Kamangeni Phiri, correspondent
MS Keresia Chuma, 42, an early childhood development teacher at Magedleni Primary School in a remote corner of rural Gwanda, fell in love with STELA, an offline tablet.
For nearly two years, the electronic gadget has become an inseparable part of his professional life. She wears it in the classroom during lessons and at the play center for outdoor play.
“The STELA tablet greatly facilitates my work,” says Ms. Chuma. “He has all the skills needed to assess and support learners; that’s why I often rely on it.
STELA stands for Smart Tablet Early Learning Assessment.
Before starting to use the tablet, Ms. Chuma spent a lot of time researching and preparing visuals for her lessons. By the time she moved on to giving the actual lesson, she would be mentally exhausted.
“When I wanted the children to do a visual, for example, I had to start by researching the program or the manuals in order to see what medium to use for this activity.
It was a tiring process. I sometimes struggled to find activities for my class,” says Ms. Chuma, who has seven years of experience teaching ECD classes.
The offline tablet is automatically updated once when it accesses the Internet. It is synchronized with a server in Cape Town, South Africa and comes with a solar power pack for recharging as most rural schools lack grid electricity.
“Today, preparing a lesson has become so easy compared to the pre-tablet days. I just have to search for an activity on the tablet and it will tell me what media to use,” Ms. Chuma enthuses.
While most teachers in Southern Africa still struggle with the traditional diagram and blueprint manual, some rural ECD teachers in six SADC countries struggle with the smart tablet. The beneficiary schools came from Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The offline tablet is more like a digital schematic book, schedule, schedule, and project plan all in one. It is designed to end the lack of access to high quality early childhood (pre-school) education in developing countries through its wide range of learning content.
“The tablet is cost effective and saves time. It helps a lot in the teaching and learning of EDC learners. It also shapes children. The administrators, especially the head teacher, use the gadget to evaluate and monitor the ECD teacher while delivering the lesson,” said Mr. Leonard Dube, Principal of Simbumbumbu Primary School, one of the tablets smart technologies benefiting schools in Gwanda.
The offline tablet forms the core component of a community empowerment program dubbed the School Readiness Initiative (SRI), the brainchild of the Swiss-based Roger Federer Foundation, created by and named after the legendary international star of tennis.
The foundation’s board has approved a budget of over eight million Swiss francs (US$9,121,560) for the Zimbabwe initiative. So far, 151 teachers (114 women and 37 men) and 7,035 parents (including 6,319 women) have benefited from the SRI program so far.
In Zimbabwe, the Roger Federer Foundation is working with the government, the Child Protection Society (CPS) and the Uluntu Community Foundation, among several other partners, to implement the STELA tablet.
“So far, 100 schools have benefited from the SRI program’s STELA tablet project in three rural districts of Zimbabwe. We have 10 schools in Gwanda, 48 in Rushinga and 42 in Zvimba districts using the smart tablet,” said CPS Director, Ms Mercy Sakanya.
The tablet, a subset of the early learning kiosk, was introduced in Zimbabwe for the benefit of rural schools in February 2020.
The Preschool Learning Kiosk is equipped with several tools and apps that enable ECD teachers to continuously build capacity and improve their skills. It is a package that includes three components; the STELA tablet itself, a natural game module and the toy production module.
Game and toy production modules can be accessed through the tablet’s toolbox items.
“Both modules guide ECD teachers in mobilizing parents to create natural play areas for outdoor play areas and produce toys for indoor play areas for ECD learners using primarily available materials and human resources locally. Communities are involved in creating playgrounds,” Ms Sakanya said.
The STELA tablet has as its main features two applications, the KnowHow application and the Childstep application.
The KnowHow app promotes peer-to-peer learning among EDC teachers. It includes an accredited six-week self-guided early learning course for the ECD teacher. The six-week course includes modules that contain local learning videos, audio and a storybook in local languages.
The Childstep app, on the other hand, helps the teacher track the developmental milestones of individual EDC learners.
“The app provides guidance on activities teachers can do to improve in areas where the child is lagging. It also produces class averages to guide the teacher in areas where they need to focus when implementing the competency-based curriculum.
The gadget helps guide the conversation between the teacher and the parents about what the latter can do at home to help achieve the areas of development that the child has yet to reach,” said Ms Sakanya.
The tablet content was developed by a local team of consultants from the University of Zimbabwe working in consultation with teachers and stakeholders within the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.
But in 2020, Covid-19 stalled the adoption of the STELA tablet. Schools have had to close for long periods as part of efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic.
“The STELA program was scheduled to run from 2020 to 2021 but had to be extended due to the pandemic. Implementing the smart tablet requires face-to-face interaction with children in a classroom setting. However, the tool was implemented more effectively in 2021 when schools reopened. It works as a pilot project until it is adopted by the government,” Ms. Sakanya said.
Since 2014, the government has made ECD education compulsory. However, resources for ECD learning and infrastructure remain a challenge, not only in Zimbabwe but across Africa.
Most schools, especially those in rural areas, have had to employ paraprofessionals to help launch the program.
“We realized that there was a huge gap in rural schools in terms of infrastructure and learning resources. Uluntu, in collaboration with the government, came up with a number of intervention programs which included the STELA tablet to help build teacher capacity.
Our aim was to help rural schools create a child-friendly and age-appropriate learning environment,” said Ms. Sibusisiwe Sithole, Executive Director of Uluntu Community Foundation, whose organization implements the SRI program in the Matabeleland region.
The NGO also distributed the smart tablet to beneficiary schools in Gwanda.
The government, in close collaboration with several NGOs like the Uluntu Foundation, has organized a number of trainings for teachers’ indoor and outdoor programs. Parents were also trained in doll making under the supervision of ECD teachers while the community helped set up outdoor play equipment.
“All training and all projects were guided by the STELA tablet. The programs allow parents and the community to play an important role in educating children at an early stage,” Ms Sithole said.
SRI interventions and successes were uniform in Gwanda, Rushinga and Zvimba districts.
Experts say the STELA tablet can only bring the desired change in education in Zimbabwe if it includes all schools.
“The tablet gives some students an unfair advantage over others despite its noble efforts to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural schools.
Such technology should be accessible to all teachers, regardless of their geographical location, if we are to comprehensively improve the quality of rural education,” said Dr. Felix Chari, Professor at the University of Science Education of Bindura.
Dr Nhlanhla Landa, a Zimbabwean educationist based in South Africa, said development in rural Africa was mainly hampered by a poor mobile phone network and lack of internet access. He said authorities need to invite more stakeholders on board to help expand the spread of technologies such as the offline STELA tablet to all rural schools.
“There will be more benefits if the project is extended to all levels of learning in primary and secondary schools. The tablet can help the rural student’s online learning in these times of Covid-19. Colleagues and I have been doing research in the Eastern Cape Province and the issue of mobile phone network connectivity has emerged as one of the main disadvantages faced by the rural learner when migrating to online learning. line enhanced by information and communication technologies during the covid-19 pandemic.
However, the success and expansion of this good initiative still depends on sustainable energy sources. There is a need to start thinking seriously about solar energy and rural electrification,” said Dr Landa, senior lecturer at the University of Fort Hare.
Ms. Sakanya said that once the government approves the program, the STELA tablet program will be adopted nationwide.
“The tablet remains a pilot program for now. Its content incorporates the Zimbabwean ECD curriculum but has not yet been assessed. The expected outcome is that there is evidence (through an evaluation study) that it has been well implemented and aligns with the competency-based curriculum before it is adopted by ministry,” she said.
Adoption of the tablet appears imminent after Deputy Minister of Primary and Secondary Education Edgar Moyo expressed satisfaction with the way the pilot project is being conducted.
“Our managers monitor teachers to ensure that they are using the tablet programs correctly. We believe that the smart tablet benefits the learner because its programs are actually part of the curriculum. In the future , we would very much like to include all schools once the assessment is complete,” he said.
For now, ECD teachers who are not part of the current program can access the key tablet “Child Steps” app on Google Play Store. — Twitter username: @kamangeni