Worldwide we are facing a massive mismatch of teachers and students. But rural schools have especially always struggled to acquire and retain talented teachers. In developing countries, there is a population explosion of promising young people and we are not even close to graduating enough teachers to teach them, let alone placing them where they are needed.
Rural education has a direct impact on rural incomes. There is a daunting need for a second green revolution with the prospect of nine billion humans on earth – and we need scientifically literate rural talent to do it. Thus, we need secondary and college-level scientific education and agricultural talent in rural areas that stay in rural areas. Due to the challenges of getting a good education for their children, many parents migrate to overcrowded cities, creating a permanent rural brain drain. What can be done to prevent this?
We set out to find solutions to this problem in Myanmar and discovered that the shortage of well-trained teachers, especially in rural areas and in the sciences, is nearly universal. At the very same time, experts emphasize the need to encourage a more creative, self-starting science education. Yet, rural schools often are under-resourced and struggle to recruit talent in both developing and developed economies (as well as to rural migrants to big cities).
The solution to this problem turns out to be one of the fastest and least expensive ones. We need to make changes related to our expectations from teachers and the way students learn. But that could take years. Through the magic of software, we provide low-cost tools built around traditional texts, and textbooks in flashcard form and match them with augmented reality on low-cost smartphones using mobile or Wi-Fi. We can provide first-rate science anywhere and everywhere. The teacher migrates from the all-knowing lecturer (and most are struggling generalists) to the co-learning specialist guiding students through automated software and textbook programs.
While co-learning sounds strange and new, it is essentially training teachers in the skills that we train librarians in – that is where to find information in the program, how to use the tools and to help coach students through the process. While retraining teachers sounds like a daunting task, the teacher training on how to use the programs can be done in one day at a minimum and expert level in one week. And as a fallback, the programs can serve as self-taught solutions. While imparting teacher training, we found out several other problems were being solved during the process. In our country, we have over 135 ethnic groups, with many local languages and dialects. Secondary science education is imparted in English. Reprinting texts is expensive, distribution is difficult and multilingual texts are cumbersome. By providing standard programs with inexpensive and easy to add audio tracks in multiple languages, we enable students to work through language issues, and schools to avoid the often ferocious, local politics around language.
Science education is critical to students’ and countries’ futures. Science without a laboratory is hard to understand and not engaging. A few rural schools have labs in Myanmar, but many have few or no equipment. Easy lab experiment videos are closest to actual experiments and most rural students are digital natives who are readily engaged with the programs.
Similarly, the model works very well in language learning and we are deploying a whole set of English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) line of products. Curiously, we also solve an old problem related to the language accent as we supply both British and American accents and the differences intrigue the students – often in peals of laughter (one of the best signs of engagement) — and encourage deeper student engagement. This can work across many languages.
We are now working on mass deployments in Southeast Asia and exploring expansion to South Asia and East Africa. The model is very portable. We are working with a variety of schools and the ministries of education in several countries to do trial deployments and follow-up with rapid expansion. It is hard work, but rare in development investments, the results are almost immediate in better achievement, higher potential and personal confidence for both the students and the teachers.
The future of education is now, and it is in the palm of our students’ hands.
This article is part of our 60th-anniversary series. It is written by Hla Hla Win of 360ed in Myanmar. 360ed is an EdTech social enterprise that was incubated at NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley in 2016. They leverage on virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology and other emerging technologies to bring scalable, immediate, and exponential impacts in transforming national education and beyond. You may email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org