Research tablets and solar systems 2018

Research oct / nov 2018 – Tablet Use in a Remote Area, Kuyawage


Since 2015, SIL has been providing educational support in an isolated and remote area of the mountain highlands in Papua, Indonesia. This valley, Kuyawage, is only accessible by chartered plane or a day’s walk over rugged mountain paths from the nearest small town. They have not had certified teachers actively teaching in their five elementary schools since 2003. My organization has provided training and implementation support for local preschool teachers in the 13 established preschools across the valley. When elementary school teachers never showed up, we provided elementary school curriculum and training for the preschool teachers who were already teaching students who were at an elementary school level. However, because of the teachers’ limited exposure to education, many of which never finished elementary school themselves, progress was limited. Hearing about our efforts and limited success, RSP foundation from the Netherlands decided to provide solar powered lights for teachers, solar panels and tablets filled with educational apps for the schools that were actively trying to teach elementary school students. This foundation, Remote School Papua, has now donated solar panels for six schools as well as between 11-17 tablets per school. But also laptops for teachers, printer and extra mobile solar lights.

Question for Research

In February 2017, I brought the first tablets to a school in Kuyawage. In June, three more schools received tablets and solar panels. Though we had gone twice to bring tablets, not much was known about how the students were responding to the tablets and learning from them. The RSP and I mutually agreed that it would be good to get feedback on the tablet use. I decided to use this action research project to answer the question we were already wondering, which is, “Are the tablets improving education in Kuyawage? Is there an impact? If so, what kind?”

Data Collection Instrument

To answer the action research question, I chose to create a survey tool for teachers and students to answer. It seemed too hard to create a quantitative evaluation that would assess overall improvement in education especially with applications covering colors, numbers, shapes, and both Lani language and Indonesian beginning literacy skills. We also didn’t have applicable baseline data to compare growth in those areas. The surveys (Appendix 1 and 2) covered questions regarding frequency and manner of use; how teachers, students, and parents felt about the tablets; which tablets students and teachers preferred; if the teachers felt there was an impact on student learning; and whether the tablets were used without teacher supervision.

We decided to conduct the survey tool with a minimum of 10 students per school or 25% of the total students in attendance if the number would be more than 10 students. However, because rare government subsidy was given to each household only four weeks prior, many of the teachers were in town replenishing supplies and only returned to teach just before we arrived. Considering schools hadn’t been operating in almost a month, attendance was low and in two schools, the total number of students in class that day was only 8 or 9. In those schools, we surveyed every student. We also surveyed every teacher who attended. In all but one school, there was only one teacher present.

In Lani culture, children’s opinions are rarely solicited. Therefore, asking for their opinion would be difficult no matter the format. The students almost assuredly had never been asked their opinions regarding preferences in school. Both students and teachers also have a lack of exposure to tests, and it seemed that survey participants believed there was a correct answer we were looking for. Because of these limitations, we felt it was best for my colleague and I to create the survey in Indonesian and administer the tool ourselves although we would need someone to serve as a translator. We felt that if the survey was written in Lani and administered through a Lani surveyor, the answers might reflect the opinions of the surveyor rather than the students. Even with our encouragement to answer as they felt in the language they were most comfortable with, we believe that students were still not completely truthful because this was a foreign concept to them. We were also sometimes forced to use the students’ teacher as the translator considering the limited number of Indonesian speakers in Kuyawage. This effected the validity of the students’ responses as they were more afraid to answer ‘incorrectly’ in front of their teacher.

One challenge that we anticipated was whether the students would be able to answer the two rating questions. These questions were: “How comfortable is the teacher with the tablets in class?” and“How much do you like using the tablets?”For teachers, similar questions were asked, “How comfortable are you with the tablets?” and“How comfortable are your students with using the tablets?”Originally, we developed a star rating system since students weren’t yet proficient in numeracy skills. Four stars showed that students really liked the tablets or that the teacher seemed very comfortable with the tablets. One star showed that they didn’t really like them or weren’t very comfortable with them. However, as I showed the assessment to colleagues, we discussed how to make the question more understandable for Lani culture or how to get the same information in a different format. Eventually, we decided to change the rating symbol to pigs instead of stars. Pigs are a symbol of wealth and are more valuable than practically anything else in Lani culture. Lots of pigs means lots of value. As far as a culturally appropriate symbol of approval, we felt that the pig was the best choice. However, it still didn’t guarantee students would understand the question. During implementation, we found students were either arbitrarily pointing to pigs or they could not provide a scale-like answer. They either liked the tablets or didn’t. So eventually we decided to coach them to understand what we meant and accepted anything on the positive scale as “yes” and anything negative was recorded as “no”. This effectively altered the scale style question into a yes/no question.

The teachers also had a difficult time answering the scaled question. It appeared that only one of the five teachers was really able to provide a more accurate rating of how they and the students felt about the tablets. Teachers also seemed to think there was a correct answer to our questions, even though we tried to assure them our data was only collected to help the Remote School Papua foundation serve them and other mountain schools better.

Students had a hard time answering the open-ended question, “How do students help each other with the tablets?” We found it was easier to directly observe the answer to this question by watching how students helped each other as they shared tablets. Teachers did a better job at answering the open-ended questions.

Primary Findings

The survey showed that out of 39 respondents, all but four said that tablets were used every day school was held. In three out of four of the schools, students reported that both the teacher and the students used the tablets. Only in Mume school were students exclusively using the tablets. According to the teacher’s responses regarding challenges faced, only a few of the tablets could be charged daily due to cloudy skies which provided limited sunlight for the solar panels. Respondents from three of the schools overwhelmingly reported that usually four or more students had to share one tablet because fewer than 7 of their 11 tablets were used daily. In the fourth school, Mume, students and teacher reported that all 14 tablets were used daily and only 2-3 students had to share one tablet. This teacher also reported that she has another solar panel that she uses to make sure all tablets are charged daily.

The overwhelming majority of teachers and students said that students enjoyed using the tablets and teachers were comfortable with having them in class. Only one teacher reported that the tablets weren’t very appropriate for use in school with the reasons that they aren’t charged enough and the games are too easy for some of the students. Thirty-five of thirty-nine students reported that parents support the use of tablets in school. All teachers reported that parents support the use of tablets.

When asked which applications are the students’ favorites, the answers varied greatly. However, the apps with the most votes were Marbel Angka (numbers), Marbel Membaca (beginning literacy), and Marbel Mewarnai (coloring animals). More teachers felt students preferred Marbel Angka (numbers) app to others. No respondents chose the EBook Droid app as a favorite. This app had 100 books in PDF format for students to read independently in the mother tongue. Only a few of the tablets had the Bloom app with audio books in the mother tongue on them, so not all students knew of the Bloom app. Even with the limited number of tablets with Bloom installed, still four students chose that as their favorite app.  Though most students responded that they prefer the apps in the Lani language, there were still 11 out of 39 who said that using Indonesian language for apps was just as easy as using Lani. All teachers preferred the apps to be in Lani.

Teachers were split on whether the tablets helped students learn letters, numbers, colors, and beginning literacy faster than without them. With that being said, all but one of the five teachers still felt they were appropriate for use in Kuyawage schools.

The final question for students was regarding tablet use when teachers were not present. In all but one school, the teachers did not allow tablets to be used without teacher supervision. However, in one school, seven students were brave enough to admit that they used the tablets in the teachers’ huts often without the teacher present. Interestingly, the teacher was my translator for these students.


The findings of this survey were interesting. First of all, some students gave some pretty different answers than the rest of their class. In those cases, I just assumed the outliers were students pointing to random answers rather than thinking through the questions or students who rarely attend class. Translators often confirmed my suspicion. I was very glad to see that the communities were well-accepting of the tablets. However, I was disappointed, albeit not surprised, that the solar panels weren’t strong enough to charge all the tablets. Though the solar panels were advertised to collect enough energy to charge seven tablets a day, the cloud coverage in Kuyawage was the main complication. It seems only when two solar panels were available, could all the tablets be used. In discussion regarding challenges, I asked if the distance of the solar panel to their school or houses made it harder to charge the tablets. Teachers wouldn’t admit it as a challenge, but it did seem obvious that the schools whose solar panels were about 20 minutes’ walk away seemed to have less tablets charged.

In Mume, all their tablets were reported by students and teacher to be charged daily and reserved only for student use. Each tablet was shared by only 2-3 students, which I considered to still be an acceptable amount of students using one tablet. When asked how the teacher helped the students, she only said that she “oversees” the students. However, I observed the teacher at this school helping students learn the answers to the game questions, rather than just telling them the correct answer. All of these advantages seemed to help students get a lot more out of their tablet use compared to other schools.

I regret that the survey did not have a question in the teacher survey regarding increased student attendance since having the tablets. Increased attendance would be another indicator related to improved learning outcomes since attendance rate is usually directly correlated to learning.

Unanticipated findings

Though I was happily surprised to hear such a positive community response to using the tablets, I was more shocked that the tablets have now become practically the only source of learning in schools now. On one hand, it was discouraging that the teaching materials and strategies that we provided over the course of three years, were practically abandoned. On the other hand, most of those teachers hadn’t been using the materials and strategies very successfully anyway. So, I’m not sure I could definitively answer the question of whether education has improved. There is a definite impact on education with shifting the source of learning from teacher-led to tablet-led. Time and more quantitative research would be needed to tell if this is helping students meet educational goals. It seems to be helping with globalization goals though by narrowing the technology gap in isolated monolingual regions of Indonesia.

Another unanticipated finding is that a teacher, who previously had only attended trainings but never actually taught class, repurposed several of the tablets for personal use. One tablet was even found for sale in town and a teacher from another Kuyawage school bought it and returned it to us. I guess I expected some might be stolen, but I hadn’t thought the teachers themselves would just take them for personal use. It makes sense that they would want them since cell phones (which is what they call these tablets) are a sign of status. I didn’t think the tablets would be of use to anyone since I had downloaded an app to lock all the other non-educational apps. I figured this would be a good enough deterrent for the teachers and students in Kuyawage. However, it was the one non-active teacher and also a six-year-old boy who, with plenty of time on their hands living in separate villages, were able to crack the code and unlock the apps. I learned that a 3-digit code was too easy to figure out. I have already changed the lock on all the tablets to a 6-digit code. I sure hope that is a bit harder to crack!

Course of Action

We already put a couple things into action since visiting the schools. After putting in a new 6-digit app lock code, we exchanged the storage box combination locks with keypad locks so only the lead teacher should be able to open the box where tablets are stored. We also gave a stern verbal warning to teachers to remind them that the tablets and solar panel are for students’ use, so they would not be receiving more tablets unless they were used as originally intended.

Based on what the surveys and observations showed, I believe the tablets are still a good fit for Kuyawage even with the hiccups. It remains to be seen how much they will contribute to educational learning if they are used alone. I think it is important for us to emphasize combining the tablets with other instructional activities in class. This seemed to be what one school was trying to imply when they stated that the tablets aren’t a good fit in the schools because the apps aren’t hard enough for the students. A follow-up training on how to combine the two approaches would probably be helpful as well as another monitoring trip to make sure the tablets were properly used. It would also be good to add more advanced apps for students who already know beginning phonics skills and number sense.

Installing another solar panel at each school would also improve the likelihood that all tablets would be used. This would mean that less students would be sharing each tablet and would therefore have more direct opportunity to learn.

Additional quantitative testing should be done to see the educational impact on students. It would be good to also compare Mume with the other schools since that school has used the tablets longer and more effectively than the others.


Overall, my action research question was positively answered. There is an impact on education, we just haven’t found out to what extent. There are still several things to improve regarding the security of the tablets, app difficulty, and teacher understanding of how to complement their regular teaching with the tablets. Since this is just the pilot stage for tablet use, I was just happy to hear that the tablets are being used and well-accepted. I look forward to even more educational improvement as we continue to serve the schools of Kuyawage.

Jayapura, december 2018

Tara Huberty SIL