Primary schools in Bangladesh to go digital, reaching 20 million students

February 17, 2016 by and

The Bangladesh Prime Minister this week launched the latest addition to the country’s digital curriculum to reach 20 million primary school students, continuing to revolutionise one of the most under-resourced education systems in South Asia.

As governments worldwide scramble to cultivate a generation of tech-savvy children, Bangladesh is continuing to push the boundaries of digital learning through interactive multimedia content. Even in the remotest corners of the country, the newest generation will now be using computers from their first year of school.

On 14 February, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina launched interactive lessons for Grade 1-3, a joint initiative by the Government of Bangladesh, BRAC and Save the Children in response to the success of content previously developed by BRAC for Grade 6-10. By mid-2016, interactive lessons for Grade 1-10 (primary, junior and secondary education) will be accessible online on any device.

The ‘tab school’ in the slum

Children in BRAC's primary school in Korail slum, Dhaka.

Children in BRAC’s primary school in Korail slum, Dhaka.

Korail is one of the largest slums in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Home to an estimated 40,000 people, it is never quiet. There is one building that has recently become particularly loud though. It is a rough tin shed, which rings with the sound of students laughing, talking, and singing their multiplication tables, along with animated voices for hours every day.

The shed, one of tens of thousands of schools run by BRAC, is known as the ‘tab school’. In selected schools, BRAC has already started using tablets to access interactive multimedia digital learning content. Nur Nahar, the teacher in the school, laughs when she explains that her job is not only teaching, but also being taught. Her classes now revolve around digital media, which, prior to their introduction in her classroom, she had never even seen before.

“Digital content makes learning happen much faster,” Ms Nahar said. “I have never seen many things in the world, and I never will. My students definitely have not either, but now they can see anything in the world in my class. Many topics, like mathematics and science, are hard to explain using just text. With pictures and videos, I have lots of new ways to show them why things happen and how. I had never heard of a tablet before this class. I was scared to use it but now I use it every day to explain things.”

“Children are coming to school earlier and there are fewer students dropping out,” she added. “Since this programme began, learning does not stop when class ends. It continues, every day, for so many more people than just my students. Children go home and show their families and everyone they know what they’ve learned on whatever device they can find. Every morning they come back knowing more than what I taught them so I have to work much harder than before to keep up.”

From Satkhira to Silicon Valley

In public schools, the content is being accessed on computers that the government has already placed in more than 5,500 digital classrooms across the country as part of its Digital Bangladesh initiative. In BRAC schools, where 1 million students are currently enrolled, the content is starting to be accessed on tablet devices.

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The benefits of digital learning for Bangladesh’s next generation will stretch far beyond the walls of Nur Nahar’s classroom. In a country where students in  developing countries like Bangladesh, the potential for information technology is huge. Approximately one in every four people live below the poverty line in Bangladesh, but more than 80 per cent use a mobile phone, and one in every three are online. The country is gearing up to move from manufacturing into the knowledge economy and IT is predicted to become its biggest source of foreign revenue. Bangladesh is already the home of, BKash, the service which Bill Gates himself now invests in, saying it will revolutionise banking for the poor. With students becoming familiar with computer-assisted learning from the first grade of primary school, and mobile-enabled devices rapidly becoming popular across the country, digital learning boasts a similar potential; to revolutionise education in Bangladesh. Every screen can become a space for families to experience animated learning.

As the online learning ecosystem is exploding universally, and Digital Bangladesh is bringing internet access to even the most remote corners of the country, students will be primed to tap into global opportunities. With global poverty being compounded by national inequality in almost every country, learner-centric education will build the confidence and creative mindset that students need to build their own path out of poverty or unemployment. The ultimate tool for leveling the playing field, there will be nothing stopping children in a flood-prone corner of rural Satkhira from learning computer programming to the same level of quality as children born in Silicon Valley.

 

Zunaid Ahmed Palak is the state minister, Ministry of ICT, Government of Bangladesh. He is the youngest minister in the history of Bangladesh.

Safiqul Islam is director of BRAC Education Programme.