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Flipping the classroom - exploiting the digital world

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Africa, Education, Technology

Trapped in my office at dusk, yet another heavy rainstorm sweeps over Harare. I make a start on this post, until the electricity fails and the room is plunged into darkness. Travel is risky: last week, trying to get  to a meeting during a storm, I passed two vehicle shunts; and the large gum trees have a habit of falling when you least expect – I almost crashed into one, driving in the darkness late last year.

The rain reminded me of being trapped at Kano airport in Nigeria described in my stormy weather post in 2010, where both dust and rain storms combined with erratic transport to make travel very unpredictable. Kano has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last month. The rise of Boko Haram always made me uneasy: the name roughly translates as 'Western education is forbidden' and I was DFID's man promoting exactly that! The tragic death of so many people in Kano and from the bomb at the UN headquarters in Abuja last year (I used to visit frequently) really puts into perspective the 'flip side' of the overseas development work that has been my passion for over 16 years.

'Flipping the classroom' has become a buzz phrase in education, as people explore how best to exploit advances in ICT and online knowledge. The Khan academy has recently emerged as a hot site: Sal Khan's low tech 'video voiceover' - with black screen and magic marker, guides students of any age through maths and science at their own pace online. Two million users a month now follow this self-study method and teachers can now track how their students progress. This has led to the some classes 'flipping': kids follow the 'theory' videos at home online and then in the class do 'homework', working collaboratively on problem sets with teacher support.

Flipping the classroom - the way forward?

The potential is clear in well-resourced communities - awash with iPads and broadband - but in many parts of Africa the prohibitive costs of internet access, and computer hardware makes it a complex choice on how to invest. The Zimbabwean minister of education cited last year that after paying teachers, there was only around US$2 a month left to spend on students (and not all of that was released). The Education Transition Fund was roughly able to provide each primary student in the country with a set of core textbooks and stationery for US$5 - the economics around this 'digital divide' are evident.

An impressive array of African education ministers and major commercial representatives have gathered at Victoria Falls to debate and showcase the latest technologies at the African Brains Southern Africa ICT for Education Summit. Can Africa leapfrog some of the steps taken to digitise the classroom and roll out affordable solutions beyond the elite schools?

As mass production drives down costs - Indian made tablets devices are being cited at around $30 - this decade will inevitably see a major influx of technology into African schools, just as mobile telephony is revolutionising communications and banking. The challenge in Africa is to effectively exploit the digital world in ways from which all children can benefit.

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  1. Comment by Phil posted on

    Would access to the technology be able to 'flip' the teaching as well as the learning?

    I hope you're right about the future being one where all African students have access to media on personal devices. In the short term though could we not:
    - get one connected tablet in to schools in order to upskill the teachers
    - use students' mobile phones, text messaging updates to twitter and free educational text messaging (like Vodafone do in India) to connect students to each other, to answers that aren't in the textbook and to other students learning the same things all around the world.

    I'm a secondary teacher in the UK and part of my job is to look at what innovative teaching ideas might work in my school. Your post has got me wondering how many of those conversations and ideas would be relevant to the Developing World right now as well.

    I hope you've escaped your desk

  2. Comment by Peter Raeth posted on

    It is true that electronic media can be a boon to education. However, here in the States we are devolving into using devices to replace teachers. Having grown traditional class sizes beyond reason, we now seek to have a teacher wander up and down rows of students sitting at computers, one teacher per 100 students.

    Education is far more than the memorization of facts and processes. Human teachers of good character are needed as guides. My hope is that DFID and the educational system in Zimbabwe will not fall into the trap we have. As one observes the failing US educational system at all levels, one need not wonder about our serious unemployment problem, our over-borrowed consumer economy, and our declining abilities in STEM and other important subjects. Focusing on devices is easy. Education is difficult.

    Am curious about the use of commercial text books in the classroom. Is this really necessary given the open availability of course material and references on the internet? A pilot project at the University of Zimbabwe seeks to design course curricula around open sources so that commercial texts are not needed in the classroom. Various sources could be combined to create a single course text. A repository could be created of material available from numerous sources. Students could use their devices to download and use this material. A more ambitious approach might enable the material to be burned to DVD or even printed using inexpensive print-on-demand equipment.