own tech company, Rabi had experienced firsthand that Nepali graduates were smart, but that they often did not question how things were done. They seemed not to be inclined to experiment and innovate.
He attributed this in part to the fact that as in many other countries, Nepal’s education system remains somewhat traditional, with an emphasis on memorization and technical knowledge as opposed to engagement, exploration and experimentation.
He thought that he could help transform the prevalent culture and modes of teaching in school through the introduction of technology in schools, starting with primary school.
Rabi’s belief is that technology can help teachers prepare more engaging and dynamic lessons, while students benefit from exposure to a world of learning and opportunity that they could not access without technology.
Providing laptops and digital libraries to schools
How does OLE Nepal work? The NGO provides typically 25 laptops per school it supports, so that students and teachers from various grades can take turns in using them one lesson at a time.
Offline servers provide access to a wealth of resources. Solar panels are used in rural schools without access to electricity. In rural public schools many children do not have enough textbooks, and even when textbooks are available, they may not be particularly engaging.
OLE Nepal helps to solve this problem through a digital library that hosts more than 6,000 books, audio books reference materials, educational videos, and other resources that students and teachers can use freely both in class and after class. This is clearly a highly cost effective delivery mechanism.
Yet providing laptops, servers, and digital libraries is not enough. The key is to ensure that these resources are indeed used, and used well. For this the teacher is the key.
Using technology to enhance teaching and learning
Over the years, OLE Nepal has refined its implementation model to better support teachers in their use of the digital resources it provides. Initially, teachers were trained through a one-week induction program. Nowadays, additional training and support is provided after that initiation.
From the start, the idea was to adapt the digital resources to the curriculum. This has been strengthened further, to try to ensure that using the resources provided does not result in too much additional work for teachers who often feel overworked already.
A volunteer program has been put in place to provide additional support to teachers in some areas, and more emphasis has been placed on making sure that students are able to read in early grades. The importance of teachers cannot be overstated. As Rabi made it clear, if teachers are not on board, the introduction of technology in the classroom is not likely to improve teaching and learning.
A slow but promising shift
Another interesting feature of OLE’s work is that from the start the NGO worked in public schools in close cooperation with the Ministry of Education, which approves the deployment of the technology, and supervises the contents provided, ensuring a close adaptation to the curriculum.
In so doing, OLE Nepal has been instrumental in raising awareness about the potential of ICT as a tool, and not just a subject, in Nepal’s education Master Plan. Quantitative evaluations at the early stages of the programs were mixed in terms of gains in learning among students, but improvements have been made on a continuous basis and qualitative data collected in 2012 suggest positive feedback from students, teachers, and principals.
Most teachers in participating schools are on board but this has required substantial training and continuous guidance. Donors such as the World Food Programme, the Embassies of Denmark and Finland, and most recently the Air Asia Foundation, have also given the program a vote of confidence through their funding.
Setting goals for improving the use ICT in school
Looking forward, Rabi pointed to a number of priorities for the years ahead, including:
- the need to expand the program in more schools together with the Ministry of Education
- the importance of preparing and supporting teachers in the adoption of such a paradigm shift,
- the need for digital contents to match the curriculum,
- the potential for public-private partnerships, and
- the aim to make student assessment and program evaluation an integral part of ICT in education program design.
ICT can help solve some of the challenges faced by education system, including for multilingual and inclusive education. Solutions need to be developed and tested through a process of trial and error. OLE Nepal is one of the pioneers in this field and its experience is likely to benefit many other innovators.