Launched: August 2013
In many remote areas of Afghanistan, including Kandahar Province, adolescents who dropped out of or never entered the formal state-run education system need a second opportunity to learn. Typically housed in a room of a private residence or mosque, accelerated learning centres (ALC) provide these adolescents with the chance to learn basic numeracy and literacy using a condensed curriculum as part of the Ministry of Education’s strategy for community-based education. Through a Programme Cooperation Agreement with the Social and Humanitarian Assistance Organisation (SHAO), UNICEF Afghanistan supports 50 ALCs through the provision of salaries, teaching and learning materials, teacher training, and oversight and monitoring of educational and operational activities.
Operational challenges including remoteness and security risks inhibit the ability to efficiently monitor the ALC programme. UNICEF Afghanistan and NGO partner SHAO wanted to use SMS to fill the information gap, communicate with teachers to understand their needs, amplify their voices, and provide support to improve outcomes for students.
The rapid uptake in mobile phone subscribers over the past 10 years in Afghanistan presented an opportunity to support feedback mechanisms between communities, service providers, donors, and the Ministry of Education. UNICEF Afghanistan and SHAO used an iterative process to design with their end users, 50 ALC head teachers from Kandahar Province. These teachers were asked about their preferences for reporting using mobile phones. Respondents provided useful feedback, including the desire to connect with peers, and identified many issues they faced in their work. To facilitate communication and reporting among teachers, UNICEF Afghanistan used RapidPro to pilot two key functions: education monitoring and group chat. Throughout the design process, trainings were conducted to improve technological literacy and usability. All communication was available in Pashto, Dari, and English.
Teachers used EduTrac to provide routine reporting on eight key indicators to monitor curriculum and student assessment, programme oversight, and receipt of salary and educational supplies. These indicators were also verified through field visits, record review, student work, and receipts to ensure programme quality.
In RapidPro, a Flow can be designed to set up group chats among fixed, closed groups. When the response rates to polls was low, SHAO also used the group chats for follow up.
The six-month EduTrac pilot was successful in the ability to quickly establish and maintain two-way communication with persons in remote areas using a low-cost, practical solution.
Within monitoring, over 1900 SMS were sent and received, and there was enthusiastic support from teachers about real time reporting and feedback on the issues they identified. SHAO and participants provided positive feedback on polls as a way for UNICEF Afghanistan to provide oversight on programme quality with transparency. The monitoring of activities in real time was described as a reliable and fair method for all concerned parties to jointly collaborate on issues as they surfaced, instead of as an auditing mechanism.
The polls were complemented by group chat for the unstructured discussion of issues faced by teachers and a mechanism for teachers to provide peer support. Once an easy-to-use dashboard was added, implementing partner SHAO was able to moderate discussions and provide announcements and reminders to the group. About 14,000 messages were sent based on 280 unique chats between 50 teachers.
UNICEF Afghanistan learned many lessons while implementing the EduTrac pilot. Other users from the RapidPro community will benefit from UNICEF Afghanistan’s experience:
- The pilot demonstrated the power of the RapidPro platform to quickly deploy a polling and chat engine over basic communication channels in a difficult operating environment. RapidPro made it possible to respond to participant feedback through quick flow revisions implemented during breaks between training sessions and in the evenings.
- One account in RapidPro will support both chat and polls, but it is easier for end users and implementers if the chat and polls have separate accounts. The credits that are deducted when users interact with RapidPro across channels can be shared across projects, so separate accounts will not affect price.
- Real-time registration during a training is not recommended if there is any delay in the receipt of messages. One alternative to trainees enrolling themselves on their mobile phones is to enrol trainees directly using an Excel file that can be import trainee details into RapidPro. This step may be completed prior to the launch of training so that participants can still go through practice flow and become familiar with the system.
- Simple flows are critical, especially when participants are interacting with the system outside of a training environment. Response rates dropped significantly after a few questions and when users were faced with error messages.
- Familiarity and knowledge around mobile phones varies widely. In trainings, participants who are already comfortable with mobile technology may be paired with struggling participants.
- Multilingual flows are mandatory. RapidPro makes it easy to translate flows into several languages, set language preferences for users when they interact with the system or switch languages once the Contact’s preference is known. UNICEF Afghanistan programmed their flows to automatically set the language preference based on the keyword the user sent to RapidPro. If a user texted a Persian keyword, the Contact Field was set and all subsequent interactions were in Persian. With the first interaction, RapidPro then stored the Contact’s phone number and language preference. This practice reduced the number of questions for Contacts and improved response rates.
- A WebHook is the best way to manage alternate spellings, especially when considering multiple languages, for things like locations. Taking the time to set up a simple WebHook will improve the user experience (they don’t get stuck in an error loop) and improve your response rates.
- A key need during the pilot was a simple dashboard for partners that highlights poll results. Based on this, UNICEF Afghanistan designed and funded two partner dashboards, one for group chat (chatpro) and one for poll management (tracpro). Like RapidPro, these dashboards are open source and deployable for partners and easily attachable to RapidPro workspaces. These dashboards can be easily, quickly, and locally adapted for early adoption during the testing phase so that anyone, anywhere can log in, view ongoing discussions, and send SMS to chat groups from the dashboard.
- During the pilot, negotiations with mobile network operators for a reverse-billed short code were ongoing, so teachers used their own phones and were given top-ups to offset the cost of reporting. But, it is recommended that implementers at least use an online top-up or carrier-based system to regularly top-up their participants to maintain participation.
Initially, EduTrac was a standalone project with SHAO without integration with the Ministry of Education. While the pilot showed proof of concept and many valuable lessons were learned in the process, scale is required to make a quantifiable impact and only achievable through partnerships where scale is planned from the outset. It is important for UNICEF Afghanistan to sustain the momentum and trust established with partners and the teachers who participated in the pilot in order to bring the project to scale for a greater impact in Afghanistan. With support from the Ministry of Education, EduTrac has the potential to integrate with Afghanistan’s existing education management information system to include schools, infrastructure, assets, students, teachers, and other human resources.
There are many potential uses of EduTrac that were not explored and it will be great to see what others create using RapidPro. For example, EduTrac could be used to improve student retention through direct communication with parents when their children are at-risk to dropout of school. RapidPro could manage interactions between concerned teachers and parents.
UNICEF Afghanistan’s experience deploying EduTrac has contributed to RapidPro’s versatility, and will guide the future of EduTrac in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Read more about group chat in the knowledge base.