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 million every year for paid services that are not delivered (World Bank, MoES). 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 in collaboration with Makerere University Department for Computer and Information Technology uses mobile phones to monitor teacher and pupil attendance and absenteeism in 100 primary schools on a weekly basis. Mobile phone coverage is exceptional in Uganda: Almost one out of three people own a phone, and mobile networks reach 90% of Uganda.
This pilot project has been made possible with the support of Twaweza, which helped improving the initial the concept, design the software and implement the project. Twaweza also supports the result measuring and learning and communication of the findings. Provided the pilot is successful, measured using a randomized control trial methodology, the aim is to integrate the use of mobile technology in Uganda’s new Education Management Information System currently under development.
How does CU@SCHOOL work? Each Friday the head teachers type in attendance figures of boys and girls and of male and female teachers, using a simple pre-loaded form on their mobile phone. At the moment the form is sent, the numbers are automatically entered in a digital database, replacing any paper forms and separate manual data entry. The data is visualized (graphs, tables, geographical maps) real-time on the computers of district officials for their action. To engage school communities, information is also sent to the public domain in the form of a (limited) number of 4-page newspapers and local radio shows. These will not only inform people about the situation in their school, but also provide inspiring examples of actions others have taken themselves to improve their school, or how they engaged with their school management and local leaders. Targeted SMS messages will be sent out as soon the technology allows.
The pilot uses revolutionary open source software called openXdata: 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 photos on simple phones. More expensive phones will also support other features such as GPS. Rather than SMS technology, openXdata uses forms that are sent on GPRS, keeping the cost as low as 1 US dollar for 2,000 messages.
So can mobile phones bring teachers and pupils back in the classrooms? We will find out in the second half of 2011, when the pilot is concluded. Teacher and pupil absenteeism is a problem in many countries, and the CU@SCHOOL concept may be easily adapted to other contexts.
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