SMS education in Pakistan

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relevant for education? send 1 for 'yes', 2 for 'no', 3 for 'not sure'Two to three years ago, I found very little traction when trying to initiate discussions around the potential use of mobile phones in education with many counterparts in education ministries around the world.  (And when this *was* discussed, talk usually centered on how to ban them from schools.)

This is now changing very quickly! Many factors appear to be behind this change -- including, it is probably worth noting, the strong apparent interest by many companies to get in on the ground floor of what they feel will be very large markets related to 'm-learning' in developing countries in the coming years. (I now get so many cold calls from vendors every week wanting to share information about their 'm-learning solutions' that I let all phone calls ring into voicemail by default.)

With momentum building around 1-to-1 computing initiatives (where every student receives her own laptop) in many countries, many governments are embarking on large-scale roll outs of educational technologies as never before. However one feels about the potential relevance of mobile phones in education (and reasonable people can certainly disagree about this), it appears to me to be a topic that at a minimum merits some discussion in many education systems, given that small, connected computing devices known today as mobile phones are increasingly to be found in the pockets and pocketbook of teachers, and even students, at rates perhaps unimagined only a decade ago.  It is worth noting that this large scale roll-out of computing devices in the hands of teachers and students has largely happened without any government subsidy at all.  Given this fact, is it worthwhile for governments to consider taking some of the monies dedicated for the purchase of ICT hardware and use it instead for other purposes (more/better education content? more training? better connectivity? something not at all ICT-related?)?  Even if you feel that mobile phones are not relevant to discussions of technology use in education, perhaps it is worth considering these sorts of questions before dismissing such use out of hand.

My point here is not to revisit the related arguments often advanced and debated about the potential use of mobile phones in education (for that, you may wish to have a look at the numerous EduTech blog posts on the topic). Instead, it's to take a quick look at an interesting set of inter-related pilot projects that hasn't received much attention internationally. 

In Pakistan, some innovative folks are exploring how basic text messaging (SMS) can be used in the education sector to the benefit of people with even very low end mobile phones, leveraging the increasing high teledensities found in communities across the country.

What's happening in Pakistan in this regard?  A lot, it turns out, although admittedly only in pockets and at a rather modest scale to date.  The country is perhaps not unique in what is being explored (most everything being tried there is being tried in various other places as well), but that doesn't mean it isn't quite interesting.  For example:

In February, almost 150 third year students at Asghar Mall College in Rawalapindi (note: 'third year' in this context would be the rough equivalent of the first year at university in, for example, the United States) for whom authorities had mobile phone numbers on file began participating on a voluntary basis in a daily vocabulary quiz exercise delivered by SMS.   These young men -- from middle to lower middle class backgrounds -- are sent a simple multiple choice question.  Texts are addressed to each student  individually, using the equivalent of a 'mail merge' function that will be familiar to anyone who has had to send out 'blast' emails or faxes).  They reply via SMS, and then receive an automated response, based on their answer.  In this response, their answer is repeated, a notation is made about whether the answer given was correct or not, and the correct answer is incorporated into a sample sentence.

This sort of thing is no substitute for school, of course.  But, given current test messaging rates in Pakistan -- a country with some of the fastest growth in recent years in text messaging in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as some of the lowest tarif rates -- it is quite cheap.  It is "on-the-go".  It is supplemental to what is being taught in the classroom, and increasingly easy to do, given the technology tools and code base out there. While Pakistan may not see high household penetration rates of desktop computers connected to the Internet for many, many years to come, most every household already has access to a small connected 'computer' of a different sort -- the mobile phone -- and this project is seeking to capitalize on this reality.

One thing perhaps that is worth mentioning here is that, for some of these students, who have been educated in a system where very large, lecture-based classes are the norm, this may be the first time they have received 'personalized' feedback of any sort from their instructors.

The team in Pakistan is asking all sorts of interesting questions as part of their work.  How can the potential impact of each message be maximized, especially given that these messages constitute just one small part of a large stream of messages -- cricket scores, notes from friends and family, jokes, news items, scripture passages and horoscope advice -- that students receive every day?  What is best learned or reinforced through such interactions? What are the most effective ways to sequence and scaffold such messages over time? 

In the process, much user-related information is being collected, helping to answer some basic questions for which there are not yet good, reliable data:

  • How many young students have phones?
  • How many can afford to participate in education-related activities via mobile phone -- and are willing to do so?
    (Related to this: Are there ways to subsidize SMS traffic for various populations? And what if people actual respond to the SMS quizzes -- can this sort of thing at scale?)

Vocabulary-building and grammar quizzes are just two potential applications possible as part of this sort of SMS-based interaction; opportunities for quizzes in various academic areas are easily imagined. This could be great for test preparation, for example -- a potentially fertile market for private firms in Pakistan. Indeed, project proponents hope to use this as a way to help to stimulate private sector activity and innovation in this area, especially for young entrepreneurs, given what have turned out to be very low piloting costs.

The software they are using for all of this is home grown; the hope is to eventually open source it so that others interested in doing this sort of thing don't have to start from scratch.  (Similar efforts are underway in other parts of the world -- FrontlineSMS:Learn has been piloted in neighboring Afghanistan, to cite just one example.) 

In addition to the potential utility of the messages themselves, the people behind this project see potential value in establishing a 'relationship' between government and its  constituents and key stakeholders. Are there possibilities here for government to learn using SMS, they wonder? If a relationship via test message is established during schooling between students and education authorities, can government remain engaged with students after graduation, continuing to provide targeted informal education services as might be useful?

As my World Bank colleague Zubair Khurshid Bhatti notes, "Engagement with student and parents is critical for improved governance of the tertiary education sector. Governance possibilities are also huge for primary and secondary schools, where very large percentages of parents and school committee members have access to phones.  This project starts to put in place some of the architecture to help support interactive targeted communication with the real beneficiaries."

Based on early returns from the pilot, the Provincial Education Department of the Government of the Punjab is showing active interest in exploring these sorts of activities further, and the project principals are already planning to expand the scope of their activities.  Why not try sending SMSs to parents, they ask, challenging them to pose a question to their children, based on something that was meant to be on the curriculum for that week?  This would, in a very small, modest way, alert parents to what students are supposed to be learning.  If students don't know the answer, this may trigger parents to push their kids more, and/or to question whether the school is doing a good job in this area (including whether or not the official curriculum is being followed at all!).

As in many other places, people involved with this project are investigating how information submitted via SMS can be entered directly into central databases, utilizing mobile phones as front line data entry tools.  They note that this offers many advantages over the use of desktop computers or laptops, which often require technical support and training not necessary for phones (which people are able to figure out how to use, and keep working, largely on their own). They are also exploring how it might be possible to better monitor the attendance of teachers through things like the use of GPS-tagged photos snapped and transmitted via low end 'feature phones' (an upcoming EduTech blog post will look at a pilot ffunded by the World Bank attempting to do this sort of thing in another country).

The point here is to demonstrate that, in certain circumstances, education systems may not need to 'wait for all citizens to have smartphones' to start exploring how they might be able to take advantage of the fact that mobile phones are increasingly ubiquitous in many teaching and student populations.

It is also to put out a call for assistance: The team in Pakistan has developed a useful technology infrastructure to deliver quizzes via SMS.  Are there any groups with sets of, for example, English-language vocabulary quizzes that could easily be utilized in an SMS-based effort of this sort?  (For those interested in such things, you can view some of the SMS quizzes, and related results, online.) The team in Pakistan do not have access to rigorously tested banks of questions and answers that might be profitably deployed to assist in scaffolded vocabulary development.  If there are any academics or non-profit groups that have access to such things, or if any readers could point the team in Pakistan to open access resources of this sort, please do leave a comment below or contact me directly. 

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("relevant for education? send 1 for 'yes', 2 for 'no', 3 for 'not sure'") comes from Southview legion via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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