Digital learning has the potential to transform education systems, by providing students with interactive and fun learning experiences. However, reaching the promise of digital learning requires much more than inserting technology into a school. Beyond improving access to electricity and affordable connectivity, effective digital learning requires a systems approach with teachers and students at the center. In São Tomé and Príncipe, UNICEF in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) has begun the implementation of the Digital Learning Strategy for the next 5 years in primary and secondary education. This systems approach includes teacher training, developing methods for improving pedagogy with technology, plans for how to manage devices in the classroom, and the development of free and high-quality educational content. The strategy is data-driven, with research embedded to allow the country to continually adapt and improve the digital learning system based on evidence. In preparation for the launch of digital learning, qualitative data was collected from students, teachers, and caregivers in four schools on Príncipe island to understand how ready the learning ecosystem is for digital learning in the classroom. This rapid exercise allowed the MEHE and UNICEF to learn directly from users and inform upcoming teacher training and implementation of digital learning tools, including the Learning Passport and the Akelius digital learning course in schools. Below are some key findings:
- Communication between the school and the community on the use of technology for learning is key and engagement with young people is a crucial part of this process. Mobile phones were the most commonly reported technology used by households, and caregivers report using mobile phones primarily for social networking and messaging apps. Caregivers control the time of use by children and had concerns about their use for learning especially with regards to privacy, security, and content that children can access. Thus the introduction of technology at school must be well communicated to families so that they understand how it can contribute to learning, and that digital protection and security will be taken seriously. Caregivers frequently rely on their older children to support them to understand and use digital devices, as such communication campaigns on the use of digital learning should involve young people as key catalysts for change.
“I feel comfortable, but in some respects I sometimes find barriers that I have to overcome, but with the help of my children I overcome them.”
- Caregiver, Santo Antônio II School
2. Teachers and students see the great promise of digital learning but are concerned over issues of connectivity. Teachers reported their great interest in including digital learning as a tool that can excite and motivate students in the classroom. Students also have positive reactions, they expressed comfort in using technologies, and excitement in using digital solutions in the classroom. Connectivity, however, is a big challenge reported by both students and teachers and even when the connection exists it is often not stable. As connectivity remains a major barrier, it is critical that digital learning solutions can be used without the internet. This is why the MEHE is prioritizing the use of the Learning Passport and the Akelius digital course which can be used both online and offline.
3. Teacher training is crucial, especially to strengthen skills in managing technology in the classroom and integrating digital content into lesson plans. Teachers are curious and willing to learn new methods for teaching, some had already begun preparing lesson plans with educational music and videos found online. Teachers mentioned that the use of digital content creates greater interest among students and helps them to retain information. However, they also brought up the challenge of organizing lessons with digital learning, especially in classes with younger students which can be difficult to manage. The views of teachers show the great importance of strong practical teacher training that focuses on how to integrate technology into lessons.
"Students in the ninth and eight grades are more grown up, they already have a better mind prepared for this, but those in the first to the sixth grades will be a job."
- Teacher at Santo Antônio II School
Implementation phases aligned with research
More to come. In São Tomé and Príncipe, research with teachers and students will continue as teacher training is scaled and the implementation of digital learning in classrooms begins. This process will provide timely insights to inform the implementation of digital learning as it scales. This effort is part of UNICEF Innocenti’s work to build implementation research into digital learning programmes.
Rafael Pontuschka is an Education Researcher at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.