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Using mobile phones to collect data in the education sector in Uganda

Michael Trucano's picture
one way to collect data of a certain sort while mobile
one way to collect data of a certain sort while mobile
Much has been made of the potential use of mobile phones to help collect, verify and disseminate information quickly, widely and cheaply in support of activities in the education sector.
What do we know about how such use looks in practice,
and what are we learning from emerging efforts in this area?

At an event last month at the World Bank, my colleagues Sukhdeep Brar and Gaurav Relhan shared some lessons from a few recent and on-going education activities in Uganda, providing some potentially quite useful insights for those seeking answers this question. The full video for this event, as well as the PowerPoint file presented, is available online. For those of you who are pressed for time, or are just not sure if clicking those links is worth the effort, here is a quick synopsis of what was shared and discussed.

Using mobile phones in data collection: Opportunities, issues and challenges

Michael Trucano's picture
there are lots to ways to collect data while mobile
there are lots of ways to collect data while mobile
The explosive growth in the availability of mobile phones in societies around the world – even in some of the poorest, most remote communities – is increasingly leading many groups to explore how these devices might be used effectively as part of large scale data collection efforts in many sectors, including education. Utilizing small, portable electronic computing devices to help collect data is not new, of course. For over two decades, laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) have featured in initiatives to (e.g.) collect census information, interview consumers of various goods and services and poll potential voters. That said, such efforts often faced constraints related to, among other things: costs; the relative novelty of such devices among key segments of the population; the need to provide device-specific user training; and difficulties in exchanging data between these devices and other components of a larger system for data collection. If, as it has been argued, the best technology is often the one you already have, know how to use, can maintain and can afford, for most of the world, the mobile phone fits these criteria quite well. As of late 2013, rates of mobile phone penetration stood at 96% globally (128% in developed countries and 89% in developing countries). According to the International Telecommunications Union, “today there are almost as many almost as many mobile-cellular subscriptions as there are people in the world.” 
Given their ubiquity, increasing functionalities, and decreasing related acquisition and operating costs, it is not surprising that mobile phones have been employed in a variety of ways to aid data collection efforts around the world. While many people may believe that such efforts require the use of a high-end (and expensive) smart phones, phones of all sorts have been deployed successful to different ends in different contexts.

Very simple, low-end ‘dumb phones’, for example, can utilize simple text messaging (or SMS) or voice to (e.g.) send out short queries by phone to a bank of phone numbers, prompting users to reply with a short response, which can be either predefined (‘text 1 for yes, 2 for no’)  or open-ended. Smartphones can be used in much more sophisticated ways by presenting rich media survey questions directly to respondents or to help guide the actions of an ‘enumerator’ (someone who administers a survey in person) by presenting a user-friendly interface to help an enumerator input and transmit data in structured ways. Such phones may also contain help files and training aids for the enumerators. In between the high and low end, ‘feature phones’ (a catch-all category of sorts for phones which can do more than make basic voice calls and send and received text messages, but do not have the advanced functionality of smart phones) can make use of simple graphical forms (e.g) on screen as prompts for questions, and can store/transmit structured data as a result of responses.

Data input or captured into phones may be transmitted or shared in many ways (including SMS, MMS, USSD, Bluetooth, wireless Internet, or the exchange of physical memory cards). Where mobile connectivity is not available, data can be stored on the phone and transmitted later once a phone is within sufficient range of a cell tower.
How and why might mobile phones
be useful in large-scale data collection efforts,
and what comparative advantages might their use have when compared to other options?
A number of attributes and characteristics of mobile phone use in such activities (as well as the use of other small, low-cost portable devices such as tablets, especially where such devices can be connected to mobile and wireless networks) may lead them to be considered, especially when compared with the use of more traditional, paper-based survey instruments:

Two new rigorous evaluations of technology use in education

Michael Trucano's picture
Look, right there, there it is: Impact! (I think ...)
Look, right there, there it is:
Impact! (I think ...)

Last week saw a flurry of news reports in response to a single blog post about the well known One Laptop Per Child project. It's dead, proclaimed one news report as a result; it's not dead yet, countered another. Recalling Mark Twain's famous quotation, Wired chimed in to announce that Reports of One Laptop Per Child's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Whatever the status and future of the iconic initiative that has helped bring a few million green and white laptops to students in places like Uruguay, Peru and Rwanda, it is hard to argue that, ten years ago, when the idea was thrown out there, you heard a lot of people asking, ‘Why would you do such a thing?’ Ten years on, however, the idea of providing low cost computing devices like laptops and tablets to students is now (for better and/or for worse, depending on your perspective) part of the mainstream conversation in countries all around the world.

What do we know about the impact and results of initiatives
to provide computing devices to students
in middle and low income countries around the world?

Promoting literacy with mobile phones in rural Papua New Guinea

Michael Trucano's picture
hey, my ears are ringing -- might that be the Ministry of Education calling with today's lesson?
hey, my ears are ringing --
might that be the Ministry of Education
calling with today's lesson?

Last year I spent some time in Papua New Guinea (or PNG, as it is often called), where the World Bank is supporting a number of development projects, and has activities in both the ICT and education sectors. For reasons historical (PNG became an independent nation only in 1975, breaking off from Australia), economic (Australia's is by far PNG's largest export market) and geographical (the PNG capital, Port Moresby, lies about 500 miles from Cairns, across the Coral Sea), Australia provides a large amount of support to the education sector in Papua New Guinea, and I was particularly interested in learning lessons from the experiences of AusAid, the (now former) Australian donor agency.

For those who haven't been there: PNG is a truly fascinating place. It is technically a middle income country because of its great mineral wealth but, according to the Australian government, "Despite positive economic growth rates in recent years, PNG’s social indicators are among the worst in the Asia Pacific. Approximately 85 per cent of PNG’s mainly rural population is poor and an estimated 18 per cent of people are extremely poor. Many lack access to basic services or transport. Poverty, unemployment and poor governance contribute to serious law and order problems."

Among other things, PNG faces vexing (and in some instances, rather unique) circumstances related to remoteness (overland travel is often difficult and communities can be very isolated from each other as a result; air travel is often the only way to get form one place to another: with a landmass approximately that of California, PNG has 562 airports -- more, for example, than China, India or the Philippines!) and language (PNG is considered the most linguistically diverse country in the world, with over 800 (!) languages spoken). The PNG education system faces a wide range of challenges as a result. PNG ranks only 156th on the Human Development Index and has a literacy rate of less than 60%.  As an overview from the Australian government notes,

"These include poor access to schools, low student retention rates and issues in the quality of education. It is often hard for children to go to school, particularly in the rural areas, because of distance from villages to schools, lack of transport, and cost of school fees. There are not enough schools or classrooms to take in all school-aged children, and often the standard of school buildings is very poor. For those children who do go to school, retention rates are low. Teacher quality and lack of required teaching and educational materials are ongoing issues."

[For those who are interested, here is some general background on PNG from the World Bank, and from the part of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that used to be known as AusAid, a short report about World Bank activities to support education in PNG from last year and an overview of the World Bank education project called READ PNG.]

If you believe that innovation often comes about in response to tackling great challenges, sometimes in response to scarcities of various sorts, Papua New Guinea is perhaps one place to put that belief to the test.

Given the many great challenges facing PNG's education sector,
its low current capacity to meet these challenges,
and the fact that 'business as usual' is not working,
while at the same time mobile phone use has been growing rapidly across society,
might ICTs, and specifically mobile phones,
offer new opportunities to help meet many long-standing, 'conventional' needs
in perhaps 'unconventional' ways?

A small research project called SMS Story has been exploring answers to this question.

A 'mobile first' approach to educational technology

Michael Trucano's picture


mobiles moving about ... but to what end?
mobiles moving about ... but to what end?

'Mobile devices' are increasingly to be found in schools, and utilized for learning purposes, around the world. In most cases, related discussions taking place in ministries of education focus on the use of portable tablets and small laptops as complements to, and extenders of, existing approaches to the use of technology to help meet a whole host of education and learning objectives. At the same time, mobile devices of many other sorts -- most notably the mobile phone -- are proliferating at a much greater rate in larger society. Linkages between the devices being used outside of schools, and the technology to be found within schools, are often quite tenuous, where they exist at all.

Policies and plans related to the use of our current generation of electronic mobile devices are sometimes considered in ways distant or divorced from the way that the previous generation of 'mobile devices' was used in education: books, notebooks, pencils. At other times, they are considered in exactly the same way, as if the new opportunities and affordances appearing as a result of technological advances are best considered as mere adjuncts to, or continuations of, some of the approaches and practices which have marked and defined what has happened in schools over the past one hundred years or so.

Is there really anything different (potentially) going on now,
and if so, what might this be,
and why (and how) might we care about this difference)?

I just returned from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the world's largest exhibition and conference for the mobile industry, in which over 75,000 people representing mobile phone network operators, device manufacturers, technology providers, vendors and content owners from across the world gather to do business, announce new products and services, and discuss What's Next. In addition to walking through the acres of exhibition space, attending briefing sessions and meetings on activities and developments all over the world, and listening to lots of well-rehearsed marketing messages, the specific reason for my attendance at this year's event was to make a speech at the MWC's official ministerial programme, an event for senior government officials featuring debates and knowledge sharing sessions on a variety of topics of related interest. In case it might be of any interest to a wider audience (the ministerial programme itself was a closed event, not open to the public), I present below my speech below. One of the animating impulses behind the EduTech blog is to try, in a decidedly small and modest way, to promote greater transparency and openness by sharing some of the conversations and themes and perspectives that are being discussed 'behind closed doors' in various places in a more public forum. With that in mind ...


Paying teacher salaries with mobile phones

Michael Trucano's picture
no worries, everything here is orderly and under control, all money is being accounted for in a clear and timely manner
no worries, everything here is orderly and under control,
all money is being accounted for in a clear and timely manner

I often find that a sure way to generate rather heated discussions in many quarters is to bring up the topic of teacher salaries. They're too low! or: They're too high! They should be linked to [insert some sort of 'performance indicator']! or: Attempts to link them to [insert name of a performance indicator] are misguided (and perhaps even dangerous)!

I'll leave it to others more informed and expert than I am to weigh in on such (often quite contentious) debates. However one might approach such discussions, and whatever conclusions one might draw from them, there isn't a lot of debate about one issue related to teacher salaries that has been well documented, and widely (and rightly) deplored.

Many teachers around the world suffer as a result of poorly-functioning systems to pay the salaries [pdf] they are due [ppt]. This is especially problematic, and notable, given that teacher salaries have for many decades constituted huge percentages of the overall education budgets in many countries. As a World Bank publication from a few years ago (Teachers for Rural Schools : Experiences in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda) laments, "Teachers in remote schools are [compared with their colleagues in more urban areas] more likely to be the direct victims of administrative failures, which undermine teacher morale and damage the system. One frequently mentioned administrative failure is the delay in paying teachers’ salaries and allowances." An 'administrative failure' of this sort can have many causes. Even where sufficient budget exists to pay teachers, flawed teacher salary systems, poor internal controls, logistical challenges related to transport, and corruption can conspire to ensure that in many places, especially in rural areas in poor countries, teacher salaries are sometimes paid only infrequently, often with great delay. The results of this can be devastating for education systems -- to say nothing of the impact on individual teachers, schools, students and local communities.


Back when I worked with the World Bank's infoDev program, one of my responsibilities was to serve as a point person on 'mobile money' issues, briefing groups on emerging lessons and experiences from nascent activities to use mobile phones to transfer money from one person to another. I left infoDev in 2008, just as activities in this regard were really starting to heat up (Kenya's M-Pesa program, the best known 'mobile money success story', launched in 2007), but continued to meet semi-regularly with folks -- colleagues from the World Bank and other international donor agencies, government officials, NGOs and foundations, businesspeople, researchers -- who were interesting in exploring how new mobile payment options might be used in inventive ways to help address some longstanding developmental challenges. (Those totally new to the topic may benefit from watching this short video from CGAP, which demonstrates how mobile money activities look in practice.) Most of these conversations, as it happens, included considerations of how money transfers via mobile phones might be used to ensure that teachers got paid, in full and on time. As I prepare for a trip next week to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I realize haven't fielded one substantive information request related to this topic in the past three years.

Up until about 2010, I met quite often with groups who were looking for creative ways to help address the 'paying salaries to teachers in rural areas challenge' and who had seized on the idea of taking advantage of the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones in such areas to help fashion some sort of 'solution'.  In the last three years, however, the volume around these sorts of discussions in many quarters has almost died out. Part of this might be explained by the fact that there are now many 'experts' on mobile money issues, people much more expert and well informed than I am about related issues, and so I simply might be 'out of the loop'. (Back in the 'early days' of work on this topic, I could never shake the nagging feeling that the reason that I was approached by so many groups for related information and advice was at least partially a result of the 'in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king' phenomenon.) That said, given that a regular part of my daily work at the World Bank is to field questions related to the use of new technologies in education in all sorts of ways around the world, and that a lot of my job isn't so much about in providing answers, but about helping people formulate better questions, the fact that this question seems no longer to be a topic of much discussion makes me wonder:

Whatever happened to the idea of paying teacher salaries with mobile phones?

Interactive Educational Television in the Amazon

Michael Trucano's picture
a road map -- er, river map -- for the expansion of educational opertunities in rural Brazil?
a road map -- er, river map --
for the expansion of educational opportunities
in rural Brazil?

According to figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, "Countries will need an extra 1.6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015 and 3.3 million by 2030". The 2013/4 Global Monitoring Report provides a useful discussion of the consequences of this deficit, as well as some strategies for overcoming it.  There are, unfortunately, no 'quick fix' solutions here. We didn't get ourselves into this mess overnight, and we won't get out of it overnight either. While longer term efforts tackle this challenge in multiple ways over time, recruiting new teachers and upgrading the skills of others, it is probably also useful to ask:

How do you teach children in places where there are no teachers?

Many proposed answers to this include some consideration of the use of information and communication technologies. Some groups have offered that it may be most efficacious to simply introduce technologies that help enable students to teach themselves, bypassing teachers altogether. That is certainly one approach, but one with, to date, a rather checkered history of success in many instances (although not all), and one that is consistent with a worry that teacher union officials have expressed to me many times over the years: that many of their members fear that they are being, or will be, replaced by new technologies. Rhetoric from certain politicians (I'll refrain from adding a link or three here, but a few minutes with your favorite search engine should help you locate a number of them yourself) and projections from some ministry of finance officials (informed, one suspects, in some cases by data from the marketing departments of certain technology firms) do little to alleviate such concerns. In some cases, the introduction of new technologies undeniably *does* replace certain specific functions or roles that teachers currently perform, or have performed in the past (especially related to what are essentially clerical or administrative functions -- this replacement is presumably not always such a bad thing). In my experience, introducing new technologies in schools actually makes the role and function of teachers more central and critical, but that is perhaps a topic for another blog post.

Faced with severe, in some cases quite extreme, deficits of qualified teachers, especially in remote communities and in subjects like mathematics, science and foreign languages, many countries are in engaged in long term efforts to recruit and train more teachers and upgrade the skills and content masteries of 'low-skilled' teachers already in their system.  They are exploring how ICTs can be leveraged to help in these efforts. Where there are pressing needs *now* for teachers that can not be met through conventional approaches or according to the traditional timelines dictated by the capacity and effectiveness of their teacher training institutes, there are looking to see how technologies can help reach students today in schools without qualified teachers -- or in some cases, without any teachers at all.

Bollywood Karaoke and Same Language Subtitling to Promote Literacy

Michael Trucano's picture
I'd like to teach the world to read, in perfect harmony ...
I'd like to teach the world to read, in perfect harmony ...

While I have not seen any research evidence to support this particular contention, I have been in a number of presentations over the years about the 'Finnish success in education' in which the fact that Finnish children watch cartoons with subtitles is mentioned as a contributing factor to their literacy development. Even if there are no peer-reviewed journal articles about the impact of this practice in Finland (if anyone knows of any, please do feel free to send them along!) or many other places (subtitling on television has of course been a common practice in many countries of the world for quite some time), there is some pretty compelling evidence from a little initiative in India that has been reaching big audiences for over a decade that this sort of thing can make a small but meaningful difference in the lives of many illiterate and low literate people. Sometimes innovation is the result of doing something 'old' in a 'new' place (often with a slight twist).

Back in November, PlanetRead was awarded the first-ever 'International Prize' as part of the new U.S. Library of Congress Literacy Awards [disclosure: I am a member of the advisory board for these awards] in recognition of its pioneering work in the practice of Same Language Subtitling (SLS), "the idea of subtitling the lyrics of existing film songs (or music videos) on TV, in the ‘same’ language that they are sung in. Call it Karaoke on Bollywood for mass reading!  A deceptively simple innovation, SLS is already delivering regular and inescapable reading practice to 150 million weak-readers in India."

One notable characteristic of each of the three inaugural winners of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards is that they largely work outside of traditional 'educational' institutions as part of their efforts to promote reading. In the case of Reach Out and Read, this means connecting with parents and young children in pediatric exam rooms. 826 National supports store front writing and tutoring centers in local communities. PlanetRead focuses its outreach on a place where, like or not, many people spend a lot of their free time: watching television. Brij Kothari, the founder of PlanetRead, joked during the awards ceremonies at the Library of Congress, some people might say that TV is the enemy of reading, to which we reply: embrace the enemy!

Big Data in Education in 2025: A Thought Experiment

Michael Trucano's picture
all this talk of petabytes and exabytes is making me confused .... and hungry
all this talk of petabytes and exabytes
is making me confused .... and hungry

Each January, about 85 government ministers or so -- together with some members of their staffs, leaders of the education departments in international organizations, large NGOs and multinational companies, and other 'high level decision makers' -- gather in London to speak informally about topics of common interest during the Education World Forum, which bills itself as the 'world's largest gathering of education and skills ministers'. It's a rather unique and impressive collection of people with the power to make decisions affecting hundreds of millions of students and teachers around the world. This annual meeting was previously called the 'Learning and Technology World Forum'; despite dropping the word 'technology' from its official title a few years ago, talk of tech was inescapable during this year's Forum, whether onstage or in the hallways. If I were asked to identify three general themes that permeated discussions throughout this year's three-day event, they would be 'technology', 'systems' and 'data'.

For many groups, the Education World Forum offers a high profile venue to announce new initiatives, launch new publications, and present findings from recent research. My boss at the World Bank, Elizabeth King, for example, officially launched a new 'SABER' education data technology tool during her keynote speech on the second day ("When it comes to learning, education systems matter"). While the links between these three themes were perhaps not always explicit in Beth's speech, the important role that new technologies will play in helping education systems to collect and analyze key data about the health of the education system, especially as pertains to whether or not students are learning (and, if so, how), was echoed and amplified by many of the other speakers in both EWF plenary sessions and related side events.


While the Forum has become increasing open over the years, embracing the use of social media throughout much of the agenda, for example, and quickly making available on YouTube key speeches and presentations, the off-the-record ministerial exchange sessions that happen on the second day are, as per the EWF social media policy, meant to be a largely Twitter-free zone. The hope is that, if/when/where given space to ask the 'dumb' questions of their peers, and freed from having it reported that someone, in response, provided some 'dumb' answers, Forum participants might feel comfortable enough to have what turn out to be some rather smart conversations about topics for which they had not been prepped, and about which no formal position papers had been prepared back home.

At one of the informal Forum ministerial exchange sessions a few years ago, rather exasperated that much of the conversation was concentrated on discussions of the lowest costs that various countries had paid for student laptops, I posed the following scenario, and question, as a sort of 'thought experiment':

A model for educational technology development from … Afghanistan?

Michael Trucano's picture
building new things in Afghanistan
building new things in Afghanistan

In response to a recent EduTech blog post on “the 'ideal’ educational technology devices for developing countries”, I received numerous responses that effectively said: “We already know what this ideal device is: the mobile phone”. While the use of mobile phones in education is a regular topic explored on this blog, and the mobile phone is a device that I regularly recommend that ministries of education consider when planning for technology use in schools more than they currently do (in my experience few education authorities do consider utilizing phones as tools for learning in any real way), I would not go so far as to say that it is the ‘ideal’ device for use in educational settings in developing countries. Context is always king.

It may be true that, in many cases, the ‘best device is the one you already have, know how to use and can afford’.  In some contexts, mobile phones conform to this definition quite well (although many school systems around the world do continue to ban or severely limit their use on school property). Depending on the context and usage scenario, others do too, including the two that I used to compose the first draft of this blog post: a ballpoint pen and a notepad (the old fashioned kind with actual paper, not the one that comes bundled with Microsoft Windows).

Because I often prominently highlight the potential of mobile phones to be used in educational contexts in developing countries in the course of my work at the World Bank, I am often asked for specific examples of this use. Here’s a rather interesting one that you may not have heard much about: