A student works with her mother on a lessons using a tablet provided by British charity Voluntary Services Overseas, in Malawi. (Photo courtesy of VSO/Craig Mawanga)
A student works with her mother on a lessons using a tablet provided by British charity Voluntary Services Overseas, in Malawi. (Photo courtesy of VSO/Craig Mawanga)

BLANTYRE, MALAWI - Students in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa, have been out of school since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most students have been able to study from home with lessons offered on the internet or radio, many in poor and remote villages have been left out. A British charity has helped bridge the gap by distributing solar-powered computer tablets with pre-programmed lessons to rural primary school students.

All the content is in Malawi's main language, Chichewa, and helps students improve skills in reading, writing and math. 

Parents say the intervention has eased their worry over their children's education, a worry which spiked again after the government announced last week that it had suspended plans to reopen schools on July 13 due to a rise in COVID-19 cases. 

Charity Kanyoza, an education specialist at British charity Voluntary Services Overseas, assists a student with a computer tablet at her home in Lilongwe, Malawi. (Photo courtesy of VSO/Craig Mawanga)

"I lost hope, but with the coming of these iPads, we are very happy because now my children have something to do," said parent Olive Makison. "They have stopped playing around. They are now learning. This will improve their education."

British charity Voluntary Services Overseas, or VSO, said it has provided 1,000 tablets to learners from poor families who cannot access the radio and television lessons which the government is currently providing. 

"What happens is that, the moment that the learners start using them, there is what we call diagnostic tools that place the kid at a right curriculum depending on his or her levels, so the kid starts learning from there," said Yesani Kapanda, program manager for VSO. 

Students' progress is monitored remotely. 

"We have put a sim card in those tablets and we are able to monitor what is happening. If the learners are not using them, we are able to identify such households. We have also built a capacity of some teachers in those communities that are able to follow up to those households and provide any support they may needs as learners are using these gadgets,"  Kapanda said.

Shireen Joseph, a grade 4 student in Lilongwe using the VSO system, told VOA she enjoys learning because the tablets are interactive. 

Gossam Mafuta, director of basic education in the Ministry of Education, told VOA that although the tablet lessons are in line with primary school curriculum, learners will not be assessed on those lessons once schools are reopened.   

"We are just bridging the gap, trying to make sure that we keep them engaged so that they don't forget the curricula material they engaged with," Mafuta said. "When they come, we are not going to assess them on that material. We will actually begin again and try to find means on how we can actually bridge up with those who are not getting it because we are mindful that not all our learners are getting these lessons." 

VSO's Kapanda said the organization plans to distribute 5,000 more tablets, which will also have content for junior secondary school learners.