As a global advisor for education at VSO, for six years I've visited schools in several developing countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where I've met hundreds of teachers who are striving to improve their teaching skills. Many of these teachers had not received any training yet they were expected to make positive impacts on children's learning.
I believe that if children are to enjoy their right to an education they must be taught by teachers who are properly trained and supported. There is a pressing need to consider how best to train teachers - both new teachers and up-skilling the large numbers of currently unqualified and under-qualified teachers through in-service training.
In this context, the rapid increase in access to mobile technology in developing countries gives us hope. While I recognise that mobile technology is not and never will be an educational panacea, it is a powerful and often overlooked tool that can support education in ways that have not previously been possible.
The world has plunged into a learning crisis in recent times and the quality of education is all too often undermined by the sheer deficit of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, countries need an extra 1.4 million teachers in classrooms to achieve universal primary education by 2015 and 3.4 million by 2030.
However, if you increase the number of teachers, you have to increase the amount of training, so teachers receive proper resources and support to carry out classes. Currently, the capacity of training institutions isn't enough to meet the demand, resulting in teachers failing to get the support they need.
Getting teachers trained
Working in my native Nepal as a teacher and researcher, I've seen first-hand how, even when training is made available, it isn't always tailored properly to the contextual needs of the teachers - whether they are in an urban or rural area, for example. It also tends to be a one-off event or course, without follow up support or opportunities to share and learn from other practitioners.
This is why there is such an urgent need for these teacher educators to work with training colleges and with groups of schools on developing inclusive teaching methods, including showing them how to use the latest technology to their advantage.
The benefits of mobile technology
Access to mobile phones has increased rapidly in developing countries and can be a solution to the problems of delivering high quality teacher training at a low cost.
In Papua New Guinea, VSO found that 92% of teachers have access to mobile phones, proving that today mobile technology is common even in areas where schools, books and computers are scarce.
In partnership with the Department of Education and with funding from Australian Aid, VSO conducted an SMS Story research project in Papua New Guinea to determine if daily mobile phone text-message stories and lesson plans would improve children's reading in primary schools. Teachers in the participating schools received an explanatory poster and daily text messages for 100 days. Teachers in other schools - the control group - received no text messages.
By the end of the trial, the reading scores for children in the participating schools were far higher than for children in the control group. There was clear evidence that text messages carrying lesson plans and stories to teachers had improved children's reading ability significantly and changed teaching practice in the classroom.
Setting up technology enhanced classrooms
While many countries like Malawi have introduced free primary education, the rise in enrolment has led to over-crowding in classrooms, a lack of learning materials and infrastructure, and a shortage of trained teachers, all of which hinder the country's ability to deliver quality education.
Again, mobile technology can help. A good example is the VSO partnership with the non-profit organisation Onebillion which Robbie Couch recently featured in his article Underserved Kids Learn A Year's Worth Of Math In 6 Weeks, Thanks To New App on the Huffington Post. It uses a maths game on mobile tablet technology in the classroom, to improve student and teacher performance and get parents more involved in learning. Researchers at Nottingham University tested the app in Malawi against other teaching apps, as well as no apps, in a randomised control trial. They found that it helped to greatly boost children's maths knowledge compared to the other options.
The research also revealed that by engaging with the app, children were also able to use what they'd learnt and transfer it to paper and pencil format, while girls responded just as well as boys to the intervention, proving that technology can engage girls in primary school education and advance their learning. This is so encouraging.
For me, the question now is how we can make sure that these exciting mobile technology solutions are made accessible to more teachers and those responsible for educating teachers so that they genuinely have an impact on learning for generations to come?