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Development of early mathematical skills with a tablet intervention: a randomized control trial in Malawi

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Author: Pitchford, N.J.

Evaluation of educational interventions is necessary prior to wide-scale rollout. Yet very few rigorous studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of tablet-based interventions, especially in the early years and in developing countries. This study reports a randomized control trial to evaluate the effectiveness of a tablet intervention for supporting the development of early mathematical skills in primary school children in Malawi. A total sample of 318 children, spanning Standards 1-3, attending a medium-sized urban primary school, were randomized to one of three groups: maths tablet intervention, non-maths tablet control, and standard face-to-face practice. Children were pre-tested using tablets at the start of the school year on two tests of mathematical knowledge and a range of basic skills related to scholastic progression. Class teachers then delivered the intervention over an 8-weeks period, for the equivalent of 30-min per day. Technical support was provided from the local Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). Children were then post-tested on the same assessments as given at pre-test. A final sample of 283 children, from Standards 1-3, present at both pre- and post-test, was analyzed to investigate the effectiveness of the maths tablet intervention. Significant effects of the maths tablet intervention over and above standard face-to-face practice or using tablets without the maths software were found in Standards 2 and 3. In Standard 3 the greater learning gains shown by the maths tablet intervention group compared to both of the control groups on the tablet-based assessments transferred to paper and pencil format, illustrating generalization of knowledge gained. Thus, tablet technology can effectively support early years mathematical skills in developing countries if the software is carefully designed to engage the child in the learning process and the content is grounded in a solid well-constructed curriculum appropriate for the child’s developmental stage.