This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. In observance, USAID is spotlighting innovative women working in these fields. Below is an interview with Catherine Oliver Smith, COO and Co-Founder of Urban Planet Mobile.
How would you describe the work of Urban Planet?
Urban Planet Mobile develops and distributes digital education worldwide, primarily through basic mobile phones that provide English language education. The Urban English™ program design – simple SMS with an embedded audio file – creates the potential of reaching 95% of mobile phones worldwide with life-changing educational content. An English-speaking taxi driver in a tourism-based economy, for example, has the opportunity to earn a greater income than one who can’t speak English.
Students play a mobile game in Kenya. Photo credit: Ed Owles, Worldview
We believe access to quality education is a human right so our focus is to make education readily available to people, with little or no other access, on a device they already own and use. We also ensure affordability by charging micro-payments. Free programs are hard to scale and sustain because there is always a cost to developing and deploying the content. By providing quality, in demand content, people are more inclined to make the small investment for the tangible results education brings.
Urban Planet started with the goal of reaching the most basic phones and helping bring mobile education to the world. Today we are successfully reaching hundreds of thousands of people with our scalable and affordable technology. And this is only the beginning. Through the support of USAID, Urban Planet is testing and evaluating the effectiveness of MobiLiteracy, our 90-day mobile literacy program in Uganda. The intervention is an out of school supplemental program for pre-literate children. It introduces letters, sounds, and common words, and works on developing both listening comprehension and encouraging storytelling and sharing.
Why is language learning critical for development? Is there something about this modality of education that disproportionately benefits women?
Literacy is the basis for learning, but it’s more than that. According to the UNESCO (PDF), in the developing world, the children of literate mothers have a 50% greater chance of surviving past the age of five. Literate communities are generally healthier, less violent, more civically engaged, and more economically strong.
Mobile phones are very personal devices, more so than any other technology device. MobiLiteracy lessons are sent as a basic SMS daily lesson with an audio link. Mothers can open the audio lesson at a convenient time, which could also mean a safe and private time. The lesson can be deleted from the phone, saved, and also shared privately.
While the lessons are generally meant for children, mothers with limited or no literacy can certainly benefit. Parental involvement in education is a proven precursor to success but parents with limited education feel inadequate and ashamed. This program empowers mothers to take an active role.
Where do you see this technology ultimately going over the next several decades?
The cost for tablets and smartphones will continue to decrease as the competition increases and the capacity of the technology expands. Also, areas with limited or no connection will get connected.
Right now, simple programs that provide for supplemental education make a tremendous impact, but the future is more robust educational programs, widely accessible and available to people currently limited from such programs due to lack of technology and the requisite infrastructure. More and more formal curricula will be created for this digital world.
While censorship and repression inhibit the spread of certain ideas, information, and education, through the use of mobile technologies, marginalized members of society will have unprecedented access to education. It is through education that a more peaceful, healthier, and better world will emerge.