A student using the Learning Passport at a Digital Learning Hub in Sierra Leone. Source: https://www.dsti.gov.sl/tag/dsti-sierra-leone/
By Marta Carnelli, Pragya Dewan, and Janice Kaday Williams
Sierra Leone is facing a learning crisis, where only eight per cent of children in the third grade are able to read a simple text (UNICEF, 2022). Missing out on foundational skills, such as reading and mathematics, hinders a child’s growth and learning for the rest of their life.
In 2019, only 39 per cent of primary school students in Sierra Leone reached Grade 6 and just 76 per cent of those students passed the National Primary School Examination (NPSE) to enter junior secondary school (UNESCO, 2019). Additionally, only 46% of junior secondary students in Grade 9 passed the Basic Education Certificate (BECE) exam to advance to senior secondary school.
Figure 1 – Pass rate by gender for NPSE and BECE (2019)
As one of the responses to the widening learning crisis, Sierra Leone became one of the 20+ countries to launch the Learning Passport – a digital learning platform delivered through a partnership between UNICEF globally and Microsoft. The Learning Passport provides contextualized and engaging content, which has been aligned with the national curriculum in Sierra Leone.
In February 2022, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE), the Directorate of Science Technology and Innovation (DSTI), UNICEF and the ST Foundation collaborated to design a pilot programme that implemented the Learning Passport.
The pilot programme helped students from 20 schools in 10 districts to prepare for the two critical national examinations (NPSE and BECE) that would determine their transition to junior or senior secondary school. The pilot targeted schools where ST Foundation had already set up Information and Communication Technology (ICT) labs and had a facilitator available. Previous examination papers from the last 10 years were transformed into digital assessments on the Learning Passport. Every practice exam automatically provided scores and feedback when completed, giving students the chance to evaluate their performance, identify areas for improvement, and hone their skills.
Students using the Learning Passport at a Digital Learning Hub in Sierra Leone. Source: Making strides to make digital literacy facilities accessible to children across Sierra Leone | UNICEF Sierra Leone
One hundred and sixty learners participated in the pilot and took an average of 8 practice tests over two weeks. Students took tests across different examination subjects, but most focused on math and language studies.
Based on data from a survey of participants, more than 90 per cent of students found the Learning Passport to be a ‘very useful’ revision tool to prepare for exams and were ‘very likely to use the Learning Passport to prepare for examinations if available and would recommend it to others as a study tool’.
The facilitators at one of the participating ICT labs also provided positive feedback:
‘the platform is helping participants gain knowledge of the basic use of computers and it has also provided an opportunity for the children to practice answering questions in a timed manner, just as will be expected of them during the real exams’.
The primary challenge reported by students was that they were not comfortable using computers being more accustomed to mobile phones. Additionally, internet and power cuts were sometimes an issue as they interrupted practice tests.
Practice test scores improved over time. Of the 20 pilot schools, students from nine schools prepared for the BECE exam using the Learning Passport. To monitor a student’s progress through practice exams, a post-assessment was added to the platform. This post-assessment reordered questions from the first math and language exam students were asked to complete. Students who took several practice exams over the two-week period saw significant improvement in scores from the first to last exam. However, due to some administrative challenges, only a limited amount of data from students who took comparable first and last exams could be analyzed.
Results from the pilot indicate that the Learning Passport is a powerful tool to support students’ learning and acquisition of digital skills. Students will have more opportunities to explore various topics as educational content continues to be developed for the Learning Passport in Sierra Leone.
An offline version of the Learning Passport will be available in Sierra Leone , allowing the same learning experience to be replicated for students without internet connectivity.
Teachers and facilitators are the most critical stakeholders in supporting children’s learning, with or without technology. Well-managed environments and activities, such as a computer lab managed by facilitators, was crucial to the success of the pilot.
More to come. This is part of a global initiative to build implementation research into the deployment of the Learning Passport to learn and improve the programme as it scales.