Until digital learning was introduced to Nalongo Church of Uganda Primary School, a UPE school in Luweero in August 2020, Edward had never seen anything close to a computer. He had never seen a tablet either, let alone use it for learning, so when digital learning was introduced in his school, where they would use tablets to learn literacy and numeracy, he was more than thrilled to touch it and learn how to use it.
The strategy his school used was home based learning. The learners were collected into clusters depending on where they lived and they would meet in one home with a teacher who would guide them on how to use the learning devices.
“The first weeks were the hardest but also most fun. I did not understand the English that the voice on the tablets was using and I did not know how to use it well, which interested me even more to learn. All my friends and I were very excited that they had brought these things to us. However, the more I continued using it, and with the help of the teachers, the more I mastered it. I also learned new words that I did not know; to pronounce them, and to spell them,” he excitedly explains.
A new day for digital learning
Grace Okia, the education advisor of War Child Holland, the designers of the digital learning technology, says the digital learning innovation is called ‘Can’t wait to Learn’. It is an innovation that has been designed to improve literacy and numeracy skills using the gaming approach to learning.
“What this means is that the curriculum (which was endorsed by the National Curriculum Development Centre) for numeracy and literacy was developed into games and uploaded into a computer tablet and as children play these games, they gain competencies in literacy and numeracy. Although it is fit for the lower primary section, it can also be used to improve reading for all children that may need to improve their reading, so it cuts across all levels,” Okia notes.
Harnessing digital learning
Aware that digital learning is the way to go, the same technology was introduced at Isenda Primary School, a UPE school in Bunya East, Kigandalo sub-county, Isenda Parish, Mayuge District, to enhance learning in these underprivileged communities. The same will be rolled out in 10 more schools in Mayuge by Teach for Uganda, the implementers of the digital learning resource.
Emmanuel Kimuli, the teacher in charge of the digital learning resource, notes that they have already started using the technology barely a month after its installation to teach learners in lower primary as their classes remain closed, pending government opening. Instead of home based learning, teachers at Isenda Primary School allocated time for the learners to come into school to use the digital learning hub.
“Learners come at a specific time to the school in small groups wearing masks and under observation of other SOPs. We spend a total of 80 minutes; 40 for Maths and 40 for English. The school has 30 tablets and each child has a personal account and password on the tablet for purposes of personalised learning,” says Kimuli.
Every child is able to switch on the tablet, and able to get to their account. The teacher only comes in to guide the pupils through the learning process. The digital learning technology is both graphic, verbal and in the form of games, so they learn as they enjoy. It also focuses on only literacy and numeracy because those are areas of weakness for many learners in Uganda.
Kimuli adds, “We use this kind of learning specifically for Primary Three pupils. This is because they have many learning gaps and the application covers the curriculum from Primary One to Three. So, if a child in Primary Three missed anything between those classes they have an opportunity to catch up.”
According to Kimuli, the major challenge of using this kind of technology in teaching is limited comprehension of the English language by the learners.
“The technology is verbal, so, when the work starts, the teacher has to be heavily involved to interpret the language for the children,” he says.
The teacher, however, is hopeful that the more learners continue to interact with the technology, the better they will get.
To further understand how digital learning is impacting it’s users at Nalongo Church of Uganda Primary School, Rose Namaalwa, the teacher in charge of the resource, says most children have since grasped the language and only a few need help from the teacher as they go through the work.
“More to this, these children show more love and passion for learning as they get the experience of interacting with these technologies,” she said.
The tablets also come with headphones for listening which she believes gives learners more concentration by cutting off the external noise. At Nalongo Primary School, 50 learners are currently benefiting from this arrangement. The school received 50 tablets and there is hope that the numbers will grow bigger.
Why rural schools need digital learning
Over the years, Eastern Uganda has been named among the worst academically performing regions of the country. Samuel Mugomola, the head teacher of Isenda Primary School, is hopeful that with such efforts, Busoga region can still be redeemed.
“This was a very powerful school in the 90s but it declined to sub level. When I was posted here in 2019, the performance was not good, children were not eating food at school and the teachers were not being fed. The school was dirty and the infrastructure was in a sorry state. I started by rallying people to take the school back to its former glory,” the head teacher shares.
With a total of 690 learners in the government-aided school, he was able to persuade parents to contribute Shs2,000 each to first of all have the school renovated and cleaned up. The campaign was successful.
In 2019, teachers from Teach for Uganda, who were being placed in the worst performing schools in Mayuge, joined the school to bring innovative teaching. It was these that lobbied for the introduction of digital learning at the school. Consequently, the school received 30 digital learning tablets, two solar panels and two batteries to provide light for the school and to help charge the tablets.
Why digital learning
Speaking at the launch of the digital learning resource at Isenda Primary School in Mayuge on March 26, James Kassaga the co-founder of Teach For Uganda, noted that for the first time in the history of Mayuge, children would be able to learn digitally.
“The world is changing. Covid-19 came to us and things changed even further. So, we want to be part of a solution that is enabling our children to thrive in a changing world. Part of that is being able to compete with their counterparts in other parts of the world, and that is why we are thinking about digital learning. Our teachers pushed and looked for resources to be sure that the children can learn digitally. We are 25 school communities in Mayuge and we believe 10 more schools will be getting digital learning resources,” Kassaga said.
Emphasising the same point, Dr Cleophas Mugenyi, the commissioner for Basic Education, also noted that one of the benefits of Covid-19 has been more digitalisation of learning in the country.
“The Ministry of Education and Sports had finalised the digital strategy and it will be launched in the near future. This is the first step towards developing the ICT in education policy because one of the 21st century skills that all teachers and administrators need to have is computer literacy. Because of this, digital learning had already been incorporated in the national teacher policy,” he said during the launch.
He urged the implementers to not only focus on learners but parents as well, to be given some basics so that they can be able to help their children when they return home.
Presiding at the launch, the State Minister for Basic Education, Ms Rosemary Sseninde, reminded the community that the resource was theirs and their children’s and thus, they need to support it and protect the property.
“As an educationist, I am always proud to find friends who extend a hand towards the work done by the Ministry of Education and Sports,” Sseninde said.
Promotion of quality education is not a sole responsibility of the Ministry of Education, but a shared role for the community, the parents and of other development partners. So, I appreciate the work well done,” Sseninde said. She also encouraged parents to fulfil their responsibility in the education of their children and not abandon responsibility to the government.