Tag Archives: pearson

Design Journey of a Mobile Learning Tool

The Design Journey: Creating a Mobile Test Prep Application in South Africa is an ICTworks post I wrote with Nicola du Toit. The post describes the development of a mobile-based test and exam revision tool for high school learners called X-kit Achieve! Mobile. Nicola was the UX Designer at Pearson and I was the project lead.

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Six Practices for Digital Inclusion – Your Weekend Long Reads

UNESCO, in partnership with Pearson, has released the final batch of 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. The case studies, authored by Dr Nathan Castillo and myself, were released during UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week.

The new case studies are:

  • MOPA: a citizen reporting and monitoring platform for solid waste management in Maputo, Mozambique.
  • Hello Hope / Merhaba Umut: a translation, language learning and essential information service for Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
  • Farmer Training App: a training tool for sustainable farming practices in Guatemala and 23 other countries.
  • ABALOBI: a digital self-management system for small-scale fishers in South Africa (coming in April).

The latest case studies affirm the six digital insights drawn from the earlier cases in the series. Each has an interesting story to tell and is well worth a read.

For me, MOPA is particularly interesting because it demonstrates how a user-centred design approach and the inclusion of different stakeholder groups can empower citizens and strengthen accountability for public service delivery. It demonstrates six digital practices that are instructive for ICT4D practitioners.

Citizen Monitoring of Municipal Services

Maputo has a serious solid waste management problem. Many of its 1.2 million residents live in informal settlements, hard to reach because of poor road infrastructure and dangerous during flooding because of drains and rivers blocked by trash.

The Maputo Municipality attempted to address the solid waste challenge by outsourcing waste collection to private companies which used waste removal trucks in the urban sectors, and micro-operators using pushcarts for suburban neighbourhoods. Overseeing and quality controlling such a decentralised network of 45 operators proved to be very difficult.

Today, through the participatory digital reporting and monitoring MOPA platform, citizens are encouraged to report waste issues and monitor the public waste management service in the Maputo Municipality via USSD, website and, most recently, via Android app. After a year, 3,500 registered users have contributed almost 7,000 sanitation reports to the MOPA digital system, 96% via USSD.

It’s a really cool project, basically what happens when a UX company – UX Information Technologies – teams up with city government – the Maputo Municipal Council – and gets support from the World Bank. The development process followed is thorough and the solution is wonderfully pragmatic.

Understand the Problem, Engage All the Users

Good product development means we should design with the user and understand the existing ecosystem. The MOPA team decided to do this through four types of workshops to gather user-oriented design insights, validate workflow systems, and collect ideas for improving the service.

  • Insight workshops helped unpack the complex system of solid waste management in the city and the roles of the three main  groups: residents (the ones reporting), municipal workers (the ones managing) and private waste collection operators (the ones responding).
  • Collection (data) workshops emphasized functioning sources of data and gaps that needed to be filled for service optimization. These workshops led to a campaign of mapping physical collection sites in Maputo.
  • Validation workshops tested design iterations of the platform with an emphasis on suitability for the skills of the intended user base.
  • Events workshops promoted the MOPA prototype across Maputo to attract local software developers to take an interest in enhancing the software design and features – more on this below.

Talk the User’s Language

Citizens can report on particular rubbish containers to say, for example, it is full or burning. Containers have physical locations, but residents don’t identify containers by address. MOPA found out that they rather refer to them in relation to something, for example, the receptacle in front of the Custodio warehouse is the ‘Custodio’ container.

The MOPA team mapped the city with these peoples’ labels, which improves the reporting quality and better fits the residents’ language. In the background the system can match the peoples’ label with the official address.

Make it Super Easy

To submit a report, the MOPA platform requires three data points for location identification: municipal district, neighbourhood and place. But how do you get citizens to report based on location when they don’t have GPS? Keep it old school with paper and USSD.

As part of its awareness-raising campaign, the UX team produced posters that were distributed in all neighbourhoods with a unique USSD string for each container. Each string captured the essential location data.

By storing the USSD string as a contact under ‘MOPA’, whenever residents want to register a report the key location data is already captured and they go straight to specifying the type of incident.

Use Soft Power

While disruptive innovation is the rallying cry of today, the MOPA team did not try to become the “Uber of” waste management. Instead they decided to work within the current parameters, but bring efficiency to the process. We could call this “soft power innovation”. Soft power is “the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than by coercion (hard power) … to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction”.

Local service providers are still contracted to collect the waste and the City still manages the process. Everyone keeps their jobs, but they need to do them better. The residents and the data management tool empowering the City bring an efficiency to the process using simple tools already in their lives.

Open the Platform and Data

The UX team organized Mozambique’s first e-Government hackathon – #apps4maputo – challenging local developers to produce the most innovative digital solution utilising an API into the MOPA platform. MOPA is built on open source software and generates open data.

The winner developed an app called OurMoz, which submits reports to the MOPA platform from any Android-enabled device.

The hackathon allowed the UX team to expand its user base to include smartphone users and practice being collaborative and open in textbook style. It also set the tone for the underlying platform to be used for other civic participation use cases.

Keep the User Informed

SMS notifications allow residents to receive confirmations of their submitted
reports, and update them on the status of the report. In the City’s offices the reports are published on an online map, which the municipality uses along with a dashboard to track, validate and verify with the waste removal companies when each issue has been resolved. The resident is then notified via an SMS sent through the platform. Such a feedback loop shows that the municipality is transparent and responsive.

Overall, the results are impressive: more than 88% of reported issues are resolved, with an average response time of 2.7 days. 186 informal dump sites across the city have also been eradicated. MOPA is an exciting example of simple innovation using the tools that people have. Aside from moving towards a cleaner city, perhaps the biggest impact is the empowerment residents feel by playing their part in this process. That is a key foundation of digital inclusion.

Image: (C) by Municipal Council of Maputo

Across Africa the Feature Phone is Not Dead – Your Weekend Long Reads


Quartz Africa reports that last year feature phones took back market share from smartphones in Africa. The market share of smartphones fell to 39% in 2017 (from 45%), while feature phones rose to 61% (from 55%).

Quartz Africa sees the reasons as likely to be twofold: first, the growth of big markets, like Ethiopia and DR Congo, which until recently have had relatively low penetration. Second, low price.

Transsion, a little-known Chinese handset manufacturer, now sells more phones than any other company in Africa. It’s three big brands outnumber Samsung’s market share there. The devices are cheap and appealing for new users.

The FT reports that Transsion’s phones are specifically designed for the African market: they have multiple sim-card slots, camera software adapted to better snap darker skin tones, and speakers with enhanced bass (seriously). Many of the feature phone models have messaging apps. The batteries remain on standby for up to 13 days!

What does this mean? That you should freeze your flashy new app project? No! There’s no need to stop planning and developing for a smartphone-enabled Africa. The trend is clear: smartphones become cheaper over time and their uptake increases.

But we know that in Africa, especially, mobile usage is unevenly distributed and these stats are a good reminder that the non-smartphone user base is still huge. Many of us need to remain true to that reality if we want our ICT to be 4D.

The age old question – which mobile channel should we focus on? – has not gone away. And the answer still remains the same: it depends. What is your service? What devices do your users have? What are their usage preferences? Do they have data coverage and, if yes, can they afford data?

Low tech, like IVR and radio, can be beautiful and extremely effective. In a meta-study of education initiatives in Africa, the Brookings Institute found that most technology-based innovations utilize existing tools in new ways. They give Eneza Education as an example, which built its service on SMS (even though there is now an Android app available).

At the same time, apps are certainly rising in the development sector. While not in Africa, the Inventory of Digital Technologies for Resilience in Asia-Pacific found apps to be the dominant channel. From my own experience I’m seeing more apps, often as one part of a mix of delivery channels.

A forthcoming case study in the UNESCO-Pearson initiative is MOPA, a platform for participatory monitoring of waste management services in Maputo, Mozambique. Citizens report issues via USSD, website and, most recently, via Android app.

Usage patterns show that 96% of reports are still sent through USSD, 3% via mobile app, and only 1% through the website. Given that specific user base, and the quick-and-dirty nature of the transaction, it’s not surprising that USSD is a clear winner.

Another example of a channel mix is Fundza, the South African mobile novel library. It started life as a mobisite and now also has an app, which largely provides a window into the same content just in a nice Android skin.

The app is used by less than 1% of users, with the mobisite taking the lion’s share of traffic (via feature phone and smartphone). Fundza is also on Free Basics, where the breakdown is quite different: 65% mobisite, 45% app (perhaps pointing to the benefits of being bundled into someone else’s very well-marketed app).

There are many reasons why individual apps may or may not succeed, and these examples are not meant to downplay their utility. Overall, the world is going to smartphones.

However, the bottom line is that you should not write off the humble feature phone in Africa just yet. It does old tech very well, internet messaging and the mobile web, which for many ICT4D projects is still their bread and butter access channel.

What Business can teach Development

For twelve years I was a practitioner and researcher in the fields of ICT for development, education, government and digital media, always developing tech solutions for social good. Then, in 2014 I left the non-profit world of international organisations and moved to a corporate when I joined Pearson South Africa’s Innovation Lab.

I made the move purposefully: to learn and to develop a business perspective on education technology, to see it from the “other side.” I always intended to take insights back to the non-profit sector one day, since for-profit and non-profit have much to teach each other, to make each more effective and efficient. I have now returned to UNESCO and so it’s time to reflect on the question: what did I learn in the years at Pearson? What can Business teach Development?

I learned many new things, and was reminded of many known truths (like implementing a tablet program for 8,000 students across 13 nationwide campuses is a deeply complex exercise). But I think my clearest lesson was the value in following an agile product development approach.

During the time I was at Pearson the company started to adopt — across the globe — something it calls a Product Lifecycle (PLC) approach. The PLC consists of six stages: idea (developing the initial concept), explore (researching the need for the product or service), validate (confirming the assumptions and proposed solution are valid), grow (launching the solution and growing revenues, reach and learner outcomes), sustain (maintaining revenues, reach and learner outcomes, and achieving operating efficiencies), and retire (closing down or divesting).

Each stage in this framework has activities and gates, which need to be validated before commencement (or not) to the next stage, as decided by a product council that meets regularly. A product development approach is not new in the development sector. But is it applied at the implementation and funding level? And is it done in an agile way, with a common set of actions, triggers and validation points? Doing this is very effective at (i) quickly weeding out bad ideas and validating good ones, (ii) showing how good ideas may need to pivot, and (iii) being honest about when to kill off projects that have reached their end.

In the development sector at least the first three stages (idea, explore and validate), if not first four (including grow), are bundled into a well-planned pilot – one stage, essentially. This is a bad idea as it isn’t lean enough, doesn’t encourage “fail fast, fail often” in the words of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The whole solution is built and rolled out before asking key questions like: does anyone actually want (not need) this service? Will they pay for it – financially or with their time? What are the real pain points of the group we’re serving? In other words, we don’t know at the end if there is a neat product-market fit, because the product hasn’t been developed iteratively with the market.

Development should break down these activities into distinct stages. Each stage is essentially a mini-pilot. Funders should demand the same, but key for them is to offer funding agreements that allow for flexibility and the ability to adapt and learn from the different stage activities. So, there is the potential for full funding of the project, but key gates must be opened along the way. In this model donors fund stages, but commit to fund more based on results.

But surely, you may be thinking, it’s precisely because donors only fund short-term pilots that much development effort suffers from pilot-itis. The problem isn’t that donors fund pilots, it’s that they fund ones that don’t add value. If they follow a more agile approach, there’ll be more early stage pilots and fewer, more successful and sustainable, bigger ones.

When a well-intentioned non-profit organisation proposes a two-year project with neat predicted outcomes, it is essentially saying to funders: we need two years to show you this works before we scale it to the whole world. This is madness. We need proposals – and calls for proposals – that are more agile so that both implementer and funder are open to new trajectories being forged in the project. Even in a five-year programme, the principles of being agile should still apply. The NGO should say: we have an idea and we think it’s a solid one, but we need to explore and validate it before moving further. And if we need to adapt it, we need your support.

There are many agile or lean models, centred around the sound principles of iterative development and designing with real users. Development organisations should choose one and go agile. There are some development pioneers beginning to move in this direction. By moving towards a more agile way of operating – like Google and Facebook – we will get much more impact from preciously scarce funds.

CCTV interview: Technology as a tool to transform learning

I appeared on CCTV America along with Scott Himelstein, director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law and Mobile Technology Learning Center, to discuss our vision for using technology as a tool to transform learning.

Here is the interview.

CCTV America

Harnessing ICTs for greater access to education for girls and women

Harnessing ICTs for greater access to education for girls and women is a presentation given at the GWI (Graduate Women International) Conference in Cape Town. It covers some of the educational opportunities provided by technology uptake, what Pearson is doing in this space through Project Literacy and Every Child Learning, and the key challenges that remain to realising this potential.

e-Learning: “e” is for exchange, not electronic

Africa – Continent of Opportunities: Bridging the Digital Divide was an event in Berlin hosted by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to engage with a range of development policy actors from different sectors dealing with digital technology in Africa.

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The goal of the event was, through dialogue, to inform the direction of BMZ’s Africa policy regarding bridging the digital divide. It hoped to explore new and innovative ideas for fields of action to implement effective cooperation in the area of ICT in Africa. A new strategic partnership for digital Africa was launched, with a focus on the application of ICT in key areas, including education. BMZ appealed for partners to explore how they could get involved.

The event covered ICT lessons from Rwanda, ICT infrastructure, inclusive digital education, building e-literacy and tools for knowledge transfer.

I sat in on the discussions and summarised the findings from three tables on the particular topic Digital Methods to Transfer Knowledge. In the group was the Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, Mr Jean Philbert Nsengimana, and also Mr Günter Nooke, the German Chancellor’s Personal Representative for Africa in the BMZ, amongst others from around the African continent and Europe.

Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, Mr Jean Philbert Nsengimana

Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, Mr Jean Philbert Nsengimana

Below are the guiding questions from our session, as well as key points raised. Guiding question 1: What are the most important tools to efficiently transfer knowledge?

  • All participants agreed the tools should not just transfer knowledge, but allow users to create it. Tools should be used to create, transfer, share and engage.
  • We did not focus on particular tools, but rather attributes of tools. These included: being mobile; flexible and adaptable to local context; low-cost (where possible); modular and extensible; and lastly “integratable” with existing platforms.

Guiding question 2: How can we optimise and develop those tools and make them available to anyone?

  • Reduce the cost of usage.
  • Raise awareness that the tools exist and what their benefits are.
  • Ensure a holistic view – not just to consider a tool but the ecosystem in which it is used. This includes training, support, pedagogy, connectivity and cost, amongst other things.

Guiding question 3: Is e-learning the formula for success making face-to-face interactions and education dispensable?

  • No! While everyone recognised the benefits of e-learning – such as enabling distance education, asynchronous and synchronous communication in peer learning networks, and the ability to scale learning beyond fixed time and space constraints – they equally valued face-to-face-based education. Overall, the concept of complementarity, where both approaches are used in the most appropriate way, was seen as the ideal education model.
  • Open and distance learning represent opportunities, but are not silver bullets.
  • Mentors, either face-to-face or virtual, were noted as being able to play a valuable supportive role for teachers/lecturers and students.

Guiding question 4: How can development cooperation contribute to building inclusive digital education?

  • Concerning inclusive education, it was noted that the focus should be on learning and not teaching. The “e” in e-learning should not stand for electronic but rather exchange. We should be exploring digital methods to enable learning,  to teach students to “learn how to learn”.
  • A concern was raised around too much “screen time” for younger learners especially. Finding a balance between digital and offline activities is key here.

Recommendations for development cooperation (and any organisation involved in e-learning really):

  • Take an ecosystem view and include partners (from government, private, civil society and academic sectors), as needed.
  • E-Learning today is not just about ebooks and tablets; those are only small parts in the “digital learning experience” that ultimately includes adaptive assessment and personalised learning, digital learning portfolios and digital administration systems. The whole is made up of many interrelated factors, such as capacity, connectivity, content, political and policy support, and sustainable funding models, all of which need to work together in concert.
  • Do not follow the hype about e-learning and mobile learning. Be informed, be realistic, set a long-term vision (such as Rwanda’s Vision 2020 set in 2000), be prepared for uneven progress across different groups and stakeholders, and most importantly, learn and adapt as you go along.
  • A model should be developed incorporating many of the above issues, including technology, implementation methodology and a business model.  Funding should be provided to pilot the model in a few countries so that it can be refined. Other countries can then adapt it as needed for their own contexts.

A “mini expo” was held where I exhibited Pearson’s X-kit Achieve Mobile and Project Literacy, as well as Yoza Cellphone Stories. Overall it was a fascinating event and a valuable opportunity for Pearson to provide input into the future strategy for a digital Africa. We look forward to continue being a part of the discussions. 027_Afrikatag2015_9205 185_Afrikatag2015_9434062_Afrikatag2015_6771

I would like to personally thank BMZ and the Goethe Institute Johannesburg for their generous support in ensuring my participation in Berlin. The Institute’s support is an expression of their continued interest in the potential of mobiles for literacy in Africa.

Images: Thomas Ecke, Copyright