Tag Archives: pearson

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.


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

Skills training and the digital transition in the publishing sector

I presented Skills Training and the Digital Transition at the Digital Technologies Summit, Pretoria, on 18 March 2015. It considers the new skills and new ways of working needed in the publishing sector in the digital era.

1:1 Educational Computing Initiatives — Lessons learned and confirmed at the Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014

Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014I recently had the privilege of attending the 8th Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014, themed Transforming Education with 1:1 Computing (3-5 November, 2014, Gyeongju, Republic of Korea). All presentations are here.

I presented on 2 Case Studies at National Level: 1:1 Educational Computing Initiatives in South Africa – namely the large-scale tablet implementation at CTI and MGI higher education institutions, and the ICT4RED school tablet rollout in the rural Eastern Cape district of Cofimvaba.

28 countries were represented, sharing their experiences of planning and implementing 1:1 computing initiatives. The event was hosted by the Korean Ministry of Education and the World Bank, along with KERIS, UNESCO Bangkok and Intel. South Korea is one of the leaders in digital learning, so it was a fitting context for the conference.

A number of lessons were learned and known ones confirmed, shared below (download here).