Imagine teaching 1,000 children at the same time.

23rd May 2014 at 01:00
Distance learning project will provide online lessons in Ghana

Do you think your classes are too big? Spare a thought for the teachers working for a new project in Ghana, delivering lessons to as many as 1,000 pupils at the same time. Even by sub-Saharan African standards this is a very large class, but it is being made possible through online technology, in what is billed as the region's first "interactive distance learning project".

Classrooms in 72 state primaries in the Volta and Greater Accra regions will be fitted with solar panels, satellite modems, computers, projectors, microphones and webcams. The equipment will mean that remote schools can log on and receive live, interactive maths and English lessons from "master teachers" broadcasting from studios in the capital city, Accra. It will also allow formal and informal training for local teachers.

Importantly for educators in the rest of the world, the project will provide valuable evidence on the effectiveness of technology-based distance learning - it will include a randomised control trial, carried out by independent specialists.

The UK government's Department for International Development (DfID), which is backing the project with nearly pound;2 million, says the trial's evaluation will fill "a critical gap in the policy evidence base, proving whether interactive distance learning does improve student outcomes compared to current provision and how increased confidence and aspiration levels affect learning".

Distance learning is likely to play an increasingly important role in many countries in the coming years. State-funded "virtual schools", which use the internet to offer lessons to pupils dispersed over wide geographical areas, are already growing rapidly in the US.

But not everyone is convinced that such changes will be positive. John Bangs of Education International, a global federation of teaching unions, has described virtual schools as a cheap option that does not focus on quality education.

"Various companies are pressing this as an inexpensive solution for developing countries," Mr Bangs said. "I think it is a deceptive and siren voice that could also see the virtual schools advocated as a solution for some of the southern European countries like Greece trying to cope with the economic crisis."

But such criticism is unlikely to stop the change. The Moocs (massive open online courses) that are revolutionising higher education have already begun to move into schools. Earlier this year edX - one of the most prominent Moocs, set up by US universities Harvard and MIT - told TES that it would be prepared to host courses developed by individual schools.

But whereas typical Mooc users will already have access to the requisite technology at home or at school, pupils in developing countries such as Ghana cannot take such equipment for granted.

DfID acknowledges that the distance learning model it is backing is already "used at scale in India". But in Ghana the project has had to go further to make up for the lack of internet connection in many rural schools.

Here, even a reliable source of power can be an issue, so the scheme, known as MGCubed (Making Ghana Girls Great), aims to solve such problems with the satellite modems and solar panels it will supply to participating schools. These mean that electricity can be stored, so virtual lessons can be delivered despite intermittent power.

Chris Kirk, chief executive of project partner company Gems Education Solutions, said: "This application of creative technology has the potential to deliver a teacher-student ratio of one to 1,000, giving access to high-quality education and, in particular, an expert teacher to those who haven't had one before."

The project is, as the name suggests, aimed particularly at girls, who are less likely to participate in formal education in Ghana because of the labour demands placed on them at home through household chores and harvests.

MGCubed is part of the DfID's initiative Girls' Education Challenge Innovation, which has allocated nearly pound;30 million to 19 projects in 12 countries. The Ghana scheme aims to "empower" more than 4,000 girls through extra sessions covering issues such as family planning, sexual health and careers.

The technology will be used to provide two hours of after-school "wonder women" activities, four days a week. Designed to encourage girls to stay in school, the activities will include live question and answer sessions with a "diverse range of female role models" and discussions on subjects such as girls' rights, sexual harassment, menstruation and malaria prevention.

Mr Kirk said: "We hope that this exciting new approach will increase the number of girls attending school in Africa and help them to transform lives."

But thousands of boys will also benefit from the two hours of interactive English language and maths lessons provided each school day through the equipment. It is hoped that the project will help to counter teacher absenteeism of 29 per cent in the two targeted regions.

Project director Gordon Carver said: "MGCubed is attempt- ing to use technology to achieve certain simple educational goals: attract girls and boys to come to a classroom and learn relevant material through engaging activities, guided by a well-trained teacher.

"We are hopeful that introducing the girls to a range of different adult female role models, our wonder women, will give them the inspiration to stay in school and follow their dreams."

Going the distance

One of the most radical distance learning experiments is already under way in India and England, where Professor Sugata Mitra's "schools in the cloud" project will reveal whether internet use can trigger fast improvements in students' comprehension of written texts.

But the idea is about more than simply introducing a new method of delivering education - it also completely dispenses with conventional notions of schools and teachers.

Professor Mitra's hope is that groups of children will be able to teach themselves using the internet. Instead of teachers, young people will be connected to retired professionals - also known as "grannies" - from four continents via Skype.

The role of the grannies will be to suggest research topics and encourage and praise learning, without actually teaching the children.

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