Josephine Marie Godwyll, professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sports and Recreation, University of Alberta, and founder of the ed-tech social enterprise Young at Heart Ghana, believes that game based e-learning platforms (i.e., recreational learning technology) could play a transformative role in rural schools in Ghana, but only if the issue of access is addressed.
Aisha Schnellmann: How has the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the learning of students in rural Ghana?
Josephine Marie Godwyll: When schools were closed because of COVID-19, students suddenly found themselves stuck at home and largely disconnected from their teachers and peers. Because of difficulties accessing lessons remotely, most students from rural schools were unable to participate in schooling for almost a year. This led to significant learning losses that have not yet been reversed.
These students were often unable to gain basic access to the digital tools and infrastructure, such as computers, tablets, or smartphones, that would allow them to connect to their teachers remotely from home. For the few who had access to remote learning, the limited availability of suitable e-learning programs tailored to their curriculum presented another obstacle. In some cases, teachers resorted to recording lessons on audio or video and posting them in the WhatsApp group chats that they shared with their students. There was also the challenge of suddenly integrating parents into their children’s learning in a context where education takes place primarily in school, with teachers providing instruction.
Many rural schools continue to struggle to close the learning gap caused by the COVID-19 disruptions. School timetables have yet to be optimized, and time allocated to activities such as STEM/Science Practical or Library Time is going unutilized because of a lack of resources and learning materials. Here game-based learning platforms can play a crucial role, giving students engaging opportunities to learn more independently outside of the classroom and providing access to a wider range of learning resources.
“Game-based learning platforms can play a crucial role, giving students engaging opportunities to learn more independently outside of the classroom and providing access to a wider range of learning resources.”
AS: How can students in rural communities benefit from educational technology if they lack reliable power or have difficulty accessing digital devices or the internet?
JG: It’s important to understand that facilitating learning through gamified learning spaces goes beyond the provision of a technology product or tool operating in silo. If we want to maximize its potential, we need to view it as a system that functions within a specific context, tweaking its design based on the resources available as well as the needs of the students, teachers, and parents in the community.
In response to a lack of school buildings, adequate resources, and steady electricity in the rural communities we work with in Ghana, we designed ‘Ananse Cart’, a solar-powered charging system that stores cost-effective, custom-built tablets that students can borrow to access pre-installed game-based and interactive apps for learning.
“Facilitating learning through gamified learning spaces goes beyond the provision of a technology product or tool operating in silo.”
Recognizing the value of place-based education to engage students through their local environments, we designed ‘Ananse The Teacher’, an app which is accessible via ‘Ananse Cart’ or on a smartphone. The app uses storytelling and games highlighted in African folklore, which is predominant in rural contexts to teach science, engineering, arts, technology, and mathematics. Our goal, essentially, is to create ed-tech solutions that are engaging for learners and actually have an impact rather than simply designing fancy technology that does not work in the existing context.
Currently, our game-based e-learning solution has benefitted an estimated 500 students and parents, along with 30 teachers in rural, peri-urban, and urban schools in the Eastern and Greater Accra regions of Ghana. Our team continues to measure the impact of the game-based e-learning solution on mitigating learning losses by using an experimental research approach, analyzing:
- Time spent learning, learning satisfaction, academic performance, and well-being of students
- Time spent teaching, teaching satisfaction, teaching efficiency, and well-being of teachers
- Time spent providing learning support, support satisfaction, support efficiency, and well-being of parents.
AS: What other factors can help e-learning to address these learning losses more effectively?
JG: For e-learning to succeed, the role of the teacher cannot be overlooked. Schools must be ready to train teachers who are not familiar with ed-tech and get them to a point where they can use these tools with confidence. Schools should also collect data from their teachers on a regular basis to better understand and address the challenges teachers are facing in utilizing e-learning. Parental involvement can make a difference too, especially when students are learning at home. In rural Ghana, for instance, programs in the local dialect may be more effective because not every parent speaks English. In farming communities, e-learning modules based on topics that are relevant to the local population (such as seed germination) may prove more engaging for students and parents alike. At the end of the day, we need to ensure that instead of adding even more challenges that education needs to overcome, ed tech solutions provide an opportunity to address learning losses directly.
“For e-learning to succeed, the role of the teacher cannot be overlooked.”
AS: Is enough being done to address the widening achievement gap in post-pandemic Ghana?
JG: I think more can be done. Instead of leaving it up to teachers to make up for the learning losses experienced by students during the pandemic, more intentional and structural interventions could be implemented to close these gaps. Is there a more effective solution than adding extra classes and extending students’ traditional learning time, for example? Might we explore a flipped classroom model, in which students complete more work at home and then go to school to discuss what they’ve learnt? And beyond efforts to mitigate learning losses, should we regard more engaging digital tools and pedagogy informed interventions as an essential part of educating children in rural Ghana?
The pandemic has shown us the important role e-learning can play in extending learning beyond the classroom, but it has also highlighted the inequity of access to digital tools and engaging programs between countries and within communities.
With two-thirds of children in Ghana living in rural areas and a global future that is fundamentally digital, it is perhaps time that we started paying more attention to addressing the issue of access through the provision of tools and exciting platforms for students in such communities. Improving digital literacy and supporting local ed-tech organizations will help ensure that our children will be ready to thrive in the modern world.
Dr. Josephine Marie Godwyll is a professor in the recreation, sports and tourism program in the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Her research interests and passion for community development intersects through her work at Young At Heart Ghana, an ed-tech organization she co-founded with Mr. Martin Bruce. Her scholarly work includes a focus on investigating sustainable access to e-learning opportunities presented through recreational technology platforms such as games, and storytelling channels.
Over the past 9 years, Young At Heart Ghana has sought to advance access to e-learning through recreational technology in Low- and Middle-Income Contexts. The organization has reached 10,000+ learners, teachers, and parents across Africa, through products like Ananse Cart – portable solar powered computer laboratories, Ananse e-learning suite – first African story-based STE(A)M app and Train the Trainer engagements – educational support services.
The research she has done through her organization has gained international interest and support evidenced by research grants and partnerships with University College London (UCL), Royal Academy of Engineers and Jacobs Foundation. She was the first woman recipient of the “Engineering Excellence Award”, by the Ghana Institute of Engineers, was a candidate for the 2020 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation Award, is a Coor fellow and a Mandela Washington fellow.