08 June 2010
Kampala: Can mobile phones help bringing primary school teachers and pupils back into the classroom? Teachers absenteeism in Uganda is one of the highest in the world, with obvious implications for the quality of education. With absenteeism rates of 20% - 30% varying per districts, teacher absenteeism costs the Ugandan government US$ 30,000,000m every year for paid services that are not delivered.
And if teachers are absent, why attend as a pupil? 27% of Ugandan children are not in school at any given moment, despite free universal education. And it appears pupil drop-out is on the rise. Surprisingly, despite these dramatic figures, no routine data is available on pupil and teacher attendance.
The CU@SCHOOL pilot project by SNV Netherlands Development Organisation in Uganda (www.snvworld.org) uses mobile phones to monitor teacher and pupil attendance and absenteeism in 100 primary schools on a weekly basis. Provided the pilot is successful, which is measured using a randomized control trial methodology, the aim is to scale to 16,000 primary schools country-wide, included in Uganda's Education Management Information System. Mobile phone coverage is exceptional in Uganda: Almost one out of three people own a phone, and mobile networks reach 90% of Uganda.
How does CU@SCHOOL work? Let us follow the flow of information. Each Friday the 100 head teachers type in attendance figures of boys and girls and of male and female teachers, using a simple form on their mobile phone. At the moment they send the message, the figures are automatically entered in a digital database and no paper forms or separate data entry are needed. The data is visualized (graphs, tables, geographical maps) real-time on the existing computers of district officials for their action. Starting from July 2010, the information is also sent to non state actors at (sub) district level, such as School Management Committees, Parent Teachers Associations, religious and other leaders, and the general public. Information is made available digitally (web, email), by automated SMS, by newspaper print and by local radio.
The information will not only inform people about the situation in their school, but also provide suggestions on action Ugandan citizens themselves can take. This is done by giving inspiring examples of how others have managed to improve their school themselves, or how they held their school management or local leadership to account. In this way the project will help people imagine a different and better school than they have always known in their village.
The pilot uses revolutionary open source software called openXdata (www.openxdata.org): any data, anywhere, anytime on any device. Under leadership of Makerere University in Kampala, the software is developed by a consortium and is designed for the African rural context. OpenXdata is user friendly and allows for error-free capture of large datasets and digital photo's on simple phones. More expensive phones will also support other features such as GPS. Rather than SMS technology, we use GPRS based forms, making it extremely cheap to collect data at a cost of only 1 US dollar for 2,000 messages!
So can mobile phones bring teachers and pupils back in the classrooms? First results are hopeful, but we will really find out early 2011, when the pilot is concluded. Teacher and pupil absenteeism is a problem in many countries on our continent, and the CU@SCHOOL concept can be easily adapted to other contexts and replicated elsewhere. More importantly, informing citizens on their situation and providing them with knowledge and inspiration to take action themselves will make the difference. Using mobile phones are an inexpensive means to support such process that can be used in any sector.
In 2009 CU@SCHOOL has been supported by the Flora Family Foundation, while currently the project is assisted by Twaweza (www.twaweza.org). For more information on CU@SCHOOL contact Kees de Graaf of SNV Uganda through www.snvworld.org/en/countries/uganda/contact .
Keywords: education, Uganda