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Society and communities

Touch-screen educational technology is transforming lives

Since 2013 Nicola Pitchford has been exploring the use of a new tablet technology to support the acquisition of basic numeracy and literacy skills by young children in Malawi, the UK, and other countries worldwide.

Over the past ten years, she has built up a body of scientific evidence that is beginning to challenge the way children are taught in primary school.

Professor Pitchford said: “We are giving children an opportunity to learn in a unique way that is transforming their lives.

“Teachers in Malawi are really up against it. There can be as many as 100 children in one class. But it’s not just Malawi. If you are innumerate and illiterate in our society you are really going to struggle. Imagine being a child growing up and not being able to add up or read? These are skills that all children really have to learn. And we know the Covid-19 pandemic has adversely impacted children's learning of these core foundational skills worldwide”

She has been evaluating a new app developed by the EdTech not-for-profit onebillion, which teaches basic numeracy and literacy skills that children find engaging. This year, Imagine Worldwide has started to implement this innovative education technology nationally in all state primary schools in Malawi, as part of the Building Education Foundations Through Innovation and Technology (BEFIT) programme, with the Government of Malawi. Up to 3.5 million children could benefit every year from the programme.

The interactive app gives each child instant feedback, praising good work and allowing children to progress at their own pace.

Professor Pitchford found the app is highly effective in supporting the development of basic numeracy and literacy skills. In Malawi, using the app for eight consecutive weeks saw educational improvement that would normally take 12 months. And girls progress at the same pace as boys. So if children start using the app at the start of primary school, it prevents a gender gap emerging, which typically disadvantages girls.

In the UK, her research has been supported by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) studentships and funding from the University of Nottingham. The School of Psychology pump-primed the first randomised control trial in Nottingham schools. This first solid evidence led to the Education Endowment Foundation funding a large efficacy trial to develop the UK based research.

"I am using science to understand the chronic situations that children sometimes find themselves in and to translate that scientific knowledge into effective practice"
Professor Nicola Pitchford

As an undergraduate student, her final-year research project was based on a young girl at her mother’s school who suffered a devastating stroke at the age of six. That piece of work convinced her that not enough was being done to support children who had experienced adversity at an early age.

This work goes to the heart of what drives Professor Pitchford’s burning ambition to help improve the quality of life for children who are struggling to learn.

She said: “I am using science to understand the chronic situations that children sometimes find themselves in and to translate that scientific knowledge into effective practice.”

“If I can help one child, just one child to have a better quality of life, then that’s sufficient, that’s enough. But if I can help thousands of children, that would be fantastic.”

Professor Pitchford is now working with onebillion to adapt the app content and pedagogy, so it is effective for all learners, especially those with special educational needs and disabilities.

“We’ve got the evidence to show the app is effective for mainstream learners. The challenge now is to ensure it is effective for the world’s most marginalised children who have special educational needs and disabilities, and struggle to access and engage with mainstream education.”

Together with onebillion, Professor Pitchford is providing new evidence from research with children with special educational needs and disabilities, to ensure the app is adapted to enable these vulnerable children to learn foundational skills. This will give all children worldwide the best chance to learn with the app.

The impact of her research was highlighted as a case study in a 2024 report by UKCDR, which works with the government and funders to amplify and enhance the impact of international development research.

Nicola Pitchford

Professor Nicola Pitchford is based in the School of Psychology and her research expertise lies in developmental psychology and education. She works with neurologists, neonatologists, oncologists, nurses, educators, companies, charities, NGOs and governments to ensure that her work secures real benefits.

This work has been carried out in collaboration with Dr Laura Outhwaite, Anthea Gulliford, and Marc Faulder in the UK, and Dr Antonie Chigeda at the University of Malawi.

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