Literacy is key to ending the vicious cycle of poverty. Literate individuals worldwide earn thirty to forty percent more than their illiterate counterparts and qualify for greater employment opportunities. Literacy may also enable individuals to leverage technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of development interventions. This study incorporates mobile phone training into adult literacy programs in rural Niger to assess the impact of exposure to technology on educational outcomes.
Niger is one of the poorest counties in the world. Landlocked in West Africa, an estimated 85 percent of its population lives on less than two USD per day. Adult illiteracy and innumeracy remain high. Almost ninety percent of the population over the age of fifteen is unable to recognize letters or numbers in any language. In an effort to improve literacy, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) offers an eight-month adult education program over the course of two years – with breaks for agricultural planting and harvesting seasons. This program focuses on building basic literacy and numeracy skills in the native language, Hausa or Zarma, in villages of the Dosso and Zinder regions of Niger.
In this study, researchers assessed the impact of basic mobile phone training – known as ABC – on literacy and numeracy learning outcomes. Approximately 6,700 adults from 113 villages in two rural regions of Niger were selected to take part in a CRS adult education program. Due to implementation constraints, the program was rolled out among villages over the course of two years, creating two cohorts of students that were randomly assigned to start in either 2009 or 2010. A total of 58 of these villages were randomly selected to receive the ABC supplemental mobile phone module three months into the instruction period. Students in this group did not receive extra time or instructors relative to those in the comparison group.
Researchers collected data on literacy and numeracy rates, household and individual demographics, and quality of teachers. A baseline survey was conducted among both ABC and non-ABC groups of the 2009 cohort in January, with a follow-up survey in June to measure progress. This process was then repeated in January and June 2010. Researchers conducted a final survey in January of 2011 to assess students’ retention of information. Researchers evaluated the intervention’s effects based on the difference in learning outcomes and retention between the ABC and comparison groups.
Results and Policy Implications
The mobile phone-based ABC program improved both scores and information retention. Relative to baseline test scores, ABC villages scored on average 13 percent higher than non-ABC villages for writing, and eight percent higher for math. The results also indicate that while skills depreciation occurred among both groups, learning persistence was higher in ABC villages. This impact was consistent across regions, age, and quality of instructor, although better-educated teachers seem to leverage the mobile phones more effectively to improve scores.
Students from ABC villages were also more likely to send and receive SMS than non-ABC students after the course, which suggests a practical application for skills developed in the classroom, increasing students’ motivation to learn. The positive outcomes the ABC program indicate that simple mobile phone training may be a low cost way to significantly improve literacy and numeracy skills. Similar interventions may be easily replicated using simple mobile phone technology and scaled across the continent as mobile phone coverage continues to grow. While more research is necessary, this study suggests that incorporating mobile phones into adult education programs may both improve learning outcomes and encourage use of other mobile technologies, such as mobile money or market information, which can increase quality of life for users.
 Cree, Anthony; Kay, Andrew; Steward, June. “A Snapshot of Illiteracy in a Global Context.” Final Report from the World Literacy Foundation. April 2012. 4.
Photo: Pencils for Kids, Niger