iSchool Education Programme

A. Problem Analysis

 1. What was the problem before the implementation of the initiative?
This initiative aims to improve the quality of education in ordinary rural and urban primary schools across Zambia. In fifteen years since the abolition of fees, primary school enrolment has grown substantially. Gross enrolment*in primary school is now close to 100 percent (2013 MDG Report), and Zambia met the 2015 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for Education, universal primary education. However, despite this, substantial shortcomings remain around education quality, learning achievement, and inequalities in access. In rural areas and amongst the poor, enrolment into grade 1 is frequently delayed, and grade repetition and pupil absenteeism are high. This situation is reflected in a lower net enrolment rate**, of just 73 percent (ibid). In the poorest rural provinces, the 2010 Census found that one-third of primary aged children are not in school, while UNICEF finds that 22 percent of rural children have never attended school. In urban areas, while enrollment is high, participation is severely restricted as schools run double- and even triple-shifting systems to accommodate the children of a growing population. The key drivers of poor performance in primary school remains shortages of trained teachers and learning materials. In the 10 years to 2014, the number of trained primary teachers fell, as the number of teachers leaving the profession exceeded the number of new recruits. Moreover, 20% of recruits were allocated to new early childhood teaching positions, rather than replacing departing primary teachers. Pupil teacher ratios vary across the country, rising to over 50:1 in rural provinces. Despite shortages, however, salaries take up 93 percent of the primary education budget, leaving little to invest in materials, books, other learning resources or infrastructure (UNICEF 2016). This is reflected in the availability of books: the best-performing urban settings do not exceed one subject book per three pupils, while in rural provinces this declines to just one in seven, or indeed to no books at all. The result of this situation is very poor learning outcomes. The SACMEQ assessment of Grade 6 pupils shows that Zambian pupils score lowest for maths and reading across 15 countries in southern and eastern Africa. In the current circumstances in Zambia, the challenge was to identify a means of realizing substantial improvements in learning outcomes, by improving the quality of teaching and greatly enhancing access to learning materials within a very limited budget. It was clear that “business as usual” was not going to provide an effective, timely solution, or to achieve the results that Government has committed to. As a result, the Ministry of Education decided to take a different, innovative approach, adopting a home-grown education technology solution, through a public-private partnership. * Gross enrolment: Number of pupils of any age enrolled in primary school, as a percentage of the population aged 7 to 14 years old. ** Net enrolment: Number of pupils aged 7 to 14 enrolled in primary school, as a percentage of the population aged 7 to 14 years old.

B. Strategic Approach

 2. What was the solution?
The solution has been to introduce education technology into urban and rural schools, especially those serving poor communities, and hampered by large class sizes and/or under-trained teachers. The ed-tech program provides teaching and learning materials in English and vernacular languages to support the entire primary curriculum, along with lesson plans, teacher training materials, and additional pupil reading books. Since inception, the program has continued to develop, introducing further innovations including new technologies (TV White Space) to support low-cost rural connectivity, data analytics for performance monitoring and assessment, community engagement via local “internet café” facilities (known as Smart Centers), and off-grid power.

 3. How did the initiative solve the problem and improve people’s lives?
The ed-tech initiative addresses the problem of poor learning outcomes in rural and urban schools. This result has been achieved not by replacing teachers with computers, but rather through strengthening teachers to deliver the curriculum more effectively. The strategy that has served to achieve these results is as follows: 1. Educational content has been developed in Zambia by a private sector company, providing curriculum-aligned lesson plans, teaching material and interactive pupil materials for every lesson, every day; 2. Targeted schools receive tablets (one per six pupils, plus teacher tablets) containing this material, together with storage / charging cabinets, headphones, and solar power equipment where necessary; 3. Teachers are trained in the use of the tablets in their teaching, and head teachers and local education officials are trained in how to oversee and support the use of ed-tech; 4. Teachers are also trained in appropriate teaching methods relevant to their environment; 5. On-going support is provided to teachers, with project staff working to support local education officials to play this role in the start-up period; 6. The performance of teachers and pupils can be monitored remotely, through a local mini-server that tracks the use of tablets, and the pupils results on subject quizzes and tests. The same technology can be used to monitor attendance, time-on-task, and progress through the curriculum. At the same time, in pilot areas: 7. “Smart centers” have been opened to extend low cost internet connectivity via TV White Space to the school and to the community. The Smart Centers provide internet access to pupils and teachers, forming the basis of entrepreneurship clubs for the pupils. They also provide facilities for the community. 8. Better and cheaper access to the internet will increase opportunities to provide learning materials, training materials and other content relevant to social and economic development. Content on health, HIV and AIDS, agriculture and conservation is already in use. Local servers will hold content, which can then be accessed via phones and other devices through local networks. The target audience for this initiative is the hard-to-reach, poorest populations. In urban areas, the primary focus is on community schools, although the program is also being implemented in some Government schools. Community schools started during the period of primary school fees (1990s), and have continued since to serve the poorest populations. Expectations of uniforms and other resources are lower than for Government schools, even with a free primary education policy. In recognition of the responsibility of the Government for education for all, community schools are now transitioning towards greater support from the Ministry of Education. In many cases, this is a contribution towards teachers’ salaries in-service training, and provision of learning materials. In rural areas, the program is being delivered in both Government and community schools. Rural community schools generally exist where the distances to Government schools are far, and often serve small populations. In either case, the schools serve communities that are affected by widespread poverty. For example, the location for one of the evaluations described below has an official poverty rate of 97 percent. In such areas, absenteeism and school drop-out rates have historically been high and education levels very low, suppressing economic development and driving the intergenerational cycle of poverty. With the implementation of the program, the pupils, parents and community all express renewed enthusiasm for school. They are of the view that the program will improve the quality of education, and that they want their children to continue attending school. In some areas, teachers have reported that parents have insisted on having their own classes to use the tablets at the weekend.

C. Execution and Implementation

 4. In which ways is the initiative creative and innovative?
This initiative is creative and innovative in many ways, and has unique features even amongst ed-tech interventions. The initiative: • Introduces technology, even in areas where there is no electricity or telephone signal; • Uses comprehensive, cross-curricular teaching and learning, designed specifically for use in Zambian schools; • Recognizes the critical role that teachers play, especially for children from poor homes. • Aims to strengthen and modernize teaching, not to replace teachers with computers; • Provides effective strategies to help teachers deal with large class sizes; • Creates renewed enthusiasm for education, encouraging community participation; • Enables remote monitoring of performance and learning outcomes, providing detailed information to guide oversight and support; • Delivers low cost connectivity to support education, and also for livelihoods development, and for other services including health. The program also shows significant innovation in terms of affordability. There are many ways of delivering high quality education – increasing teacher numbers, teacher quality, better infrastructure and learning materials – but they all cost far more than what is available for ordinary schools, serving children of the poor. This initiative has demonstrated that learning outcomes can be improved substantially, in existing classes and with existing teachers, through means that are affordable to African Governments.

 5. Who implemented the initiative and what is the size of the population affected by this initiative?
The initiative is a partnership between the Ministry of Education, the Curriculum Development Centre, decentralized education authorities, the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA), schools, a range of grass-roots NGOs, and the private sector. The private sector partner is iSchool Ltd, the Zambian company that developed the program. More recently, Microsoft has given support to the program, particularly with regard to developing expanded access to internet connectivity via TV White Space. At a national level, Ministry of Education maintains oversight of the educational elements of the program, the Curriculum Development Centre monitors and approves educational content, and ZICTA has licenses and oversees matters relating to internet connectivity. In effect, the national level is responsible for strategic oversight and compliance. The implementation is managed at a district level, led by the District Education Board Secretary (the DEBS, who is the officer-in-charge of the local education authority). Depending on the resource availability in each district, the DEBS identifies schools for inclusion in the program, and manages the introduction of the program to school authorities. The basic training program is run by the private sector partners, who also deliver and install the necessary equipment. The DEBS has authority to oversee the program, which in some cases is shared with grass-roots NGOs. At a school level, the head teachers supervise classroom delivery, and also lead community engagement. The ‘Smart Centers’ are intended to be run as a small business. It will take some time to create sufficient demand / income, however, and these are currently also subsidised by an international donor. To date, this program has reached 180,000 primary aged children in Zambia, in urban and rural areas across the country.
 6. How was the strategy implemented and what resources were mobilized?
The program started with the development of digitized content intended to cover every lesson of every day, from grades 1 to 7. The animated and voiced-over content is interactive, with pupil exercises and quizzes, as well as teacher materials. From grades 1 to 3, each lesson is available in English as well as all seven of Zambia’s official vernacular languages. The new content was extensively tested in classrooms in both urban and rural areas, including low-cost settings. Follow up with teachers enabled changes to be made, to ensure that the content was usable and effective. The program was rolled out on a small scale. In 2015, the opportunity came for a substantial expansion. The President of Zambia, Mr Edgar Lungu, declared in his speech at the opening of Parliament that this program should be rolled out to schools across Zambia. This pronouncement led to the formation of the partnership described above, focusing attention towards implementing the President’s declaration. While budget pressures have prevented a comprehensive national rollout, a decentralized approach has proven to be a very effective way of achieving substantial scale up. Key elements of the initiative have evolved over time, including the following: • Capacity building for teachers and education managers: The program initially delivered training as a one-off activity, based on showing teachers “how to use it”. In time, however, the training program adapted to ensure that the new program was being used in the context of better overall teaching practice. Teachers have been trained in pupil-centered active learning, in managing large class sizes, in questioning and differentiation, and other skills associated with best practice. • Continuous upgrading in line with technological developments: The technological world never stands still. Since the development of this program, and in the two years since embarking on large-scale expansion, the possibilities associated with this program have continued to expand. Low cost affordable Internet connectivity is possible via TV White Space, even where there is no telephone signal. This is facilitating communication between education managers and classroom teachers at virtually no cost. Managers can monitor pupil and teacher performance, and the learning content can be updated. Standardized tests can be delivered, and the results uploaded. The provision of school libraries via e-books is now being piloted using this mechanism, reaching schools were currently there are no books. • Monitoring and evaluation: At first, evaluation focused on demonstrating that pupils using this program learned more effectively than their peers. Randomized control trials in several areas showed significant year-on-year gains in performance by targeted pupils compared to control groups. The evaluation approach has now evolved: First, panel data is being built to monitor the impact of the program over an entire primary school cycle, in order to demonstrate the effect of the program over time, particularly in difficult implementing environments. Second, more detailed studies are investigating the effect of the program on classroom practice, emphasizing the fact the program aims to support better teaching: building teachers capacity, not replacing them. The project has been financed by a range of actors. Government provides most of the schools, and most of the teachers. Government also provides education oversight through the DEBS. The private sector has invested in the content, and also supplies hardware and equipment. At a local level, the program has been funded buy a diverse group of contributors. These include schools, parents, teachers, community members, UNICEF, international donors, local NGOs, local businesses, and even tourists. The US-based American Institutes of Research is embarking on a major randomized control trial on a pro-bono basis. In the future, central government budget is also expected to be available.

 7. Who were the stakeholders involved in the design of the initiative and in its implementation?
The design and implementation of the initiative has been influenced by the large number of stakeholders who contribute to its implementation. Specific contributions to the content have been made by the Curriculum Development Center , which is mandated to provide feedback and ultimately approval for any materials to be used in schools. Since inception of the project, the national curriculum have been revised. This has necessitated revision in the digital materials, a process that has been subject to in-depth guidance by the CDC. The Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) has also contributed to the design of this initiative. When the initiative started, the best and only option for internet connection in most schools was via mobile telephone service providers. When new technology, TV White Space, became available more recently, ZICTA studied and then endorsed its use, especially in remote rural schools beyond the telephone network.The role of the private sector has been important, as so often in the technology sector. Using private sector models, but attracting philanthropic investment, the companies involved have offered an opportunity to tap into the leading edge of new thinking, and apply this to the most challenging environments in the primary school sector. Most importantly, perhaps, has been the willingness of teachers serving impoverished communities to engage with this program. Despite diverse difficulties, the teachers have provided constant insight into the use of the program and how to improve it. Their commitment to delivering education to all children (especially those living in poverty) and their willingness to leave the cities and live in remote rural areas, is the most important element of all.

 8. What were the most successful outputs and why was the initiative effective?
There are five concrete outputs that have been demonstrated in each of the major evaluations of this program. They are as follows: 1. Teachers trained in this program deliver active, engaging, child-centered lessons: New national data shows a relationship between teaching styles and learning outcomes. Children learn better when they are actively involved in a task, rather than passively listening or watching. After one year of project implementation, lesson observations show a range of improvements compared to classes in a control group. 2. Pupils enrolled in the program achieve better learning outcomes: Rigorous impact evaluation has compared improvements in numeracy and literacy between program schools and control sites. These evaluations been conducted by UNICEF and the Impact Network, in rural and urban areas. They have used the USAID-developed Early Grade Reading and Maths Assessments, translated as necessary into local languages. The results consistently show significantly better learning outcomes for pupils using the program, with scores typically increasing by around twice as much over a year . 3. The program is cost-effective and affordable for use in ordinary primary schools across Africa: Using decentralized implementation, and without the advantages of centralized cost-saving measures, the cost of providing both hardware and software content, together with teacher training and oversight, is around $19 per pupil per year. New connectivity will also deliver significant reductions in the cost of communications and oversight, especially in remote areas. 4. The program is especially effective for untrained teachers working with large classes in difficult conditions: The equipment has proved to be robust, and the program works in well in off-line and off-grid locations. Community schools, with untrained teachers and temporary buildings, have demonstrated results comparable with schools in considerably less challenging conditions. 5. The program is popular with teachers and pupils, and builds support for education in the community: Simply speaking, this is a very important factor in the program’s success. In one evaluation, teachers most commonly expressed the view that the program enabled them to do better job more easily. Pupils appreciate access to learning materials, enjoy the activities, and say they pay more attention in class. Many head teachers report improved attendance. The evaluation also reports that parents in some locations have been trying to transfer children into schools using the program.

 9. What were the main obstacles encountered and how were they overcome?
The key challenge has been to encourage all teachers to adapt to change. While the younger teachers and those closest to urban areas are usually enthusiastic about the program, it is more difficult for older teachers to contemplate change. Moreover, older teachers often occupy senior positions, including head teacher. Program expectations around their role have therefore been adjusted. Rather than expecting leadership by older teachers to be very hands-on, their role now involves less direct involvement with the technology, with greater focus on performance monitoring and community engagement. Another problem has been the cost of oversight and monitoring. After the program is launched, a series of mentoring visits over the first two years has been an important element in capacity building. The cost of these visits can be substantial, especially in rural areas. By introducing connectivity, it is becoming easier to monitor classroom performance. Visits can be more strategically planned, while a variety of on-line user groups are supporting remote and peer-to-peer learning. A third problem was the change in the national curriculum, which occurred after the original materials were developed. In updating the content, the software engineers have taken the opportunity to transition into a new platform, with support from Microsoft. The new platform means that content is easier to create, and easier to edit. This will allow future adaptation in line with feedback on individual lessons and future curriculum updates. Problems relating to the viability of using technology in difficult conditions were anticipated by some stakeholders, but did not arise. Hardware systems have proved robust, and schools have taken good care of the equipment provided. For example, in one operating environment characterized by particularly dry and sandy conditions, just 3% of the hardware provided showed any sign of malfunction after 18 months.

D. Impact and Sustainability

 10. What were the key benefits resulting from this initiative?
The program has made a significant difference to the delivery of primary school education, including in environments where change is hardest to achieve. In order to improve learning outcomes, the program aims to influence a number of behaviors in the classroom. Studies have looked for more attentive, motivated and engaged pupils, better lessons, effective use of classroom time, more motivated and enthusiastic teachers, and supportive communities. The program’s theory of change is based on the assumption that these factors are required in order to achieve improved learning outcomes. The evidence from monitoring and evaluation shows progress in each of these respects. Pupils ask more questions, they read and engage actively in learning in every lesson. One teacher reports that “pupils have gained listening skills, writing skills, skills in discussions, and interactive skills”. Another said “I’ve learned to listen to the pupils’ ideas and answers, and not reject them”. This is reflected in the analysis of classroom practice. Detailed observation showed significantly less use of “chalk-and-talk” strategies, better questioning strategies, more group work, and more use of games and stories to support learning. Under the program, every child spends some time reading during every lesson; in control groups, this falls by at least one-third. Teachers have also commented that the program makes their work easier. Noting that in the past the lack of teaching and learning materials had caused them to struggle, teachers agree that it is now easier to do a good job. Besides learning outcomes, teachers have remarked that the program has improved their rapport with pupils. As important role models and mentors in the community, this can only contribute to a more positive prospect for pupils sustained attendance and progression. The availability of internet connectivity at schools and for the community in remote areas is also impacting teachers, pupils and the public. By improving communication between Schools and local educational authorities, oversight and support become easier. District Education Officials can remain aware of what is happening in all their classrooms, on a daily basis if necessary, even in districts with poor transport infrastructure. In addition, connectivity and solar power installations have led to teachers expressing greater willingness to stay in remote areas. A program to use ‘Smart Center’ facilities as the focus for entrepreneurship clubs for pupils and other young people has been initiated, and initial indications are very promising. Young people whose families have depended on the most fragile livelihoods are actively investigating means of building more sustainable, climate change resilient, profitable income generating activities. These findings have been made based on regular, systematic monitoring. Focus group discussions with pupils, parents and teachers have been conducted, and extensive lesson observations made. These have contributed to the evolution of the program as expands. The success of the program is entirely dependent not upon a technological ‘magic bullet’, but upon the contribution of these actors, and on their enthusiastic engagement. As such, the program has created a genuine opportunity for social and economic empowerment at local level.

 11. Did the initiative improve integrity and/or accountability in public service? (If applicable)
Not applicable

 12. Were special measures put in place to ensure that the initiative benefits women and girls and improves the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable? (If applicable)
Program evaluation has investigated the implementation and impact of the program with regards to girls. One concern was that girls would simply watch the boys use the ed-tech equipment. However, the evaluation showed that girls get equal access to the equipment, and are just as active as boys in using it. The evaluation also assessed pupils’ competence as users able to progress through lesson content on the tablets. The results showed that girls were slightly better than boys, although this was not significant. Lastly, and most importantly, the evaluation looked at learning achievement. Over the years, national data shows that as girls progress through school, they start to fall behind, especially in maths. UNICEF’s evaluation in rural schools suggested that girls learning with the program were keeping up with or getting ahead of their male peers in the early grades in both maths and reading. In contrast, girls in control schools fell behind the boys. It is also the case that most primary school teachers are women. By building their capacity as teachers, the program is strengthening them as local role models, and improving their career opportunities.

Contact Information

Institution Name:   iSchool Education Programme
Institution Type:   Other  
Contact Person:   Charlotte Scott
Title:   Manager  
Telephone/ Fax:   260978778151
Institution's / Project's Website:  
Address:   344 Independence Avenue
Postal Code:  
City:   Lusaka

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