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Mobile Learning Lab


The Case for the Mobile Learning Lab

The 60 million girls Foundation is dedicated to addressing learning for children – especially girls – in lower-income countries and ensuring that they have the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century. If children have not mastered foundational learning skills, such as age-appropriate reading and math, how can they go on to become the productive members possible in their communities? How can they safeguard the planet? And, how will they be able to make informed decisions based on logic, reasoning and evidence?

By not educating every child, the world is losing out on the human potential these children represent, and the children themselves will not be able to benefit from the skills and mindset that an education brings.

Data show that while more children are in school, many, if not most children in lower-income countries struggle to learn basic skills. In 2017, 617 million children around the world could not meet minimum proficiency levels, including 87% of primary-aged children in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2019, a new indicator called learning poverty found that 53% of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read an age-appropriate passage with understanding. Following COVID-related school closures, learning poverty is expected to reach as high as 70%.

We believe that all children must be able to learn, but that the current way of teaching and engaging students is not working. Our mission is based on finding ways to include all children in learning – and that means exploring non-traditional approaches such as child-centred, self-directed learning where all children can learn at their own pace and according to their own needs.

In 2020, our virtual conference, The Future of Education is Radical Inclusion, highlighted our perspective that all children must be included in education initiatives, regardless of where they live, their gender, their ability or disability, or refugee status.

Further, communities, parents and teachers must be part of the solution to train students in the skills for a modern world. Research shows that the old methods of class lectures without student engagement must give way to learners, teachers and families actively involved in the educational process. The question we asked ourselves is, what is the best way to get there in developing countries?

Why did we create the Mobile Learning Lab?

In 2013, a trip to Sierra Leone’s northern Kabala district sparked the desire of Wanda Bedard, 60 million girls founder and president, to focus on learning, rather than school access, after seeing that children in local village schools were not able to read or reply to pen-pal letters she brought from Montreal-area school children of the same age and grade. Following several years of thought, trials and research, the Mobile Learning Lab (MLL) was born in 2016.

With the goal of making the greatest possible impact with limited resources, our team considered some of the following questions when designing the Mobile Learning Lab:

  • What purpose does school serve?
  • If teachers are not trained, how can children get the information they need to learn?
  • How can children learn without basic text books or learning resources?
  • If a rural area does not have Internet connectivity or electricity, can children still access resources offline?
  • How can learning be more fun?
  • How can educational technologies lead to real change in foundational skills by providing children and youth with additional learning resources?
  • Can educational technologies improve non-cognitive skillsets like self-confidence, intrinsic motivation and a desire to succeed?
  • Does learning improve if children work together?

What is the Mobile Learning Lab?

The MLL is comprised of a Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning, or RACHEL, a small server that can hold 1 TB of data, a set of tablets or other user devices, and a solar panel.

Learning resources can be uploaded to the RACHEL so that users can access the information through a Wi-Fi connection without Internet connectivity. Content on the RACHEL can be completely customized to meet the needs of the local context. A list of current resources the MLL comes with is available here.

The idea of self-directed learning underpins the MLL because we wanted to put learning in the hands of the children. This personalized education is the way learning occurs outside of the classroom, in the real world, and throughout life. We feel that this method makes sense, and it is aligned with the education objective of the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

By setting up MLLs after school, or in local community centres, children who need extra help have the tools at their disposal and children wanting to advance their learning by exploring topics of interest are able to do so. We know that teachers may be intimidated by new technologies; the after-school model mitigates that concern.

A benefit of using the MLL for self-directed learning is that the RACHEL only contains educational content curated according to local community needs. The children cannot access the Internet to surf random sites.

In addition, non-cognitive skills, such as self-confidence, intrinsic motivation and level of aspiration, are crucial for enhancing children’s socio-emotional development and were a key consideration in the design of the MLL. For us, positive outcomes in this area are just as important as developing the strong literacy and numeracy abilities that are crucial for success in technology-driven 21st century jobs. That’s why we considered how the MLL may affect intrinsic motivation (such as, “I work hard because I like to learn new things”) compared with extrinsic motivation (such as, “I read things because my teacher wants me to”) and self-confidence (such as, “I like to make plans for my future studies and work”).

Based on our 2016–18 pilot project in Sierra Leone, our experience with self-directed learning indicates that taking photos or creating videos is interesting to the students during the first minutes after first having access to a tablet. Thereafter, students focus on educational content. This approach puts learning in the hands of the children. Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall Project in India proved that children are curious and natural problem solvers.

Current research has demonstrated that self-directed learning seems to be most effective when used to complement material taught in class rather than replace teacher-led learning. However, in cases where class sizes are large and/or teachers are untrained, the extra content provided on the MLL can be a useful tool for children seeking to expand their understanding of specific subject matters. It can also be used for students to learn about non-academic subjects, such as the rights of girls and women and health issues, particularly those related to sexual and reproductive health that students may find embarrassing or which are taboo subjects to discuss openly. Some of our partners have created context-appropriate materials on these topics to include on the RACHEL for students to access.

Learning should be fun and engaging and children should have an opportunity to explore new ideas and concepts on their own.

Involving teachers 

While we believe that self-directed learning can aid a child’s progress, this does not diminish the role of trained teachers able to engage students in a subject and create an interactive learning environment. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important a supportive learning environment – teachers, parents and community – can be for a child’s success.

However, for teachers untrained in pedagogy or basic computer skills, adding educational technology to the curriculum might be beyond their skill set. It may also be intimidating for teachers if students readily grasp the technical basics more quickly than they can themselves. In our pilot project, and other projects using the same methodology, students were able to teach themselves how to turn on the tablets, connect to the software, access the camera and find the games without any prior instruction or knowledge of computers. Most, in fact, had never held a tablet or a phone before.

The MLL can provide an additional platform to help more children reach their academic goals by giving them access to fun, interactive and up-to-date learning materials. It can also provide students with resources that they would not be able to access without it. But it has to be implemented to meet the needs of the community.

In addition, we believe that, while technology cannot replace a good teacher, when few trained teachers are available, the MLL can provide an additional source of information, allowing children to explore new topics that interest them, and reinforce concepts taught in class. In addition to student learning, the MLL can also help with teacher training, as projects we have funded in Guatemala and Nicaragua have shown.

Digital Learning Resources

The R&D team has been busy updating the Digital Learning Resources List, which contains valuable digital education resources and tools that can be used offline and online. At the time of review (April 2022), the majority of these resources were free. A brief description is provided and the list can be filtered by level, topic (STEM, literacy, or other), and by language. Licensing information is provided where available. The list was initially prepared by UNHCR and additional content was added from UNICEF websites to provide continuous learning at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has been updated by our team to include information that we hope you will find useful with your projects.