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.
"The aim of the SMS Story research project was to determine if daily mobile phone text message stories and lesson plans would improve children’s reading in Papua New Guinea (PNG) elementary schools. [...] The stories and lesson plans were designed to introduce children to reading English and followed an underlying phonics and key word based methodology. Teachers in the trial received a cartoon poster explaining how to use the daily text messages and received a total of 100 text message stories and 100 related text message lessons for two academic terms. They did not receive any in-service training. Research was conducted in rural elementary schools in two provinces, Madang and Simbu, and has involved a baseline reading assessment, mid-point lesson and classroom observations and an end-point reading assessment."
Results and impact
The project, which was funded by the Australian Government and designed and managed by Voluntary Services Overseas, in partnership with the PNG Department of Education, was implemented as a small controlled experiment utlizing the popular Frontline SMS  tool .
Some key results observed include (I am quoting directly from the evaluation report):
[-] Children who did not receive the SMS Story were approximately twice as likely to be unable to read a single word of three sub-tests (decodable words, sight words and oral reading). In other words the intervention almost halved the number of children who could not read anything compared with the control schools.
[-] The research did not find a statistically significant improvement in reading comprehension and generally children showed low reading comprehension skills in both grades and little progression between grade 1 and 2.
[-] All participating schools had very few reading books, if any, available in the classroom.
[-] In the absence of reading materials and scripted lessons in elementary schools SMS Story provides a simple and cheap strategy for raising reading standards.
The evaluation also notes that:
[-] There remained a worryingly large number of children who scored zero on the tests, particularly in grade 1, even after the intervention.
As Amanda Watson , one of the researchers, commented in a recent interview  about the project with Radio Australia, "I think the content was really important, because no one involved in this trial would suggest that schools shouldn't have books. We all would like to see more books in schools, but the reality is that in these schools there are very few books and so the content created a lot of enjoyment for both teachers and students."
In addition to whatever value the content itself offered, Watson  noted another benefit: "the teachers were actually receiving materials and ideas and suggestions daily. So rather than perhaps being given a training manual a couple of years ago or having been given a guide at the start of the school year or something. The teachers actually received almost like a reminder to teach, a bit of a motivator to keep teaching and they received that every single day and we think that really helped them to realise that they're supposed to be teaching reading every single day, five days a week."
While most of the attention of developers and researchers excited by potential uses of mobile phones in education focus on the creation and usage of various 'mobile apps' on smartphones, lessons from SMS Story project remind us that, in some of the most challenging environments in the world -- especially rural ones -- the existing infrastructure of low end phones offers opportunities for creative and innovative groups who wish to engage with teachers and learners in these communities. The results may not be 'transformational' on their own, and doing this sort of thing may not win any style points among the 'cool kids' in technology-saturated capital cities in much of the 'developed world' interested in the 'latest and greatest'. That said, the best technology is often the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford. In a rural school in Papua New Guinea today, that technology is usually a mobile phone. In many other similar communities around the world, it may be well.
Those who would like more information about the SMS Story project may wish to read the full report on the VSO web site  and/or a related paper  [pdf] published by the researchers involved.
You may also be interested in the following post from the EduTech blog, which draws on experiences and lessons from places like Papua New Guinea:
[-] 10 principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments 
Note: The image used at the top of this post of men from Koroboa in Papua New Guinea ("hey, my ears are ringing -- might that be the Ministry of Education calling with today's lesson?") comes from the Wikipedian Yves Picq  via Wikimedia Commons  and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license .