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Six Digital Inclusion Takeaways – Your Weekend Long Reads

UNESCO, in partnership with Pearson, has released ten case studies of digital solutions that are inclusive for people with low skills and low literacy, helping them to participate in the knowledge society in innovative ways. Of interest to UNESCO and Pearson is how through technology use, users’ skills are developed and, ultimately, their livelihoods are improved.

The case studies, authored by Dr Nathan Castillo and myself, span sectors such as health, agriculture, the environment and civic participation. Each case study reveals how the inclusive digital solutions were designed with users, the skills needed to effectively use the solutions, the reach and result of usage and, most importantly, key lessons learned and recommendations. The case studies are rich in detail and make for stimulating reading.

After releasing all fourteen case studies – the last four coming at UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2018 – UNESCO and Pearson will then develop a set of guidelines for more inclusive digital development. In the meantime, below are six takeaways that will hopefully inform your ICT4D journey to greater inclusion.

Skills Benchmarking is Important

A key argument of the UNESCO-Pearson work is that, while good examples of user-centred design exist, not enough attention is given to users’ digital skills and literacy, present and future. In addition to designing around users’ needs, benchmarking their capabilities means we can see users as learners and create solutions that suit them today, but also help them develop skills that can use a richer feature set tomorrow. More features equals more complex interactions, increased possibility for learning and deeper usage, and potential revenue for solution providers. Understanding user capabilities also means that the right training can be delivered. Benchmarking can happen through specific assessments and also by using international frameworks, such as DigComp2.1: The Digital Competence Framework for Citizens.

Medic Mobile is an integrated mobile system for improving maternal and neonatal health. While it operates in twenty-three countries, the case study focuses on the rural Nepal implementation. The community health workers (CHWs) — trusted members in the local human social network — that use the system on the ground have needed initial and ongoing training.

Medic Mobile routinely runs pre- and post-training skills tests. Post-test results from a training conducted with 500 CHWs revealed the strongest overall gains in the more complex mobile phone operations that CHWs initially struggled with most. There were 40–45 per cent gains in the ability to use SMS functions including retrieving specific SMSs and accessing the phones inbox.

By benchmarking the users pre- and post-training, Medic Mobile is able to track development. It also informs their practise of pairing low-literate with higher-literate CHWs, to provide peer support to each other.

Basic Usage, Rich Data

Even though end users are low skilled and low literate, and interfacing with appropriately simple solutions, doesn’t exclude the opportunity for data collection and complex analysis by solution providers. By tracking farmer usage of each of the Crop Specific Mobile Apps in rural India, the company behind it can identify in which districts farmers need to diversify their crops, where they are diversifying but need guidance, and where new disease outbreaks are likely happening. Such usage data can be sent to the cloud via SMS, if needed, to ensure collection in low-connectivity districts. The farmers thus become rich data sources for interventions triggered at a district- or state-level by government – and in the process create a potential revenue stream for the solution provider holding the analysed data.

Users unwittingly informing digital interventions is not new: through Liking or posting on Facebook, they inform the algorithms for targeted advertising. However, in this case the users are particularly low literate, and such real-time data gathering has not been possible before. Previously, extension workers would be relied upon to gather local information, but the process would be slow.

Another example is Khushi Baby, a digital service in India that supports effective tracking of maternal and child healthcare data by CHWs – often low-literate and with low digital skills. Mothers are also users as they ensure their baby’s wear their medical records in the form of a digital necklace. As data is collected, it is aggregated and analysed for district-level decision-making related to health administration. Low-literate users are active participants in data generation for programmatic and policy interventions — in real time.

Each of the three user groups: mothers, CHWs and district officials, interface with appropriately designed technology: wearable necklaces, mobile data collection apps and web-based dashboards, respectively.

Let the Tech Help With Quality Control for Inclusion of Low-skilled and Low-literate Users

In some of the case studies low-skilled and low-literate users are active participants in mHealth support interventions. How do we know that they are not mistakenly doing harm? The tech helps.

hearScreen™ allows anyone with very limited training and the app and headphone set to conduct hearing tests (in developing countries there is a dearth of trained professionals to ensure that all children receive such tests). By sending false positives to the person administering the test (the screener), and tracking whether he or she records these as legitimate responses from the patient, an individual screener quality index is created. The index acts as a measure for quality control and system reports inform supervisors about screeners that need further training.

The Chipatala cha pa Foni (CCPF) health information service, delivered in Malawi via a call centre and text messages, allows supervisors to monitor the quality of hotline operators. At least ten calls per operator are reviewed and scored and, if needed, an individualised improvement plan is developed.

Content (Testing) is King

In 1996 Bill Gates famously said: Content is king. (How about queen?!) At the time he wouldn’t have been thinking of low-skilled and low-literate users. And yet, for these groups, content is even more important than for others. It needs to be perfect: understandable, accessible, context-specific and, often, actionable. Tone, voice, perspective, message length and medium are all important.

In fact, he should have said, content testing is king. In almost every case study  there is a solid focus on ensuring that the delivered content is appropriate. The 3-2-1 Service by HNI and Viamo, which offers a range of audio and text content in fourteen countries, is based on rigorous and ongoing content testing. For HNI, an “a-ha” moment came when they realised their target audience in Zambia couldn’t read the health SMSs being sent. Illiteracy gave rise to the addition of the audio service.

Low-literate Users Can Also Be Content Creators

For people from the developed world the general picture of digital content creation is the teen producing Youtube videos, the amateur expert updating Wikipedia pages, or the teacher creating openly licensed interactive lessons for her class. But in rural Ghana or media-dark (read: internet- or radio-free) parts of India, the case studies reveal digital content creation in very different forms and by people with very low or no literacy.

In Ghana, the Talking Book audio device allows rural farmers to not only browse and listen to livelihoods content, but to record and share their own content. In India, Mobile Vaani is an audio-based community-media platform for offline populations, accessed and added to with even basic mobile phones for community mobilisation and social campaigns.

I have noted this before, eight years ago, when seeing low-literate teens in South Africa comment on mobile novels from their phones. What is interesting is how the case study users, like the teens, do not fit the traditional content creator persona.

Leverage Infomediaries and Build Local Capacity

Low-skilled and low-literate users, more than others, encounter and use technology with the help of intermediaries, or as ICTWorks calls them, infomediaries. MIRA Channel, which seeks to improve maternal and child mortality rates in rural India, Afghanistan and Uganda, struggled with the limited experience of mothers with using mobile phones. Their target audience just didn’t have the necessary, even if simple, tech skills.

The adolescent children of the mothers, who generally had more experience in using mobile phones, were enlisted to assist in training and support when using MIRA Channel. In fact, as a result a health programme directed at adolescent girls was developed.

Nano Ganesh allows even low-literate farmers to remotely control their irrigation water pumps via mobile phone, saving water and electricity, and reducing soil erosion. The pump devices need to be installed and maintained — rural farmers and local technicians are trained for this purpose. The technicians provide on-the-ground support and earn wages in the process. They, in turn, are supported remotely via Skype and live video from the Nano Ganesh service centre, and via offline training videos. Digital support skills are embedded within the community.

Mobile Vaani has also grown through a model that is firmly community-based. Because the content is hyper-local, a network of local clubs with community reporters ensures that awareness raising, training, support and curation of user-generated content happens by and with the community.

Working through a human network seems to be the only way to genuinely win the trust of the local users, provide ongoing support and ensure communal ownership. Digital solutions serving low-literate and low-skilled populations cannot operate outside of the community. Indeed, you could argue that the success of m-PESA is not the tech, but rather it’s human agent network that registers and manages user activity.

Collectively the case studies hold many more insights, so dive in and start reading the 171 page pack.

Image: © ZMQ/Hilmi Quraishi of MIRA Channel

Tech in Africa – your weekend long reads

The rapid uptake of mobile technology in Africa has, for some time, been the source of much excitement. In less than twenty years the continent “leapfrogged” landline telecommunications to enlist half a billion mobile subscribers. Such a feat of digital acrobatics fuelled the narrative, started by Aristotle 2300 years ago, that out of Africa there is always something new.

But we also know the hard truth: that access and usage is highly uneven, generally skewed to younger, urban males. While mobile and the internet has changed the lives of millions of Africans through access — for the first time — to money services, health and agriculture information, and communication with far-off family, there are still millions of people completely untouched by these modern opportunities.

Figures about tech in Africa belie the inequalities that persist. In fact, we shouldn’t really talk of Africa, like it’s a country, but rather talk of some tech, used by some people, in some parts of some countries in Africa.

But if we must generalise for the sake of expediency, then we know that for a time there will be a tale of two Africas: one as the hub of bottom-up invention, and another as the internet-dark continent. Since so many of us see our work in Africa, it is timely to take stock of both sides of this story, to see how much has been achieved — and with such innovation — and remember how far there is still to go. Tech in Africa affects us all, not only the people living there.

The Big Picture View

A good place to start is the Guardian’s Can the internet reboot Africa?, which offers a big picture view of the many inroads of tech on the continent. “But there are buts. Many of them.” These include lack of electricity — apparently only about a third of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to grid power; prohibitively high mobile data costs; limited mobile access in rural areas; not enough local content and too few skilled software developers. All of these issues take time to address (except cost!) and need to be tackled holistically.

A report this month by the Internet Society paints a picture of the internet economy in Africa, and provides policy advice on how to grow it to its much greater potential.

The Personal Touch

Zooming right in, the Guardian also offers a day in the digital life of Africa, which tells how tech is affecting ten different people across the continent. From a tech-savvy radio DJ in Lagos to a deep rural farmer in Zimbabwe, digital is having a remarkable effect on their lives. It would be fascinating to have ICT4D project leads send in “day in the life” stories of their users.

How Africa’s Tech Generation Is Changing the Continent

Changing focus from users to creators, National Geographic tells the personal stories of successful young tech entrepreneurs in Africa. You may know some of the initiatives featured, such as Kigali’s SafeMoto and Kenya’s FarmDrive, but the article is well worth the read. And being NG, the photo’s are beautiful.

Hubs, Hubs, Hubs

There are 300 tech hubs in 93 cities across 42 countries in Africa. Those are impressive statistics, considering there were almost none a decade ago! Three countries, in fact three cities, stand out as hub concentrations: Cape Town, Nairobi and Lagos. The last is taking the lead as startup capital of Africa, with Google and Facebook both setting up developer centres there. The one I’m most excited about is unique: the recently launched Injini is Africa’s first incubator dedicated to edtech. Right now it is based Cape Town, but plans are afoot to have East and West African centres.

New Kids on the Block

While we love the darling tech stories of Africa, such as mPESA, BRCK and GetSmarter, what about the new products and services? Ventures Africa shares ten African tech for good startups to watch, grouped under three umbrellas: education equality, economic empowerment and access to medical care.

Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND Arne Hoel / World Bank

Refugee education – your weekend long reads

© CC-BY-NC-ND UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Ose

The surge in global refugees has had devastating effects on the education of affected children. Only 61% of refugee children have access to primary education, and only 23% have access to secondary school. Overall, refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children.

Technology has been shown to make a contribution to alleviating this crisis in a range of ways, be it through widening access to learning materials, enabling virtual mentoring of teachers, improving education administration, or better and quicker data collection.

Promising Practices: Case Studies

Launched in March 2017 through a partnership between UNHCR, Pearson and Save the Children, the Promising Practices in Refugee Education Initiative set out to identify, document and promote innovative ways to effectively reach refugee children and young people with quality educational opportunities. The result is a set of 18 case studies, many using tech to provide support somewhere in the education value chain.

Those that don’t use tech, for example Essence of Learning, which uses locally accessible recycling and natural materials only, are refreshing to see. Imagine: no dead batteries, no upgrades, no support needs, no lost passwords! They remind us of the range or resources at hand, of which tech is but one.

Promising Practices: Recommendations

A juicy synthesis report distills the key findings and lessons learned from the case studies. Collectively the experiences have been used to identify ten recommendations aimed at improving refugee education policy and practice. Stand out recommendations are to Improve collaboration and develop innovative partnerships and Adopt user-centred design and empowering approaches.

Mobiles to Support Learners, Support Teachers and Support Systems

The 2017 UNESCO Mobile Learning Week focused on Education in emergencies and crises. The concept note provides an excellent summary of the key challenges and opportunities for mobile tech to play a supportive role. You can now download many of the Symposium presentations aligned to the themes:  support learners, support teachers and support systems.

Do We Really Understand the Problem?

So you believe tech has a role to play in alleviating the education challenges facing refugees. But too often enthusiasm can result in a just-do-it approach that doesn’t necessarily address real needs or lacks co-ordination with others. A good place to start is with UNHCR’s 5 challenges to accessing education for Syrian refugee children. Another excellent resource is the Open University report Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smartphones and Social Media Networks, which offers an insight into the real lives, challenges and needs of refugees en route or in their host countries.

Refugees and Mobiles

Finally, beyond education, the GSMA report The Importance of Mobile for Refugees: A Landscape of New Services and Approaches offers a quick scan of the opportunities for refugees, themed by connectivity, digital tools and platforms, family reconnection, education, and livelihoods and mobile money.

Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Ose

Personalized learning – your weekend long reads

© CC-BY-NC-ND Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

The promise of digitally-enabled personalized learning dates back to the 1960s. As with many early predictions, it took decades before the potential began to be realized. For the first time we are seeing personalized learning being adopted as a strategy by schools and districts, the results of research and lessons emerging, and the actual software maturing enough to be interesting (I use that word intentionally because there are way too many solutions claiming to offer personalized learning, that just don’t cut it).

We should be jumping for joy, right, for the related benefits are at hand: students having control over their own learning; differentiated instruction; real-time feedback for each learner; and teachers having more time to spend on teaching?

But while the benefits sounds ideal for education, personalized learning has its critics. Beyond that, it’s really hard to get right and we’re still not “there”. In 2012, the K-12 Horizon Report put Personal Learning Environments on the four to five year horizon, by 2016 the report described Personalizing Learning as one of the “wicked challenges: those that are complex to even define, much less address”.

The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning

Education Week has recently published a series of articles in a special report Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality. Since our default techie position is one of open arms to this vision, the best article with which to start is The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning, which offers three broad criticisms of the movement.

What Does the Evidence Tell Us?

Concerning the evidence for personalized learning, a 2015 RAND study showed large gains from the practice. But a Brookings Institute blog post describes how more recent research of personalized learning implemented at scale shows modest achievement gains and identifies implementation challenges. The article offers insightful views into what could be the cause of this (including that radical change often has an initial negative effect — but more on that in a future post.)

Let’s Do This Thing

Also from Education Week, lessons from three schools reveal three common challenges around personalized learning implementations: ensuring teachers are trained enough for a new way of teaching; differentiating instruction in a standards-based world; and ensuring students who are now allowed to work at their own pace,  keep the pace. The lessons are useful for those wanting to implement personalized learning.

Now it’s too personal

The more personalized software knows about you, the better it can work its magic. The balance between having the system collect data about students while protecting their privacy is the grand challenge of our time. While not specifically concerned with personalized learning, the New York Times article about Google in the classroom is an excellent case study of this tension.

What about ICT4D in general?

While these articles focus on education, the principles of personalized learning and, more broadly, personalized usage, are important for all of us. Increasingly the data available can drive targeted user experiences and track user development. What does that mean for the future of mHealth SMS broadcasts, or agricultural extension support? Instead of taking assessments to demonstrate learning levels, what if behaviour change, recorded digitally, marks learning in practice and drives appropriate information and services? We should always be thinking of our target audience not as users, but learners.

Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

Your weekend long reads


For your Friday reading pleasure, the focus this week is on digital skills, or the lack thereof, that represents a major barrier to digital inclusion for billions of people. If you want to create usable and scalable ICT4D solutions, you can no longer ignore this issue. Expect much more on digital skills as we work to bring the next 50% of the world online.

Case studies of inclusive digital solutions for low-skilled and low-literate people
Released as part of the UNESCO-Pearson Initiative for Literacy: Improved Livelihoods in a Digital World, the first five case studies, in a series of 14, explore how inclusive digital solutions can help people with low skills and low literacy use technology in a way that supports skills development and, ultimately, improves their livelihoods. There are some great insights and lessons learned in designing for low-literate users. (UNESCO)
+ Meet the people behind the solutions and what inspired them.

Digital skills for work
The recently released UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report tracks progress towards achieving SDG4 on education, including indicator 4.4.1: Percentage of youth/adults with ICT skills. The key messages: it’s really hard to globally track digital skills, and from the existing data the results are bad. Using ITU survey data, we see that most adults in low and middle income countries did not perform even the most basic ICT functions. For example, only 4% of adults in Sudan and Zimbabwe could copy and paste files; only 2% to 4% in Egypt and Jamaica could use basic arithmetic formulas in a spreadsheet. The question is: how relevant is copy and pasting in Sudan? Perhaps there is a need for differentiated skills based on local contexts. (UNESCO)

Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit
There are many excellent initiatives aimed at developing digital skills and literacy. One resource for everyone is the GSMA Toolkit, which is a guide for training people in basic mobile internet skills in India. What is useful is the accompanying ‘How To Guide’, designed to support replication of the Toolkit in different markets — in other words, for training of your users. (GSMA)

Low digital literacy a barrier for India’s poor to enjoy digital financial services
Policies to transform India into a digital economy have resulted in a range of new products aimed at achieving digital financial services (DFS) for all. But, argues IFMR LEAD, a number of barriers remain for India’s poor to enjoy DFS, including low levels of consumer capabilities. A 2016 FII survey found that 49 percent of Indians had low levels of digital literacy. This was even more acute for vulnerable groups: the elderly were 18 percent more likely than the youth to be digitally illiterate, and both women and those with lower levels of education were also less digitally literate than average. (NextBillion)

Designing for the “oral” segment
Clearly work is needed to up skill and develop suitable products for vulnerable groups. But how does one design a user interface for non- or neo-literate users, or those in the “oral” population, who may not be able to read or write, but are highly adept in handling cash and making financial calculations? In an insightful report, MicroSave and My Oral Village share the research, user definitions, design principles and first prototype for a mobile wallet phone app for illiterates. (Microsave)

Your weekend long reads

For your Friday reading/watching pleasure …

Principles for Digital Development
While not new, the principles are slightly updated and have a new website.
The Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) is now the custodian of this living resource.

mHealth design toolkit
While we’re on principles, these ones, even though they are for the health sector, definitely apply to education.
The mHealth Design Toolkit is a collection of insights, tools and key principles to increase adoption and customer uptake of mobile health services by involving end-users in the service development process.

mHealth gender webinar and report: Key principles and tips to reach women
As above, very relevant for education, literacy and the UNESCO-Pearson initiative.
This webinar and report explore some practical things that mobile network operators, service providers and NGOs can do to ensure that their mHealth service includes women as well as men. Topics covered include content, platforms, user testing, pricing and bundling, and marketing and promotion. (GSMA)

Literacy builds life skills as well as language skills
Schoolchildren who read and write at home with their parents may build not only their academic literacy skills, but also other important life and learning skills, a recent study found. (New York Times)

A quick introduction to block chain technology
What will be interesting to work out is block chain’s role in education. Storing certification data is one obvious role, where the data is not tied to the issuing institute but shared in a secure, public ledger.

Your weekend long reads

For your Friday reading pleasure …

Project Literacy Lab – new ventures announced
Pearson and The Unreasonable Group expand the world’s first accelerator for entrepreneurs focused on closing the global literacy gap with a new cohort of 12 ventures. Watch their elevator pitches here.

New Broadband Commission report highlights emerging global skills gap
A UNESCO and ITU-authored report from the Broadband Commission entitled “Digital skills for life and work” shows that education systems worldwide are only just beginning to help learners cultivate the digital skills they need to excel in in our increasingly digitized societies.

The Future of Work Is Uncertain, Schools Should Worry Now
Automation and artificial intelligence are disrupting the labor market. What do K-12 educators and policymakers need to know? (Education Week)

For better learning in college lectures, lay down the laptop and pick up a pen
“A growing body of evidence says “No.” When college students use computers or tablets during lecture, they learn less and earn worse grades.” (Brookings Institute)

The future of farming in Africa is not agriculture but agribusiness
Of interest to m-agri practitioners, livelihoods  and the UNESCO-Pearson initiative. (QUARTZ Africa)