Using Cellphones And Text Message For Remote Learning In places like Uganda, and increasingly in the U.S., educators are trying text messages as a more accessible distance learning alternative.

How Cellphones Can Keep People Learning Around The World

LA Johnson/NPR
Cellphone learning
LA Johnson/NPR

Standing in front of a small tropical tree, a man in flip-flops, trousers and a polo shirt bends over what he calls, in a video made for NPR, a "handwashing facility".

It's a plastic jug, hanging from what looks like a knee-high swing set made of sticks. There's another stick tied to the handle of the jug; you can step on that stick, spill water out of the jug, and wash your hands without ever touching the jug. A bar of soap hangs from the swingset by a string.

"After getting some soap, you rub the hands well to identify the areas where germs can be," says the man in the video: Agaba Emmanuel. He's a community educator in Uganda with a program called Soma Soma. Next, Mukandayisenga Chantal, a small boy in a blue T-shirt, gives it a try, making circles with his fingernails on his palms.

Emmanuel lives and works in the Nakivale Refugee Settlement in southwestern Uganda. The settlement hosts more than 100,000 people from several different African countries, like Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. It's a group of rural villages, and there are no identified cases of coronavirus yet.

But the schools are still shut, along with other restrictions on commerce and transportation across Uganda to protect against the pandemic. People need basic information about social distancing and other protections. Emmanuel got the information he needed to educate his community over WhatsApp, using a platform designed by an American company that's also starting to be used with students in the United States.

Right now over 95 percent of the world's children can't gather in classrooms because of coronavirus. Opinions differ sharply over the most efficient, effective and especially, equitable ways to keep them learning.

Some private schools in wealthy places are attempting to teach over video chat in near real-time. But laptops, tablets and high-speed Internet just aren't available to everyone, whether that's students in rural Uganda or the working-class suburbs of Las Vegas.

So there's an emerging call to use a range of "appropriate technology" based on the resources in various communities. In 30 U.S. states, for example, public television stations are broadcasting special "at home learning programs." And with about 60 percent of the world's population owning a mobile phone, including 96 percent of Americans, there's interest in what kind of learning can be delivered through text messages.

Arist is a text-message learning platform that's just what it sounds like: a series of texts, maximum 1,200 characters long, paired with GIFs or other images, that can be delivered over mobile phones. The texts come with multiple-choice or short-answer questions that are graded automatically, as well as links to further information.

It's all pretty basic. But Michael Ioffe, the 21-year-old founder of Arist, points out that "there's research going back a decade on effectiveness," of smartphone-based learning.

This is true, although texts haven't been used much to deliver traditional academic subjects, like teaching someone to read. In fact, some of the most promising educational applications have been in using text messaging as behavioral "nudges" — for example, getting students to complete financial aid paperwork, or getting parents to play more learning games with their kids.

That said, Arist sells its platform to companies for training and professional development. They are offering the platform for free to educators during the coronavirus pandemic, and they paired up with a nonprofit called Pyramid Learning, as well as Now and Tomorrow, which operates the Soma Soma program where Emmanuel works, to create and distribute a WhatsApp course that covers coronavirus facts and health information.

This COVID-19 course consists of nine messages, paired with images and links to further information. They cover topics like rules for proper social distancing, and cleaning and disinfection protocols. "Remember! COVID-19 can be spread by touching contaminated surfaces and then carrying the virus to your eyes, nose and mouth," reads part of one message. "(Stop. Touching. Your. Face!)"

Mukamba January is a Nakivale resident and a university student who works for Now and Tomorrow Uganda. He says Arist's WhatsApp course is a safer, easier way to spread information. "I saw that this would be more convenient because people don't have to gather. They would just have to get this number and send a text so they can get the materials to to learn from or to read."

The most common alternative for getting the word out about important matters in Nakivale, January says, is driving a car around and talking over a loudspeaker. But the WhatsApp messages are better. For one thing, they can be easily translated into the several different languages that people speak here. January helped translate the course into Swahili and Kinyarwanda, two of the languages spoken in Nakivale. And he shared the course with Now and Tomorrow's community instructors like Emmanuel, as well as dozens of other members of local community based organizations.

But not everyone in the refugee settlement has a phone. So now that community leaders have the correct knowledge about coronavirus, they still have to go home-to-home to demonstrate it — from a social distance. January says it's been illuminating, because many of the residents didn't fully understand why schools were closed down in the first place. "The kids didn't have a lot of information about the shutdown, so the instructors went an extra mile of explaining why they are there, and keep on updating them on the new guidelines and directives."

A few organizations and teachers in the United States are also looking into Arist's smartphone-based learning platform.

Natasha Akery is an English teacher at Military Magnet Academy, a Title I public school in Charleston, SC. She says that only about 10 of her 47 students are showing up regularly on Google Classroom, but many of them told her they'd be interested in completing short assignments over text message. "It's whatever's easiest for my students," she says. She plans to try her first smartphone unit next week.

"After 16 weeks of no school, we anticipate that our rising ninth-graders, nearly all of whom are from under-resourced families, will be very tired of learning through their Chromebooks," said Helen Russell, who works with City Summer Internship (CSI), a career exploration program for high school students in Boston."We feel Arist will offer a new way for young people to learn — using something they prize — their cellphones! And we are hoping that a cellphone and earbuds may actually offer a less distracting learning environment."