SMS Story Research Project, Papua New Guinea

We would like to give a huge thank you to Alison Gee for her work with the Department of Education in Papua New Guinea, her use of FrontlineSMS, and her contribution to our blog. Enjoy her post! We have a story to tell . . .

We are using Frontline SMS in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to send stories and lesson plans every day to elementary teachers in rural areas. The SMS story team includes international volunteers working with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and the research project is funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) through the Economic and Public Sector Program (EPSP).

PNG has a challenging and rugged environment leading to communication and transportation problems. There are few roads and even these are sometimes impassable after heavy, tropical storms. The elementary schools are poorly resourced and most teachers have access to only a few homemade ‘Big Books’. Teaching reading in any language is a challenge without books to read. However, many teachers have access to a mobile phone and they are able to receive text messages - although, for some, this may mean a walk up the nearest hill to obtain a signal.

We have now been sending daily messages for eight weeks to around 50 teachers. The messages are sent in the afternoon as teachers wanted to have time to prepare for the next day. The first SMS message was a story in English. The stories are simple and based around a structured phonics programme so that as new sounds are introduced we are able to include more words and thus, make the stories more interesting. The second SMS message is a child centred lesson plan related to the story.

This is a research project for the Department of Education and so in the first term of the 4 term academic year, we visited all the schools involved and chose some schools to be control schools and others to be active and receive the messages. We interviewed the teachers and the children’s basic reading skills were tested in a comprehensive reading assessment. After two terms of daily stories and lesson plans we shall be returning to the schools and re-testing the children to see if the messages have had any impact.

Frontline SMS has been an invaluable tool for us, we collected the teachers’ phone numbers when we visited in term one and entered them into the system. Everyone on the SMS Story team are able to send out the messages.

The schools in our project were chosen because they were in remote locations and they were teaching English at Elementary level. We chose two contrasting provinces, the first being Madang Province which is on the northern coast of PNG and includes some island communities. The other province we are working with is Simbu, a mountainous Highland area that is very beautiful but very difficult to access. Visits to schools may include a long walk after a drive along rugged roads.

Picture 2
Picture 2

Our team of Papua New Guinean researchers are currently completing school visits for the mid-term evaluation of the project. Initial feedback is positive and there is clear evidence that the teachers who are receiving the messages and lesson plans are using them to support their teaching. In term 4 we will revisit all the schools and compare the progress of the children’s reading in the active and control schools. Our main research question is, do the daily text message stories and lesson plans improve children’s reading? We are also interested to find out if the teachers have changed their teaching methods.

If the project shows that it is possible to improve teachers’ teaching through the use of SMS messages then we hope to be able to scale up the program and send more stories to the teachers throughout PNG.