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The Global Search For Education: A Digital Teacher Transforms Learning

“In places like Malawi where we have a large number of learners, while inadequate teachers and resources, it helps a lot to let some children be taken care of by a digital teacher.”  – Saili Mwale

How can poor children in developing countries acquire reading, writing, and counting skills when there are inadequate qualified teachers and resources? A tablet is helping in Malawi.

Announced as one of the 5 finalists in Elon Musk’s $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE competition, Onebillion has been bringing numeracy and literacy education to marginalized children in India, Uganda, Malawi and beyond, for 14 years. Their innovative learning app, Onecourse, with its numeracy material now available in over 50 different languages and its literacy material in Swahili, Chichewa, and English, has so far reached 100,000 children in Uganda, Malawi, South Africa, UK, Brazil, Ethiopia, Cambodia and beyond. Leading towards a goal of “one billion children who are numerate and confident readers in their own language,” CEO Andrew Ashe believes “existing solutions have failed so many children and for that reason, we need to innovate and imagine a different future.”

Saili Mwale and his wife Catherine connected with Onecourse program in 2012 and since then have been offering their home as a testing ground for Onecourse in their community in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. They have seen first hand how learning apps on a tablet helped their own children as well as other children in the local community become numerate and literate in their own language.

The Global Search for Education welcomed Saili Mwale to talk about how tablets are transforming learning.

Saili, can you tell us about yourself and your wife Catherine and how you came to connect with the Onecourse project?

We live in a small village called Landscape in Lilongwe Area 44. I work as a Manager at Kumbali Base camp of Kumbali Lodge and Catherine works as a Bricklaying tutor at a Technical school in Mponela in Dowa district, which is 70 km away from Lilongwe. We run the Kumbali Kindergarten, which accommodates 80 children aged between 2 and 5. We ourselves have two girls, Tamani and Takondwa, a 4-year-old and a one-year-and-4months-old.

We connected with the Onecourse program back in 2012 when they were implementing it in schools here in Malawi. I helped looking after the gadgets as Apps were being installed and the journey started from there. At first, we were given only one tablet with Masamu (Maths) and letter writing and many other learning apps to use at our Kindergarten. It was a success. Children liked it and then more tablets were brought in.

How did the children react when they were introduced to Onecourse for the first time?

There was great excitement among the children. Most couldn’t believe what they were seeing since they had been engaging only with traditional books, not with pictures on a glass screen that could talk. But after very short instructions, they followed immediately and then were able to use the tablet on their own. I can honestly say from my experience that once you hand it to them and show them the first lesson in no more than 10 minutes, they would know where to go.

What does the learning look like? How do children participate and interact with each other?

Children often learn in a group but take turns to use the tablet. When one child is having some trouble, others tend to help out. They usually are very engaged and excited watching others while waiting for their own turns. In most cases, children are both learners and teachers: they teach each other how to use the app and share what they have learned with friends. I discovered that children learn better when they are in the company of their friends because they don’t get bored or feel lonely.

They feel very privileged and honored to be allowed access to Onecourse. They would show off their achievement or try to be the best in the group either by getting all questions right or getting questions done in less time. I feel they need that sort of competition and interaction as a motivation for learning. As they grow and become masters of the lower level apps, they don’t find them challenging anymore and begin exploring new things on their own. Children use words like “playing on an iPad” or “learning on iPad” when talking about Onecourse. For them, it is a mixture of playing and learning, fun and discovery.

When gathered in a group, do children learn at a similar pace? 

Children learn at different paces. This has a lot to do with their previous acquaintance with technology. Some have smart phones at home while some do not, meaning that children lacking experience with technology need more time to get familiar with the device first before they acquire knowledge of reading and counting. Self-confidence and motivation also have an impact on children’s learning.

As parents, how do you feel watching your children learning how to read, write and count through Onecourse? What do you think makes the new learning work? 

It is a great thing seeing your own children learning anything in life, most excitingly seeing them counting and reading. My daughter Tamani just turned 4 years old on April 4th this year. I was very happy when she wrote the number “4” on paper on that day. I myself had not yet known what numbers or letters were by this age. It makes me proud.

I think Onecourse works well for children because it is well organized and easy to follow. The directions are clear, enabling children to learn with very less adult help. Plus, it is in our own language.  More importantly, it provides children with not only numeracy and literacy knowledge, but also an invitation to a world they were not able to access before, a world where technology has become a default. As they get exposed to such learning, they will grow their self-confidence in computer related operations and they become no longer strangers in the world of computers and technology.

Do you think a digital teacher can replace a human teacher? 

Here, Onecourse is indeed the children’s digital teacher in reading and counting, providing both knowledge and fun. It achieves learning objectives without putting burdens on a human teacher – once programmed it serves for a long time and only needs charging. The tablet itself serves as both a teacher and a classroom. And there is no stress involved, no judgement or pressure at all. Children are at ease when they learn.

I think to some extent it can replace, or even be better than a human teacher in teaching, but not when supervision and physical playing with children are needed.

Looking ahead, what role do you see for digital learning continuing to play in learning?

The mobile solar charger is helping keep tablets powered in villages where there is no electricity. More parents are paying attention to children’s engagement with Onecourse in the community and looking forward to connecting with such digital learning tools.

I strongly believe that digital learning is very important and helpful to Malawian children, especially to those in rural areas who have less access to technology related products. In places like Malawi where we have a large number of learners while inadequate teachers and resources, it helps a lot to let some children be taken care of by a digital teacher.

If digital learning can be given a chance in Malawi, then I hope to see transformation in the education sector in Malawi where people will have full access to the right to an education, learning to count, read and write, which are basic needs in this generation and those to come.

C. M. Rubin and Saili Mwale

Join me and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Michael Block (U.S.), Dr. Leon Botstein (U.S.), Professor Clay Christensen (U.S.), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (U.S.), Dr. MadhavChavan (India), Charles Fadel (U.S.), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (U.S.), Professor Andy Hargreaves (U.S.), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Jean Hendrickson (U.S.), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Honourable Jeff Johnson (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Dr. EijaKauppinen (Finland), State Secretary TapioKosunen (Finland), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Lord Ken Macdonald (UK), Professor Geoff Masters (Australia), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Shiv Nadar (India), Professor R. Natarajan (India), Dr. Pak Tee Ng (Singapore), Dr. Denise Pope (US), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Dr. Diane Ravitch (U.S.), Richard Wilson Riley (U.S.), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Professor Manabu Sato (Japan), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. Anthony Seldon (UK), Dr. David Shaffer (U.S.), Dr. Kirsten Sivesind (Norway), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (U.S.), Yves Theze (LyceeFrancais U.S.), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (U.S.), Sir David Watson (UK), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Dr. Mark Wormald (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (UK), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.

The Global Search for Education Community Page

C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.

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