This is the 6th post in a 7-part series from Panthea Lee of service design consultancy, Reboot. Lee is the jury captain for the 2012 Core77 Design Awards for the Service Design category. In The Messy Art of Saving the World, Lee will explore the role of design in international development.
Sometimes you start working on a problem, only to find an entirely separate issue you've got to deal with first. I faced this on a recent project in Sudan; in international development, it happens all too frequently.
But in the immersive, field-based work we do at Reboot, I take uncovering deeper problems as a sign that we're on the right track.
I was called in by UNICEF for a project to support the education of marginalized children and youth in the rural areas of Sudan. Most of these kids are out of school, many are former child soldiers. UNICEF had had some early success with an eLearning pilot, and there were plenty of examples from other regions of the impact of using technology for development (Tech4Dev) in the education sector.
UNICEF is one of the most forward-thinking leaders in the exciting Tech4Dev field. In Uganda, for example, UNICEF has designed and deployed the Digital Drum to support rural education. Chosen by TIME as one of the best inventions of 2011, the Digital Drums are made from readily-available oil drums and converted into computer kiosks—a durable, cheap information hub for rural kids to access multimedia content on health, education, employment training and other services. [Ed Note: See Core77's report on Digital Drum from Cooper-Hewitt's Design with the Other 90% exhibition] A leader in user-centered international development, UNICEF is developing a Child Friendly Technology Framework to guide its offices in the use of appropriate technology in education programs.
Technological advances like the Digital Drum are, without a doubt, changing the world. So we went to Sudan looking for opportunities where technology could improve marginalized children's access to quality education.
What we found was surprising: Right now, before we can offer support to the children and youth of Sudan, we've got to first support their teachers.
Teachers: Overworked and Underappreciated
My work is always based on user-centric, field-based ethnographic investigation; deep contextual research drives and informs our designs. In Sudan, we interviewed countless students, educators, teachers and parents, and heard again and again how difficult life is for Sudanese teachers, especially in the poor, rural areas.
Under tough conditions, it's incredibly hard to attract and retain teachers. As a result, many countries require all new teachers to take a rural posting for their first job. Young, far from their families, and often unable to speak the tribal languages of their village assignments, it's unsurprising how many of these teachers get discouraged and fail to make an impact. Further, many teachers we met in Sudan were assigned to teach subjects in which they have no training.
In short, teachers in Sudan feel overworked and underappreciated—like many teachers I know in New York. New technological innovations can help students, but there will likely be a much greater impact from innovations that help teachers, who can in turn better support their students. Our research revealed that lack of training and low morale were twin challenges that had to be addressed before student-facing Tech4Dev projects in Sudan could really succeed.
This was not what we had set out to find. But UNICEF embraces honesty in its work, and is open-minded and willing to iterate on solutions; they don't get stuck on their original hypotheses. We obviously wanted to serve children, but the fieldwork revealed that more investment was needed in teachers first.
The Solution May Surprise U
We thus began designing programs to address these challenges through a technological innovation that is widely used in Africa: the basic mobile phone.
Through a text-messaging program, UNICEF will be able to deliver short, easily digestible training lessons that teachers can consume quickly, and in high volumes. To motivate teachers in Sudan to participate, we plan to introduce text message quizzes in subjects (such as math and science) where they are struggling. By encouraging competition with other teachers and offering prizes as motivation, we hope to scale the project nationwide. A similar pilot in South Africa, Dr. Math, provides SMS access to a math tutor and is inexpensive and highly popular (over 32,000 students now use the service).
Our program in Sudan will be much less expensive than traditional training programs, which involve physically bringing teachers to a central location and paying for all their costs during the training. And because teachers can sign in and practice any time they want, it's a more organic way to learn.
The Value of Feedback
Text messages can also improve teacher morale through the simple, but oft-overlooked, morale booster of regular feedback.
Teaching is a thankless job, filled with long hours, demanding superiors, and endless paperwork. In Sudan, teachers are required to regularly file forms on student attendance and performance with the Ministry of Education (MoE). But because they send these reports off by mail, they never hear back.
Our project presents an opportunity to start showing teachers they are appreciated through a simple tweak in the existing platform. We plan to, in coordination with the MoE, start asking teachers to submit some of this information by text message. The system can then send an automatic thank-you, or even a phone credit as a reward, as well as reminders when teachers are late. This way, teachers understand that they're not just throwing their work into a black hole.
This approach has a benefit for the government as well. We met many education policymakers in Sudan who complained of not having the timely and sufficient data they need to make sound decisions. Real-time, regular and highly detailed feedback from teachers will be much more valuable to MoE than irregular reports by mail, and will help them develop policies and programs that are informed by field realities.
An Added Benefit
These two text messaging programs will also have a cumulative impact on the introduction of future Tech4Dev programs, because they'll help overcome a general lack of experience with technology—a real barrier to introducing new technologies into classrooms. Various attempts to introduce digital tools in schools in Sub-Saharan Africa have failed because teachers themselves were unable to use them. Decision-makers don't always take this lack of technological literacy into account.
Teachers' comfort with and excitement about technologies are critical if new tools are to be successfully introduced and used in the classrooms of the future. Through new and innovative initiatives, teachers will have the opportunity to become comfortable with—and see the value of—technology in a natural way, and at their own pace.
With many aid dollars being diverted towards the newly created South Sudan, support for Sudan is still critical. It's exciting to work with a group with the commitment, reach and convening power of UNICEF, and it's refreshing to see an organization of its size embrace learning and iteration as much as it does. (As part of the project, we created a new version of the Child Friendly Technology Framework based on the work and lessons from Sudan). I'm looking forward to seeing this and future programs in action.
Full Disclosure: UNICEF is a former employer of mine, and some of the early work with Child Friendly Technology I did when I was a Programme Officer with the agency's Innovation Unit.
Panthea Lee is co-founder and principal of Reboot, a service design firm working in the fields of governance and international development. At Reboot, she leads a multidisciplinary team of designers, researchers, development experts, and policy strategists to improve social outcomes globally, working for organizations such as the World Bank and the American Civil Liberties Union. Panthea has led projects in over 20 countries including Afghanistan, China, Sudan, and Tunisia. Before founding Reboot, she was with UNICEF Innovation.
Panthea speaks frequently on new approaches in international development, and has lectured at Columbia University, McGill University, NYU, the School of Visual Arts, and Pop!Techâ€™s social innovation program.