Event Abstract

Unlocking Talent Through Technology: The Use of Touch-Screen Tablets and Interactive Apps to Raise Early Learning Outcomes in Marginalised Children Worldwide

  • 1 University of Nottingham, School of Psychology, United Kingdom

The Unlocking Talent Project is an international initiative that is transforming learning for the world’s most marginalised children. It draws together academics at the University of Nottingham and University of Malawi, with implementing partners, VSO, technology developers, onebillion - finalists in the Global Learning X Prize, and the Ministry of Education, Science & Technology in Malawi. The project aims to raise early maths and literacy standards in marginalized children worldwide. Unlocking Talent uses hand-held tablets to deliver high-quality instruction to young children in the early primary school years through a series of child-centred apps. The apps content is based on the national primary school curriculum for mathematics and literacy. This innovate technology enables children of different abilities to learn at their own pace, in their own language, in an inclusive educational setting. Since 2013 an international team of researchers have been evaluating the Unlocking Talent Project. We have been investigating how digital technologies can address inequalities in early education so as to increase opportunities for all children irrespective of their sex, wealth, country of origin, language of instruction, and ability level. We take a child-centred approach, and investigate factors that can influence the child’s ability to learn, including the software and hardware used, teachers’ attitudes and capability to use the technology effectively, schools’ ability to implement the intervention, parents’ opinions about using digital technology in their child’s education, and the government’s ability to sustain the intervention effectively long-term. We have also been exploring if digital technologies can be used to assess neurocognitive development in early childhood. We are developing an app that can monitor the developmental progression of sensory, cognitive, and motor skills, and identify children at risk of developmental delay. Our theoretical framework is grounded in developmental cognitive neuropsychology that enables us to address questions about “How does learning occur? Who benefits the most? What prevents learning? Is there a common brain basis to learning?” The project is currently being implemented at scale in Malawi and the UK and is also operating in Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Northern Territories of Canada, Turkey, India, and Brazil. We use a mixed-methods approach to evaluate the effectiveness of the Unlocking Talent Project. We conduct systematic reviews of extant literature, carry out pupil-level and cluster randomized controlled trials in schools, and administer surveys and semi-structured interviews with pupils, teachers, school leadership, and government officials in charge of education policy, to establish a robust, holistic, evidence base. Our research shows that the onebillion apps are highly effective at supporting the development of basic numeracy and literacy skills, especially in disadvantaged children from low-income countries, such as Malawi (Pitchford, 2015) or high-income countries, such as the UK (Outhwaite et al., 2017). The maths apps are particularly suited to low-achieving children in need of extra support with learning maths, especially those with poor memory skills, as the apps reduce the cognitive load of learning basic mathematics in conventional classroom settings because their interactive features enable children to progress through the content at their own pace and repeat instructions when needed (Outhwaite et al., 2017). The apps are also effective at supporting the acquisition of basic numeracy skills in pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Pitchford et al., under review). Importantly, girls and boys learn basic mathematics with the apps at a similar rate (Pitchford, 2015) which serves to narrow the gender bias in mathematics typically observed in low-income countries, such as Malawi. Across cultures, manual processing speed significantly predicts early maths ability, illustrating there is a common brain basis for learning early mathematical skills (Pitchford & Outhwaite, 2016). These results highlight the potential for touch-screen tablets and high-quality, child-centred, interactive apps to close the attainment gap in early numeracy and literacy skills that exists in many countries worldwide. Consideration will be given to the complexities of implementing novel digital technology education projects, such as Unlocking Talent, at scale in low, middle, and high-income countries, and whether or not these technologies should be introduced into developing countries (Hubber et al., 2016), despite their potential to promote learning and raise educational outcomes in the early years.


This work was supported by the Voluntary Service Overseas [grant number MWI-14/0019 Unlocking Talent Through Technology Improving Learning Outcomes of Primary School Children in Malawi], the Economic and Social Research Council [Grant Number: ES/J500100/1], and a research grant from the School of Psychology, University of Nottingham.


Pitchford, N.J. (2015). Development of early mathematical skills with a tablet intervention: a randomized control trial in Malawi. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:485.

Hubber, P., Outhwaite, L.A., Chigeda, A., McGrath, S., Hodgen, J., & Pitchford, N.J. (2016). Should touch screen tablets be used to improve educational outcomes in primary school children in developing countries? Frontiers in Psychology, 7:839

Pitchford, N.J. & Outhwaite, L.A. (2016). Can touch screen tablets be used to assess cognitive and motor skills in early years primary school children? A cross-cultural study. Frontiers in Psychology, 7:1666.

Outhwaite, L.A., Gulliford, A., & Pitchford, N.J. (2017). Effectiveness of a tablet intervention to support the development of early mathematical skills in UK primary school children. Computers and Education, 108, 43-58.

Keywords: Digital Education, Interactive apps, Early numeracy skills, Early literacy skills, Low-income countries, early learning

Conference: 3rd International Conference on Educational Neuroscience, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 11 Mar - 12 Mar, 2018.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation (invited speakers only)

Topic: Educational Neuroscience

Citation: Pitchford N (2018). Unlocking Talent Through Technology: The Use of Touch-Screen Tablets and Interactive Apps to Raise Early Learning Outcomes in Marginalised Children Worldwide. Conference Abstract: 3rd International Conference on Educational Neuroscience. doi: 10.3389/conf.fnhum.2018.225.00009

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Received: 25 Jan 2018; Published Online: 14 Dec 2018.

* Correspondence: Dr. Nicola Pitchford, University of Nottingham, School of Psychology, Nottingham, NG72RD, United Kingdom, nicola.pitchford@nottingham.ac.uk