MADONNA MAY have thrust Malawi back into people's consciousness this year when she adopted a baby from an orphanage there, but the traditional ties between Scotland and the small African country have ensured teachers here are well aware of its existence.
Earlier in the year, a programme of teacher exchanges began, partly funded by the Scottish Executive and the HSBC, and organised by the charity Link Community Development. But Malawi, with its 12 million people and crushing economic problems, struggles from a severe shortage of trained teachers that goes back to the mid-1990s, when universal free primary education was introduced.
"UNESCO's Education for All initiative brought about great changes in Malawi's education system, providing free primary education for the first time. We saw a 200 per cent increase in schools, but this led to a shortage of qualified teachers," says Chester Shaba, a teacher and university lecturer from Malawi, who is studying at Stirling University. "Such was the crisis, many teachers entered the profession directly from secondary schools without training, so education provision is well below international standards."
"My country is not in a position to take part in the technological revolution going on in education," says Mr Shaba, who studied history and English. "The closest thing we have to modern technology is the radio."
And it is with this small invention that Mr Shaba hopes to start the slow climb to better teaching and learning for young Malawians. He is in Scotland, studying for a doctorate on the possibilities of shared teaching through radio. "After finishing my Masters in Finland, I went to work in South Africa with a non-government company that was trying to improve things for disadvantaged schools and they were using radio."
Over the next three years, Mr Shaba will carry out a feasibility study into the use of radio in Malawi as part of his PhD, and develop a model. His aim is to create an interactive radio instruction programme, where teaching could be shared between radio teacher, class teacher and the learners using live broadcasts or, if the school has them, tape recorders.
"The arrival of wind-up radios makes it possible. We don't have televisions and it will be decades before we have computers in schools," says Mr Shaba, who is being funded by a Foreign and Commonwealth Office scholarship.
"Radio is the cheapest and most widespread form of technology available.
Even rural schools without electricity and running water have one.
"The idea is that classroom lessons are presented in the form of a radio programme, which offers teachers continuing professional development and gives pupils exposure to the expertise of a virtual teacher."
As part of his research, Mr Shaba will spend time running a pilot programme in Malawi next year. He must develop printed materials for learners to use and teacher support resources. He hopes his brainchild will be adopted by his own government or a non-government organisation, and rolled out across Malawi.