The Digital Education Enhancement Project recently set out to look at how technology could help numeracy, literacy and science in Africa. Chris Johnston reports
Elizabeth is a teacher at Nqamakwe primary school near the town of Butterworth in South Africa's Eastern Cape region. Her daily journey to and from school involves spending an hour or more in a "taxi", the vans that are the only form of public transport in much of the country. And on top of that is a walk of about 30 minutes.
But in recent months Elizabeth has been able to use the commuting time to prepare for lessons after being given a Hewlett-Packard Jornada handheld computer. She likes the device because she finds it easier to use than writing by hand. It has become so important to Elizabeth, an experienced teacher in her forties, that she now calls the device "my companion".
But in a school that still lacks electricity and where teaching resources consist of empty cartons, tins and cardboard, the Jornada quickly became much more than the teacher's personal possession.
She regularly uses it in the classroom to take pictures with its built-in camera, record students' language practice and to improve their numeracy by having them play Solitare. Even what might seem the most basic of functions - the Windows calculator - Elizabeth has used "a lot".
Meanwhile, a colleague used the camera and voice recorder to capture a speech made by Mark Shuttleworth, the first African in space, when he visited the school.
Both teachers are part of a 24-strong group of South Africans who were each given Jornadas under the Digital Education Enhancement Project (DEEP), along with a similarly sized group in Cairo, Egypt. Twelve rural South African schools and 24 teachers at 12 urban schools in Cairo took part in the project, which was funded by the Department for International Development and co-ordinated by the Open University's Centre for Research and Development in Teacher Education along with the University of Fort Hare in South Africa and the Egyptian government. Sponsors included HP and Microsoft.
The 12-month project aimed to identify how technology could improve the teaching of primary literacy, numeracy and science in the two African nations by offering professional development activities to teachers.
One objective was finding ways of supporting the hundreds of thousands of untrained teachers who are completely unaided in African countries. The only way this can be done affordably, say the researchers, is through local technology-supported solutions.
American educational researcher Edward Soloway has called handhelds the "trojan mouse" because of the changes they can bring about in the classroom. The findings of this project suggest this thinking is spot on.
The Open University team did not expect teachers to use their Jornadas in the classroom with pupils, but that is what happened. Students demanded their teachers use the handhelds with them, daily in some cases. And when teachers did so, their lessons became less didactic and started incorporating group work, as the devices were passed around the class or used by small breakout groups.
The Jornadas complemented laptop computers, which in the South African arm of the project were shared between two teachers. More than half of this group had not used either laptops or handhelds before and over 90 per cent found the technology to be "very useful". Fascinatingly, the Jornadas were regarded by more than 60 per cent as of equal value to the laptop, while almost 30 per cent felt the handheld was more valuable. More than half of the teachers said they would buy a Jornada themselves if they were affordable.
There were a couple of hiccups, most notably data loss that resulted when the batteries went flat and the back-up was used to power the unit.
Recharging the Jornadas was not always a case of plugging them into the wall - teachers from one school had to walk a few miles to the local hospital to do so.
Judging from the responses of the teachers who took part in DEEP, technology is able to aid their professional development by raising self-esteem and encouraging collaboration. "I have grown up as a teacher; it has enhanced and developed my way of thinking," said one. The researchers also reported that many now felt they had become "expert" teachers who could help others.
DEEP may have been a small-scale study in education systems that are very different from Britain's, but it is clear that lessons can be learned for the way ICT is used in UK schools, as well as for improving teachers'
professional development. Should the Government be giving teachers handhelds rather than laptops? The jury is still out.
HOW IT WORKED
DEEP - the Digital Education Enhancement Project - is investigating ways that educators can use ICT to improve teaching and learning in numeracy, literacy and science.
* The theme of endangered animals was chosen to explore new teaching approaches. Just three months after teachers and pupils had used a computer for the first time, Year 3 students were creating multimedia poems while their Year 4 counterparts devised an animals "e-scrapbook".
* The project's main research questions covered the impact of ICT-enhanced and transformed strategies on pupil achievement and motivation and examined how ICT transforms the pedagogic knowledge of educators.
* The research has found that despite having little or no experience of using computers or the internet, teachers have rapidly incorporated technology in their teaching for collaborative learning, data analysis, multimedia storytelling, project research and presentation of ideas.
* Participating teachers now use ICT widely outside the classroom for tasks such as creating colleagues' CVs, emailing job applications and local funeral notices.
* The project may be extended and, if so, will also include headteachers.
* They were able to access learning materials and other resources from the project's website at www.open.ac.ukdeep