3rd June, 2013
By Gbenro Adegbola
There is a not so quiet revolution playing out in the education sector in the state of Osun. It is the rollout of the Opon Imo, (knowledge tablet). The official event will take place on Monday 3rd June.
This is a unique and groundbreaking attempt at re-engineering how students learn at the senior secondary level, by making available to each one of them hand held digital tablets. On each of the tablets are preloaded e-books on all subjects that are offered at secondary school level, video lectures and tutoring notes, as well as a test platform for students’ self assessment to monitor their own comprehension and mastery of the subject. Opon Imo thus creates a virtual learning environment in which each student can immerse herself, preview topics ahead of class, revise after the class and to assess his or her learning. It literally places in the hands of each student a vast world of knowledge. It then becomes up to each student to take full advantage of this learning opportunity for his or her success.
This writer has had the privilege of being involved with the project from inception by supplying the e-books pre loaded on the tablets, in my former job as Managing Director one of Evans Publishers. I had gone to meet the Governor shortly after assumption of office, accompanied by some members of my management team, to make a corporate presentation to him on how we could be involved with education in the state. Some of the ideas we canvassed in our presentation, tallied with his own ideas thus opening up what has now become a golden opportunity of being involved with one of the most exciting interventions in learning in Nigeria. I have maintained an interest in the project since then, even after moving on to another company, till date.
Officials of the State of Osun have made statements about how much of a saving the project has meant for the state. I would like, in this write up, to dwell on a number of other advantages of e-learning, far more important than the financial savings to the state government, which the beneficiaries of this project in Osun will no doubt reap. As it is structured, Opon Imo ensures that each student has an e-textbook not only in all the subjects he is taking, but also on every subject offered at secondary level. This in itself is revolutionary. Thus a Science student, who has interest in literature and does not offer it, can still dip into literature texts at his leisure. In the same way, an arts student can learn about scientific concepts that intrigue him, purely for knowledge’s sake. The implications of this for knowledge availability, acquisition and spread are self-evident. There are also material loaded on the tablets for character development, civic and religious education.
As Osun schools migrate from traditional learning environments to a more modern technology-rich learning space, what will be seen in no time is not merely a change in student enthusiasm for learning but a significant shift in the enhancement of the learning experience for each student. This shift will be manifested in a move from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered learning: A shift from single-sense stimulation
to multi-sensory stimulation, single-path progression to multi-path progression, single media instruction to multimedia instruction, isolated work to collaborative work, information delivery to Information exchange, passive learning to active/exploratory/inquiry-based learning, mere cramming of facts and knowledge to critical thinking and informed decision-making, reactive responses to proactive/planned action. As a result, the total learning experience will be significantly improved, with positive implications for school attendance and ultimate learning outcomes. Students will increasingly become independent, self-directed learners who are able to master higher-level critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaborative skills.
The Opon Imo project is also unconsciously breeding a new generation of digitally literate young persons. One of the observations made during one of the several project trial/testing sessions in Osogbo in 2012, was the ease with which students who had never before seen or handled a computer tablet took to them like fish to water. Within a few hours they discovered capabilities the tablets had that were not even known to the technical people and had started performing operations they were only just being introduced to. This resulting digital competence will no doubt encourage in many, a closer affinity for computing and what computers can do. It may even lead to some of the students developing interest that will take them along the direction of creating simple computer applications and solutions. After all, this was how Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and many of the computer greats, started their careers. The digital affinity and skills they acquire now, will remain with them all their lives and careers. Consider also the ripple effects on the larger society when these tablets are taken home. In Michigan’s statewide Freedom to Learn Initiative, 66 percent of teachers observed that parents were more involved with their children’s schooling. Over 90 percent of the parents were excited about the program and 80 percent believed it will make their children better students. In a similar pilot carried out in Ghana, in which this writer was tangentially involved, there was significant impact on the parents who were mostly illiterate. A new interest in literacy was noticed in many more parents. The consensus everywhere in the developing world where communal access to information technology has been facilitated for whatever purpose is that it does seem to produce some positive effects in the larger community beyond the immediate reasons for the deployment. In fact, government can go a few steps further and preload information targeted at rural parents on the student’s tablets; thereby turning the students to change agents and purveyors of vital information and knowledge within their immediate and larger families. Although parental involvement and other such home effects are often secondary, if not peripheral to the immediate goals of eLearning deployment, the effect of a more informed and aware citizenry cannot be totally discounted. After all, what is the ultimate aim of government than to produce an enlightened and exposed citizenry?
The idea of logging around heavy volumes of physical books is eliminated with the use of Opon Imo. Students can now study anywhere, at any time. Take for example a student traveling between Osogbo and Abuja. With physical books, he’s limited to carrying with him just one or two books for study on the road. If he finds that he’d rather study different subjects, he’s stuck. But with the tablet, he carry’s his entire library, plus other multi media material, which accommodate the different learning styles: auditory, visual and kinesthetic styles with him always.
With each lesson in the student’s hands in the form of videos and tutoring notes, a student has an opportunity to preview a class before the teacher presents it. He is therefore are able to check the material ahead and gather some background to the topic. This no doubt will aid learning. It also gives the teacher an opportunity to flip the class. The Flipped classroom is a new method in 21st century learning, popularized in the US. Two high school teachers Jonathan Bergsman and Aaron Sams, pioneered it in 2007. They discovered software to record Power Point presentations of their lectures and posted these online for students who missed classes due to ill health or other reasons. Students who attended the classes but missed certain points soon began using these materials as well. The teachers found that they subsequently spent almost the first half of every class reviewing and answering student questions at the end of which they found the no longer needed to teach that particular topic but rather, reinforce what the students’ by now had come to know. So the idea of inverting the traditional teaching model by moving what is normally done in class to be done at home independently at the student’s own pace via video lessons, was born. The issue of the teacher going too fast for slow learners or too slow for fast learners, becomes a thing of the past. The time in classroom is then devoted to an overview, collaborative discussions, clarifications, concept management and reinforcement activities under the guidance of the teacher. The flipped classroom in essence, is really about changing the instructional model, so that teachers can devote more time to giving their students deeper instructional support in the classroom. One important factor that has been driving the adoption of flipped classroom practices in the US is the really poor learning outcomes from the traditional one-size-fits-all model of education. The flipped classroom has been used in many countries of the developed world with some amazing results. A particular school district in Ohio, which was recording 50% and 44% failure in English and Math respectively, was able to ‘flip’ the fail rate at the end of one year, down to 19% and 13% respectively. In addition, it was found that students engaged more positively, had lower levels of frustration because the task of doing homework alone, which was the major source of student frustration had bee removed and a lot of what would have been done as home work was being done collaboratively in class as exercises. Students learnt at their own pace, repeating material to reinforce learning, or delving into additional material to enrich what they have learnt.
Students and teachers are not the only people who can potentially benefit from eLearning. When a rural school district in Pennsylvania, USA, equipped a set of students with laptops and home Internet access, principals in the district found that they were better equipped as a result, to provide more effective instructional leadership and management because they had better visibility into students’ progress and work products. Assessments and test results were obtained faster, which enabled the principals to recommend and implement remedial measures for students who were weak in certain subjects before it was too late
However, a digital learning environment should never be mistaken for a silver bullet or magic wand that solves all educational delivery problems. Like every other type of intervention, it requires a high level of management and administrative coordination for it to yield the desired results. Scheduled and trouble shooting maintenance of the hardware for example must be managed so well, as to eliminate the amount of time a student has to do without his tablet or at least reduce this to the barest minimum. A replacement policy will also be needed for malfunction and total breakdown. These are complex logistical operations that may need to be contracted to an independent organization or at least a management unit be created for it.
The government of the State of Osun has taken the position that Internet access will constitute a distraction to students and so; the tablets are not Internet enabled. While there is some wisdom in this thinking, it seems to me a bit of a disadvantage that the students will not be able to experience the vast world of knowledge that is found on the Internet. I do hope in the future this restriction can be reversed. It is quite possible these days with classroom management software, to curate and limit the sites that a student can visit to predetermined sites. This allows them to have access to a greater store of useful study material while avoiding the distracting and downright negative ones. Allowing students access to the Internet can also facilitate collaborative learning across borders, within moderated student forums and discussion groups. Thus a student in a remote rural community for example, can join a curated study forum with other students from different parts of the world and share the benefits of ach other’s expertise online.
To facilitate a deeper positive impact of the project, government must also invest quickly in massive teacher re-training. ELearning has a specific and distinct pedagogy of its own. This is a special method of enquiry and discovery, very different from the ‘sage on a stage’ traditional teaching method. An effective and sustainable method of disseminating these skills to teachers must be deployed in fairly intensive training sessions, so that teachers become skilled and comfortable using digital resources to enhance teaching and learning.
To achieve this, government and must invest not only in professional teacher retraining and reorientation, but also in development of more curriculum resources for teachers’ use as well. Investment in digital hardware must always go hand in hand with teacher training and orientation. These two areas of investment reinforce each other and increase the chances and rate of return on either type of investment: teacher and curriculum resources development help teachers to more effectively use technology to transform teaching and learning, while adequate provision of technology hardware enables the retrained teachers to apply what they have learnt.
It will certainly be interesting in the near future to observe the anticipated positive impact outlined earlier that this project would have on learning outcomes in the state. As the Managing Director of a company committed to the propagation of eLearning in our schools, I have more than a passing interest in this and will remain close to the project. I have no doubt that eLearning will be greatly popularized in Nigerian schools as a result of this pioneering effort. In fact, I have a prediction that a learning platform that leverages on Telecommunications infrastructure will be one of the fastest growing developments in Nigerian education, over the next five years. E-Learning remains the most viable means by which every Nigerian child can have access to the same quality education weather they live in cosmopolitan Lagos or the most backward rural corners of Nigeria.
Our young people deserve an education that prepares them to thrive in a world of rapid change and increasing globalization. They need to be exposed to skills that will enable them to learn, work and live happily and effectively in the 21st Century. The government of the state of Osun has taken a giant step towards this. I have no doubt other states and private schools will follow suit. I wish the Opon Imo team more power to their elbows!
•Gbenro Adegbola, MD/CEO, First Veritas Educational Content Delivery Ltd, Ibadan. E-mail: [email protected]