Since 2013 Nicola Pitchford has been exploring the use of a new tablet technology to support the acquisition of basic numeracy and literacy skills by young children in Malawi, the UK and other countries worldwide.
Over the past seven years she has built up a body of scientific evidence that is beginning to challenge the way children are taught in primary school.
Professor Pitchford said: “We are giving children an opportunity to learn in a unique way that is transforming their lives.
“Teachers in Malawi are really up against it. There can be as many as 200 children in one class. But it’s not just Malawi. If you are innumerate and illiterate in our society you are really going to struggle. Imagine being a child growing up not being able to add up or read? These are skills that all children really have to learn.”
She has been evaluating a new app developed by the EdTech not-for-profit onebillion, which teaches basic numeracy and literacy skills that children find engaging. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is implementing this innovative education technology as part of its Unlocking Talent programme.
In Malawi, the app has been rolled out in more than 150 schools. In the UK, where there is still work to do on closing the attainment gap, over 80 schools have tested the technology.
The interactive app gives each child instant feedback, praising good work and allowing children to progress at their own pace.
Professor Pitchford found the app is highly effective in supporting the development of basic numeracy and literacy skills. In Malawi, using the app for eight consecutive weeks saw educational improvement that would normally take 12 months. And girls progress at the same pace as boys. So if children start using the app at the start of primary school, it prevents a gender gap emerging, which typically disadvantages girls.
In the UK, her research has been supported by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) studentships and funding from the University of Nottingham. The School of Psychology pump-primed the first randomised control trial in Nottingham schools. This first solid evidence led to the Education Endowment Foundation funding a large efficacy trial to develop the UK based research.
I am using science to understand the chronic situations that children sometimes find themselves in and to translate that scientific knowledge into effective practice
As an undergraduate student, her final-year research project was based on a young girl at her mother’s school who suffered a devastating stroke at the age of six. That piece of work convinced her that not enough was being done to support children who had experienced adversity at an early age.
This work with the Unlocking Talent alliance goes to the heart of what drives Professor Pitchford’s burning ambition to help improve the quality of life for children that are struggling to learn.
She said: “I am using science to understand the chronic situations that children sometimes find themselves in and to translate that scientific knowledge into effective practice.”
“If I can help one child, just one child to have a better quality of life, then that’s sufficient, that’s enough. But if I can help thousands of children, that would be fantastic.”
The app is attracting international attention – onebillion recently won the internationally acclaimed Global Learning XPRIZE which has provided the team with $5 million to scale up the technology.
“We’ve got the evidence to show the app is effective but consistency in implementation is hugely important.”
Together with VSO, Professor Pitchford is developing a set of tools to ensure organisations implement the technology as intended. This will give children the best chance to learn with the app.
The University of Nottingham has provided funding to produce an accessible policy tool kit about the research findings and how the technology will work in different situations, such as in schools and in the community. It will also help governments worldwide make informed policy decisions.
And what makes all this worthwhile? Professor Pitchford will tell you it’s walking into a school in Malawi and seeing the children learning. It’s the teachers saying how grateful they are for raising a child’s expectations and a parent’s thanks for making them see what their children can achieve in a way they never thought possible.