Mobile Message

English in Action: Mobile Learning in Bangladesh

This post is the latest in the FrontlineSMS Mobile Message series with National Geographic. To read a summary of the Mobile Message series click here.

In her role as the Content Producer for the SOCAP conference series, Amy Benziger has the opportunity to interview innovators from around the world on how they are changing the landscape of social enterprise.

For this installment of Mobile Message, she interviews Sara Chamberlain, project director for BBC Janala, an initiative based in Bangladesh that incorporates on-screen English tutoring through a television drama and a game show combined with English lessons via the mobile phone that build on the content in the programs.

Mobile Message is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Amy Benziger

Most people know of the BBC as a source of reputable news from around the globe. Most don’t know about the action arm called the BBC World Service Trust, which uses the “creative power of media to reduce poverty and promote human rights.” I was first introduced to and amazed by the BBC World Service Trust through The 2010 Tech Awards where BBC Janala was honored as one of the winners of the Microsoft Education Awards.

BBC Janala educational fair in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Copyright BBC World Service Trust. (Used with permission).Janala is part of the English in Action campaign, which launched in November 2009. The initiative based in Bangladesh incorporates on-screen English tutoring through a television drama and a game show combined with English lessons via the mobile phone that build on the content in the programs. Janala’s three-minute mobile English lessons are equivalent to the cost of a cup of tea and accessible to those living on less than two dollars a day.

In my role as the Content Producer for the SOCAP conference series, I have the opportunity to interview innovators from around the world on how they are changing the landscape of social enterprise. I spoke to Sara Chamberlain, project director for BBC Janala, to learn more.

How did the BBC Janala program come about?

The Bangladeshi government was concerned about falling behind their neighbors, specifically India, because of a lack of English. The BBC World Service Trust was commissioned along with two other organizations to implement the “English in Action” program with a mandate to teach 25 million people English. I flew over to Bangladesh in 2007 to start the initial research.

The Janala program specifically targets adult education outside of the classroom. The goal is mass media saturation. We link the new lessons on the television show to written quizzes in the largest Bangladeshi newspaper to audio mobile lessons three times per week. Visual, writing, auditory learning create a fantastic package so that whether you are picking up a newspaper, turning on the TV or using your phone, there is engaging content available.

Mohammad Noor-e-Alam Siddiqui – 26 years old/Ghoshnogora, Tangail:

Siddiqui‘s father used to be a primary school teacher and always aspired for his son to be well-educated. However, due to financial constraints, Mohammad wasn’t able to pursue higher education. “Since my father always encouraged me to become highly educated, I still regret that I couldn’t achieve the optimum level although I had strong desire to. As a result I still consider myself as a learner and try to educate myself utilizing every opportunity I get.” Siddiqui has been using BBC Janala 3 times a week. He added, “In addition to ‘Essential English,’ I like the lesson of ‘How to Tell a Story.’ I can actually relate the stories to my real life and later tell my own stories in similar way.”

Why make English lessons available via mobile phone?

What is quite historic about BBC Janala is that we negotiated contracts with all 6 mobile operators in the country, so the service can be utilized on any handset, at any location and at any time. It opens up access that didn’t exist before for millions of people because once they left primary or secondary school, they’ve had no educational opportunities available.

BBC Janala educational fair in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Copyright BBC World Service Trust. (Used with permission).

There are English courses available from private tutors, but they are prohibitively expensive. On average each course costs 1500-6000 taka which is roughly $20-$80. Our service is 1.5 taka per lesson. The total cost of our course is 240 taka, which is under 5 dollars. It’s much more affordable and the quality is high. Having that flexibility to provide access to education at a very low cost is groundbreaking.

How do you measure success?

We have reached 4 million people in last 15 months via the mobile phone. You have to remember; we are targeting people who only very recently got access to mobile phones. Only 8-9% had received or sent SMS texts, so the quick uptake is amazing.

We are now a third of the way through the program, and we’ve started doing surveys of 8000 people in 4 out of 7 districts in Bangladesh. We are running a mobile specific panel giving participants oral tests every six weeks. We’ve been really pleased by their ability to reproduce the language and have conversations. They are scoring at 70% so there’s no doubt that the mobile service is teaching English.

Shafiqul Islam – 30 yrs old/Living in Mirpur:

“When I was in school English seemed very difficult to me and the village schools did not have teachers who were experts in English. They would just teach for the sake of teaching. Then BBC Janala came along and I saw the advertisements in TV. That’s when I started dialing 3000 and now I am a regular user. My willingness to learn English has led me to BBC Janala…English is always necessary; it doesn’t depend on past or future. We always need it. Now is the Internet time and in the future, the Internet will be used even more widely. If I want to pursue a teaching profession, I would want to use the Internet to collect all the latest information relevant to this field and to help my students. How will I do that if I don’t know English?”

BBC Janala educational fair in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Copyright BBC World Service Trust. (Used with permission).

How do you see mobile phones changing the learning landscape the developing world?

Many Bangladeshis have had a negative experience with education. Although the government is working towards the Millennium Development Goals of getting kids into the classroom, the challenge is that the quality is poor so they are dropping out as quickly as they’re going in. There is a very authoritarian approach to education so the fact that they can learn in private on a device that’s always with them when they’re waiting for a bus, walking home or for the few minutes at the end of the day is revolutionary.

Amy Benziger is the Producer focusing on content development for the SOCAP conference series. She is responsible for researching the social enterprise landscape, tracking trends and identifying thought-leaders to present at the annual event. For three years, SOCAP has brought thousands of individuals from over 40 countries to San Francisco to explore innovation in impact investing, venture philanthropy, design thinking, mobile technology, international development, public-private partnerships and food systems. Amy is a founding team member and strategic advisor to the Hub Bay Area, an incubator for social entrepreneurs dedicated to building solutions for social, economic and environmental sustainability as part of a global Hub community with 22 international locations. A lifelong traveler, she has lived and worked in Mexico, Spain, Argentina and Thailand. She currently lives in San Francisco, CA.

Mobile Message is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. Read all the posts in this series.

What is your Mobile Message? Sharing ideas via National Geographic

Today, with over 500 million mobile subscribers across Africa alone, and more people around the world owning a phone than not, mobile phones seem to be everywhere,” points out FrontlineSMS founder Ken Banks in the opening post of  our National Geographic  blog series: Mobile Message. There has been a remarkable growth in mobile phone use in recent years, and increasingly mobile phones are being used for innovative social change projects. Last year Ken was awarded the title of National Geographic Emerging Explorer, in recognition of his work in the field of mobile for social change. In December 2010 FrontlineSMS launched our ongoing Mobile Message blog series via National Geographic, to help share exciting stories about the way mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. Here we provide an overview of the diverse range of stories that have been shared in the series so far.

Mobile for development

In his introduction to the Mobile Message series Ken Banks traces the journey of mobile use in international development from 2003, when “he struggled to find much evidence of the revolution that was about to take place,” up to the present day, when mobiles are now being used globally in projects for health, agriculture, conservation and so much more. From his eight years experience in the ‘mobile phones for development’ field, Ken shares his knowledge on “the importance of building appropriate technologies, the importance of local ownership, and the need to focus some of our technology solutions on smaller grassroots users.” It is these principles that shape FrontlineSMS’s work, and these are also the themes that shape our Mobile Message series with National Geographic.

Mobile Technology gives Zimbabweans a Voice

Mobile phones often have the power to circumvent traditional forms of media, in areas where conventional news outlets are controlled or manipulated by the government. This was clearly shown in the second post in our Mobile Message series; entitled Mobile Technology gives Zimbabweans a Voice. In this post Ken Banks interviewed Bev Clark, founder of Zimbabwean civil society NGO Kubatana, and program director of Freedom Fone. Bev discusses how the use of mobile has helped address the challenge of state controlled media in Zimbabwe and “keep people informed, invigorated and inspired.”

Kubatana runs an SMS subscriber system using FrontlineSMS, and they have 14,000 people on their contact list. They use SMS to share news headlines and notifications of events, and also to encourage a two-way dialogue. They ask subscribers to respond with their views and opinions, by posing questions on social justice issues. By doing this, Bev explains, Kubatana is able to “extend the conversation to people living on the margins of access to information.”

Mobile Banking in Afghanistan

The global presence of mobile phones has also encouraged a wealth of mobile banking (m-Banking) and mobile finance, in areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Jan Chipchase, Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at Frog Design, tackled the topic of m-Banking in Afghanistan in the third post of our Mobile Message series. Afghanistan is an interesting case, as Jan explains, being “a country challenged by limited access to traditional banking infrastructure and widespread distrust of formal institutions.”

Jan conducted a field study in Afghanistan in 2010, which focused on use of m-Banking services such as M-Paisa. He looked at how “m-Banking has been extended to include bill payment, buying goods and services, and full-fledged savings accounts.” His study “aimed to highlight the sophisticated strategies that the poorest members of societies adopt in managing their limited resources.” Jan drew some interesting points from his research, and concludes his post by stating that “there will come a point when the idea of using mobile phones for banking will be as globally prevalent as credit and debit are in the U.S. today.”

Technology Helps Break Silence Against Violence in Haiti

Mobile technology is clearly used for incredibly diverse purposes. The fourth Mobile Message post looks at how SMS can be used to help break the silence against violence and human rights abuses in post-earthquake Haiti. Aashika Damodar, CEO of Survivors Connect, writes about how her organisation had worked alongside Fondation Espoir, a Haitian nonprofit organization, to establish a text message helpline to report violent crimes in Haiti.

The service, called Ayiti SMS SOS helpline, provides an option for anyone in Haiti to text if they witness or experience an act of violence. A team of trained helpline operators respond to the SMS, and direct people to relevant services needed to help. As Aashika points out “the need for a reporting system is dire. Thousands of displaced people still live in camps with little security or privacy, making them susceptible to threats and abuse.” Using SMS means help is more accessible to many of those who are vulnerable.

FrontlineSMS is used in this project to manage sending and receive messages. Aashika shares details of why this project chose to build their service around text messaging. “SMS is cost effective, discrete and fast, all of which work to the benefit of our target groups.” This summarises why many projects choose to use SMS to support their social change projects.

Supporting Africa's Innovation Generation in Kenya

As well as increased efficiency, advances in technology also encourage innovation. Erik Hersman, co-founder of Ushahidi, wrote the fifth Mobile Message post about iHub (Innovation Hub); a project that brings together Nairobi's entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and investors. He explains how “leapfrogging PCs, Africa's burgeoning generation of mobile tech-savvy entrepreneurs are bursting with ideas and practical inventions, from African apps for smart phones to software solutions that address uniquely local challenges.”

You can feel Erik’s genuine enthusiasm for the many new and exciting ideas emerging: “real-world solutions to problems found by micro-entrepreneurs and everyday Africans... Here, we see ingenuity born of necessity.” The i-Hub provides a communal space for over 2,500 members of the technology community in Kenya's capital city. There are a growing number of “smart, driven and curious technologists with a leaning towards all things mobile” in many major African cities like Nairobi, Accra and Lagos, and Erik makes clear that “it's an exciting place to be, and the future is very bright indeed.”

Mobile Technology Helps Every Person Count

The sixth instalment of Mobile Message comes from Matt Berg, a technology practitioner and researcher in the Modi Research Group at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Discussing the value of increased accountability and recording capacity provided by technology, Matt looks at how using tech can help “poor or homeless people be counted as individuals with needs and rights - and receive their share of social resources.”

An example shared in the post is that across the Millennium Villages in Africa mobile technology is improving people’s access to social care in a project called ChildCount+. Matt discusses how “community health care workers (CHWs) register pregnant women and children under five using basic mobile phones and text messages... Using these patient registries, CHWs can make sure that all their children are routinely screened for malnutrition and receive their immunizations on time.”

Through a variety examples of work being done in India and in Africa Matt makes the overarching point that the recording systems provided by technology can provide increased access to services for vulnerable people, who can often get left out otherwise. In short, as Matt puts it, “technology is making it increasingly possible to count things, and thereby to make people count.”

Award winning FrontlineSMS

FrontlineSMS continues to be acknowledged for its powerful work in the field of mobile technology for social change. The latest Mobile Message post is an interview with Ken Banks, based on his recent award of the 2011 Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest. Ken received the award for creating FrontlineSMS software, which is now used by thousands of non-profit organisations in over 70 countries across the world.

As we can see from this summary the power of mobile is reaching around the globe, being used in a remarkable variety of ways. Visit the National Geographic website to read any of the above posts in full, and keep an eye out for future posts which we will be reposting here on the FrontlineSMS blog.

Announcing the "Mobile Message"

Over the past year or so, it's become increasingly clear to us that we need to take the "mobile message" out of its technology silo and make it more available - and accessible - to a wider audience. This was the thinking behind our regular series on PC World, and is the thinking behind a new series we're launching today in collaboration with National Geographic.

The "Mobile Message" is aimed at a broad audience, but most importantly people who would never likely visit a mobile-specific site. Recent talks at Communicate - aimed at conservationists - and Nat Geo Live! - aimed at the general public - have convinced us even more that we need to stop just talking among ourselves and take the message out to more mainstream, broader audiences.

According to the first "Mobile Message" posted today:

"Over the next few months we will delve into the human stories behind the growth of mobile technology in the developing world. We'll take a closer look at the background and thinking behind FrontlineSMS, and hear from a number of users applying it to very real social and environmental problems in their communities. We will also hear thoughts and insights from other key mobile innovators in the field, from anthropologists to technologists to local innovators."

You can read the rest of the introductory post on the National Geographic website here.