Mobile phones to promote adult education

A research team from Tufts University proposes to pilot and evaluate an innovative program that seeks to teach adults who are either illiterate or have very low levels of literacy in Niger how to read and write in their native language through “micro-modules” delivered on a simple mobile phone technology.

Why take action ?

In Niger, adult literacy rates are estimated at 30% (UNDP, 2012). Illiteracy is particularly striking in rural areas and among women, with only 10% of them having ever attended school in certain rural areas. While research efforts in the field have remained limited, studies have shown that traditional programs are characterized by low attendance, high drop-out, limited skills attainment and rapid skills depreciation. Some preliminary evidence also suggests information technologies offer new opportunities to address some of these constraints.

Cell-Ed is a mobile phone-based adult education program that uses a simple mobile phone without teachers, and was initially developed for Spanish speakers in Los Angeles. Cell-Ed’s key advantage as compared to traditional approaches is time saved (about 50 hours, as compared to 480 in a traditional program), flexibility, as adults can learn when, where and how they want, and self-paced learning.

Evidence-based implemented innovation

The project aims to pilot and evaluate the impact of Cell-Ed’s mobile phone-based adult education program including both literacy and numeracy training. Adult education classes are delivered through “micro-modules” to learners, which consist of: short audio lessons on a particular concept, SMS reinforcing the voice lesson and SMS-based interactive “quiz” on the recent lesson. The platform will be built in Hausa, which is the primary indigenous language in Niger and northern Nigeria, and piloted in targeted villages to users with low literacy levels. The complete set of modules, which will take an average of 4 months to complete, will equate to one full adult literacy course offered by the Ministry.

Previous studies on this topic have shown that:

  • adults who had participated in a mobile-enhanced adult education program in Niger were more likely to save, had more durable assets and higher food security two years after the program, but did not increase their income (Aker and Ksoll, 2020).
  • those who were offered Cell-Ed had higher self-esteem, although a minimum threshold of learning needed to be achieved (Ksoll et al, 2018).

To assess the impact of Cell-Ed in Niger, a research team from Tufts University and Sahel Consulting will lead an evaluation focusing on adult learning (reading in Hausa and numeracy) as the primary outcome.

Expected impact and key learnings

The pilot will allow analyzing the impact of the platform on Nigerian users with low literacy levels, evaluated according to a series of outcomes, primarily adult learning and numeracy.

If participants proceed through the curriculum, an improvement in their reading skills is expected and they should be able to use these skills in their daily lives, via reading signs, health cards and SMS.

The country benefits from a high potential demand as the Hausa language has more “first language” speakers than any other language in Sub-Saharan Africa and Hausa literacy is a significant challenge in Niger and neighboring Nigeria, where the adult literacy rate is less than 60 % (UNESCO, 2014).

Presentation of the team

Tufts University College is a private research university in the state of Massachusetts, United-States. Jenny Aker will be the Principal Investigator, and the University will be responsible for the project supervision, the research design, and ensuring close collaboration between partners: Sahel Consulting, Cell-Ed and the Ministry of Education of Niger.