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The Importance of Mobile Literacy Programs

Anthony Bloome, Education Technology Specialist, for USAID’s Office of Education interviews Sara Chamberlain, Director of Interactive for BBC World Service Trust, and Matthew Kam, Director of Carnegie Mellon’s MILLEE Project about using mobile phones for literacy. This blog follows a USAID-organized International Literacy Day, September 8th, “virtual” conference with Sara and Matt on Using Mobile Phones for Literacy – Promising Practices and Research.

According to the ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report 2010, the mobile cellular networks already cover close to 90 per cent of the world population and the number of mobile subscribers is likely to reach the 5 billion mark this year. The opportunity to utilize mobiles for development is enormously exciting for development practitioners, particularly for those of us looking at innovative ways to promote global literacy.

AB: With specific reference to your initiatives, BBC’s Janala and MILLEE, can you briefly tell us how mobile phones are being used in these literacy efforts?

SC: BBC Janala aims to provide millions of people in Bangladesh with access to low-cost English language tuition through mobile phones. By dialing 3000, audiences can choose from a menu of bi-lingual audio lessons. Lessons are organised into series, and according to level of difficulty.

MK:   It is challenging to deliver high quality literacy learning through public schools in underdeveloped rural areas, for reasons that include teacher training, teacher absenteeism and child labor that impact school attendance rates. MILLEE aims to use cellphones, which are increasingly prevalent in the developing world, even rural areas, as platforms that children can use to access high-quality literacy learning resources in places and times more convenient than schools.

AB: What key lessons have you learned that you would share with others considering similar programs?

MK: Content development is complex and requires careful attention. Pay attention to local practices and knowledge. For example, our current game designs draw on the rules and mechanics in traditional Indian village games. In our earliest pilots back in 2007, we observed that rural children struggled to understand the rules of the games we designed. Those games had subconsciously drawn on our video-gaming experiences, which were situated in Western cultural contexts. Those games also did not match rural children’s understanding or expectations of what constitute games. We subsequently studied 28 of their traditional games, took apart the rules and mechanics in these games, and analyzed how these mechanics differed systematically from the mechanics in Western video-games. Since then, we have drawn on this cross-cultural design knowledge to inform our game designs.

AB: Do you have a brief example that shows how your program has benefited its intended beneficiaries?

SC: Here is a case study of 26 year old Noor-e-Alam Siddiquione of BBC Janala’s regular users:

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Improving Access to Education for Girls in Sudan

Submitted by Angela Stephens, USAID/LPA

Following more than two decades of civil war, Southern Sudan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world.  The areas in Sudan’s north-south border zone also suffered greatly during the war, including Blue Nile state, bordering Ethiopia.  Girls have been disproportionately affected, with lower rates of literacy and school attendance than boys.  To help alleviate these challenges, USAID this year opened the Granville-Abbas Girls’ Secondary School in the Blue Nile town of Kurmuk.  The school is named in honor of John Granville, an American diplomat who worked on democracy programs for USAID in Sudan, and his Sudanese colleague Abdelrahman Abbas Rahama. They were assassinated in Khartoum on January 1, 2008.  The school, which can accommodate 120 female students, has three sets of classrooms, a library, theater, cafeteria, dormitories, and teachers’ offices.  A USAID-supported learning center attached to the school provides students with Internet access and computer training.  Watch this two-part video of the school dedication ceremony and tribute to Granville and Rahama.

To see PART TWO, click here.

Administrator Shah and Secretary Duncan on International Literacy Day

Check out USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussing education on International Literacy Day.

Visit our Education page for more information and updates on USAID’s literacy and education programs around the world.

Celebrating Literacy in Liberia

Submitted by Justin Prudhomme – USAID/Liberia

How do you celebrate International Literacy Day in a country where half the population cannot read and literacy is often viewed with suspicion?

This was what the staff of USAID’s mission in Liberia wrestled with as we prepared to acknowledge International Literacy Day on September 8th.

Beneficiaries of the Ambassador's Girl's Scholarship Program in Liberia Photo Credit: USAID/Liberia

During the civil conflict years, Liberia’s education system quickly deteriorated as fighting erupted throughout the country. Rebel factions frequently targeted schools as places to recruit soldiers, taking children who should have been getting an education and plying them with drugs and guns, and conscripting them into combat units to fight in one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts.

Today substantial progress has been made in rebuilding the education system thanks in part to USAID’s Core Educational Skills for Liberian Youth (CESLY) project, implemented by Education Development Centers (EDC) and Research Triangle Institute (RTI).

Yet there is still work to be done and challenges to face, including limited resources, few qualified teachers, and a negative stigma attached to education, evidenced by a recent politician who announced his candidacy for president by promising to exclude ‘book people’ from his administration.

However, USAID/Liberia and our partners understand that in order to achieve real success, we need to change the way Liberians view education.  By ensuring that children have engaging materials to read and unlocking their passion for learning, we can teach the next generation the value of education so that they to can become advocates in their own communities. And so, to celebrate International Literacy Day CESLY is launching a writing contest across all 266 schools they support.

Students in the USAID Accelerated Learning Program Plus in Liberia Photo Credit: Creative Associates International Inc

Students will compete to write short, original stories about their lives, their communities, and the traditions of their elders.  CESLY is inviting students and guests to read stories aloud in schools, and will present each site with a new dictionary.  The winning stories will be published and distributed to students across the country to show the importance of literature by Liberian authors.

Literacy in Liberia can improve and involving young Liberians is the best way to do that.

A Word from Representative Lowey on Education

Submitted by Congresswoman Nita Lowey (NY-18)

As we recognize the vital role education plays worldwide during Education Week at USAID, we must commit to redouble our efforts to ensure a quality education for all children. Basic education is not a luxury we can afford to do without in tough times, but rather an essential part of the solution to the global recession, a core underpinning of long-term sustainable growth and increased stability.

No country has reached sustained economic growth without achieving near universal primary education.  The benefits of basic education have been proven time and again. Education lays the foundation for sound governance and strong institutions.  Investing in girls’ education, in particular, increases women’s incomes, delays the start of sexual activity, reduces infant mortality, increases women’s political participation and stabilizes societies.

Today more than ever, the potential exists to put every boy and girl into school and create a world that is more tolerant, peaceful and prepared to confront the challenges of the twenty-first century. However, we are still woefully short of achieving our goals, with 72 million children not enrolled in school and millions more dropping out each year.

I am confident USAID’s capable and dedicated staff will overcome many of these challenges to help developing countries improve their own education systems as we bolster our own programs around the world. Together, we will continue the hard word of laying this essential foundation for a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Focus on Literacy and Learning: The Global Community’s Failing Grade

Submitted by: Rebecca Winthrop
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Universal Education, The Brookings Institution

On the occasion of International Literacy Day and USAID’s Education Week, I wanted to address the fact that so many school children in developing countries are not learning to read in the vital first few years of primary school.  Failing to acquire basic literacy skills in the early grades holds them back from staying at and succeeding in school. Tragically, there are even a number of children, who spend four, five, or even six years in school and cannot read simple sentences. While this is clearly a crisis for the families whose children are struggling to acquire even the most basic literacy skills in the classroom, collectively it also spells a major crisis for the ability of the world’s poorest countries to improve economically and provide a better quality of life for its citizens.

Conventional wisdom in international development held that increasing a population’s average years of schooling would spur economic growth.  We now know that increasing economic growth has much less to do with just the number of years spent in school and much more to do with the knowledge acquired and skills developed while in school.  And while it took the work of several skilled economists to develop the evidence base for this claim, we should not be surprised by their insight.  It is not rocket science to understand that a student who spends four years in school learning to read, calculate, and problem-solve is in the end going to be more valuable in the labor market than someone who spends six years in school not learning to do any of those things.

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USAID Macedonia Education Week Highlights

Students participate in activity time at the Roma Education Center in Skopje. Photo Credit: Foundation for Open Society Institute Macedonia and USAID Macedonia

Submitted by  Lela Jakovlevski and Alexander Woods, USAID/Macedonia

Roma Education Project

The five Roma Education Centers in Skopje, Kumanovo, and Prilep are always buzzing with activity. Each day, four groups of children arrive for two hours at a time for after-school lessons, educational games, and important socializing. The younger children focus on literacy, numeracy, and Macedonian practice while the older groups get homework assistance, English lessons, and preparing for graduation exams.  All eagerly express their happiness for the help, fun environment, and how they feel much more confident when they go to school.

The overall condition and situation of the Roma community in Macedonia is considered better compared to other European countries, as there is a Minister for Roma issues in government and Roma MPs in Parliament, a Roma mayor, and Roma print and broadcast media in country. However, many of the chilling statistics remain: extremely high unemployment, low level of education participation and attainment, pervasive poverty and considerable community health risks. In education, achievement rates are low due to a number of factors such as household financial constraints, lack of community role models, and systemic exclusion from mainstream opportunities. The biggest problem these children face is discrimination and stigma simply based on where they are from.

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Quality Education and MDG 2

Submitted by David J. Barth, Director, Office of Education, USAID

I enjoyed following a webchat today sponsored by the Brookings Institute on achieving Millennium Development Goal 2: universal primary education. While I didn’t agree with everything that my friend David Gartner said, I agreed with most and it got me thinking about the progress that we have made and the prospects going forward. Universal primary education remains a central objective of US foreign assistance.

The USAID budget for basic education has risen almost tenfold since FY2000. This reflects a broad understanding that education is foundational to achieving all of our development objectives. Literate citizens have healthier families, are more productive farmers, participate meaningfully in their communities and contribute far more to national economies. Basic education is one of the most effective bulwarks against HIV and AIDS. But, as we applaud the world’s focus on getting children into school, it is vital that we not neglect the quality of the instruction that they get when in the classroom. Universal enrollment is not enough. We need to understand MDG 2 to be about universal access to a quality basic education.

The goal has to be literacy and numeracy, not just attendance. And while there has been substantial progress in getting children, especially girls, into school, I fear that we may be reaching a plateau. 72 million children do not have a chance to go to school. And these children are the ones who will be hardest to reach. These are the marginalized, the poor, the vulnerable and the disabled. These are kids displaced by war, natural disaster and economic necessity. We will know that we are really making progress towards achieving MDG 2 when we can show that our efforts are reaching the children who need us the most.

USAID – From the Field

In Egypt USAID is supporting the Ministry of Health (MOH) by providing full, two-year scholarships for a total of 25 ministry employees to attend U.S. – based MBA programs. This program targets a small number of employees who have leadership potential to be change agents to implement Egypt’s health sector reform program; and it responds to the country’s need to develop a cadre of business-minded professionals. In addition to their academic studies, the students are expected to participate in an internship activity during their two years to practically apply the skills they are learning.  Past participants returned to Egypt and are now serving in critical positions in the Ministry of Health, contributing new knowledge and experiences to improve health programs, policies and procedures.  Through this successful partnership USAID is significantly contributing towards improving health coverage of underserved populations and strengthening the technical and managerial capacity of the Egyptian health sector.

In Lebanon the Opening of the “Live Akkar” trade fair that will increase awareness, visibility, and sales of local products and services of Akkar.  This four-day trade fair will open its doors again to visitors from Akkar, the North and all of Lebanon.  This trade fair will increase awareness, visibility, and sales of local products and services of Akkar.  It will also stimulate local enterprises, agriculture, and tourism.  “Live Akkar” will feature around seventy enterprises from Akkar exhibiting agricultural products, local foods, handicrafts, garments, and other items.   Presentations on local production of commodities such as dairy, olive oil and mushrooms will be provided  by experts on a daily basis.  In addition, the trade fair will have cultural and family attractions including  daily performances by popular local artists, puppet shows and traditional music concerts.

In Dominican Republic a press trip to The Salto de Jimenoa, which was recently declared as National Protected Area. The Ministry of Environment and the USAID Environment Protection Program will lead a discussion with media attending the importance of this area and the benefits it provides to surrounding communities. The main highlight is protecting the environment and biodiversity of the area and the importance of hydraulic resources that the Salto de Jimenoa provides.

USAID – From the Field

In Zambia USAID has partnered with World Vision to implement The Community Based Prevention Initiative for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, Youth and other Vulnerable Populations Program to strengthen community response and leadership for HIV prevention and improve the quality of life for orphans and other vulnerable, at-risk children.  USAID and World Vision will work with the Zambian government to strengthen community response and leadership for HIV prevention; improve the quality of life for orphans and other at-risk children through educational, psychosocial, food and nutritional support and by improving their access to health care, child protection and legal services.

The American people’s response to HIV/AIDS in Zambia has contributed significantly to the scale up of HIV prevention, care, and treatment services. Notable among the successes has been a significant number of community-based care programs for orphans and vulnerable children, care and support programs for people living with HIV/AIDS, increased access of pregnant women to Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission services, establishment of a network of trained volunteer caregivers and peer educators, a significant number of Zambians accessing Anti-retrovrial Therapy and a decrease in the prevalence of HIV from 15.6 percent to 14.3 percent between 2001 and 2007.

In Indonesia a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Information Computer Technology (ICT) lab at the Al-Ahliyah religious junior secondary school (Madrasah) in Karawang, West Java.  The event highlights a public/private partnership to support quality and relevance of education through strengthening the use of ICT in education.  The school will receive a state-of-the-art computer lab, with equipment, software and educational resources from private sector partners.  USAID is providing teacher training and support, The Office of Defense Cooperation has also provided resources for construction of the lab building and donated staff time and resources.

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