Mobile phones have fundamentally changed not only how we communicate, but how we think, behave and live. But can they also change the critical question of teaching and learning in our secondary schools? EPHRAIM NYONDO tackles this question as he begins a four-part series on education and technology in Malawi.
Foster Gondwe—a Chancellor College lecturer in Instruction Media and Technology—understands better the fix of opposing demand facing Malawi’s secondary education system.
There is high demand for quality and relevant education on one hand, he says, and on the other, he notes, there is limited resources to meet the demand.
Faced with a limited national budget at the time when the system is experiencing increasing enrolments, adds Gondwe, it is impossible to expand the system in a traditional way.
Arguably, there is an urgent need to explore other alternatives of increasing access, relevance, equity in improving quality of secondary education as advanced in the 2008-2017 National Education Sector Plan (Nesp).
This is why, among other alternatives, some education scholars and practitioners argue that modern information communication technologies (ICT) are an alternative solution to some of these educational problems.
Particularly, scholars and practitioners have eyed mobile learning in Malawi, especially the use of mobile phones in secondary schools as an ICT innovation that could revolutionise teaching and learning in schools.
The argument stems for the fact that mobile phone access and use, especially among the school-going age group, continue t0 skyrocket with ruthless streak in the country.
A 2016 study by Dr Allister Munthali and others titled Mobile Phones and Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: From Youth Practice to Public Policy attests to that. It found that ownership of mobile phones, of all types, increased, between 2007/2008 and 2013/2014, among Malawians, from approximately 0.6 to 8.4 per cent in Malawi, representing a phenomenal 1 300 percent increase. On usage, during the same period, the study notes the increase moved from 16.7 to 41.6 per cent, representing 149 percent increase.
This increase, already, changed every dynamic of how Malawians not only communicate, but think, behave and interact. A mobile phone has become the lifeblood of our society—fundamentally changing how we live.
Driven by that, education scholars, researcher and practitioners are asking so many questions if mobile phones could, as well, be a solution to some of the underlying problems in secondary education.
Some of the questions include: What should be done to realise the education plans? What is the place of mobile technology in ensuring access or contributing to availability of essential instructional materials and broadening access to education? If mobile technology offers opportunities, how best can they be harnessed for secondary education in Malawi? What challenges lie ahead that are likely to hinder integration of mobile technology in Malawi’s secondary education?
To tackle the questions, I embarked on the journey of seeking various insights from different stakeholders involved in the secondary education strata—students, teachers, parents, scholars and policy makers. The question I asked them is: What do they think about a mobile phone in a classroom? Do you find it as friend or a foe?
I had a 30-minutes focus group discussion with six Form Three students at Njamba Day Secondary School in Blantyre. Out of the six, three girls and three boys—all of them are in their early teens—only one boy said that he did not have a phone. The rest had.
Just after asking if mobile phones can help in teaching and learning, everyone had a hand up and, interestingly, with a common answer. They all underlined the importance of using phones in learning from their personal experiences.
“I remember a day when our teacher gave us an English assignment. He said when you go home and fail to find answers in the textbooks, turn to google on the internet. I have a smartphone which I don’t bring to school. But when I got home I went on google and found exactly what I want. I passed the assignment,” one of the girls said.
Her friend, Wanangwa Nyirenda, turns to internet often to connect current affairs with what she learns at school.
“As a student I need to be abreast with current affairs. Mobile phones with internet are the answer to that. You get updates on what is happening in the country and it becomes easy for you to relate what you learn in the classroom to what is happening out there,” she says.
For Sajona Solobala, mobile phones can help a lot in facilitating what he termed ‘e-learning’. He says you can easily link up with a teacher when you have an educational problem and, again, learning and teaching can be facilitated even without physical contact.
“A teacher can only give you the instructions on where you can find the information. You can search it yourself and do the needful. This can help us in developing independence as opposed to just being taught everything,” he says.
Being students at an elite school, the argument could be that they are privileged. However, I talked to some students at Makande Community Day Secondary School in rural Chikwawa. Out of the seven students, four had mobile phones and of the four, two had smartphones with internet.
“With google,” says Caroline Alfonso, 13, one of the two girls with smartphones, “it is fast and convenient for me to find the answers to most of the assignments that I am given here.”
She adds most of her friends turn to her during assignments. She explains her friends contribute airtime money, buy bundles and search as a group for answers to the assignment.
“We are wasting time arguing if the mobile phone is important. It is already helping so many of us. It’s time government found ways to officially bring the mobile phones in class,” she says.
Cracks within teachers
Despite the apparent optimism of bringing phones in classrooms among students, teachers appear divided on the issue. Though they all understand its importance in teaching and learning, some teachers still have issues with the mobile phone—arguing it could hinder the learning process.
Blessings Chiumia, deputy headteacher at Njamba Day Secondary School, says during lesson time, a mobile phone could be detrimental. He argues most students will spend more time on social networks than on issues pertaining what they are learning.
He adds that learning in secondary schools is detailed, almost like spoon feeding, as such, there is no need for mobile phones in the classroom.
In college, he says, they lecture, adding: “That kind of teaching makes it critical for students to turn to internet to advance their learning. Here, in secondary schools we spoon-feed the learner and again, we have so many books, which are detailed. As such, I don’t see where internet would come in. Because of that most students turn to internet for social networks which disturbs the learning process.”
Another teacher from rural Chikwawa, who spoke on condition of anonymity, challenged that to bring mobile phones in classrooms would completely bring indiscipline in schools. The use of this technology is not bad in its own, she says, but the way learners would use it. It is pathetic, she declares.
But Liv Mwale, another teacher, who is currently in South Africa and shares what he has experienced.
“Cellphones are a very useful and powerful resource in education. I closely work with a High School that uses iPads for teaching and learning. At the school, it’s a must that each student must buy an iPad and the school loads all the books into students’ iPads. Teachers rarely write on the board and they encourage the students to use Internet to search for information.
“Challenges? Yes they are there. I have observed that some students watch videos, pictures and other unwanted materials especially during break time. But, how many of our secondary school students are doing the same after school hours in Malawi?” he says.
However, he adds, we cannot deny children the right to technology.