How can cell phones be used to strengthen teacher support networks?

Q: “I work as a consultant for very poor country X and am advocating the use of cell phones to strengthen teacher support networks in the country. For example, lesson plan outlines could be blasted to all 3rd grade teachers by SMS text messages. Unfortunately, SMS appears to be too short, and high-end phones and data plans would be too costly. What to do?” [Paraphrased from a real mail to the Jester.]

A: In an ideal world, the Jester would respond: “First, clarify your goal, which should be something like ‘to improve education in the country,’ and not ‘to use cell phones for everything.’ Second, drop any a priori attachment to any technology (and for heaven’s sake, please stop advocating something when you don’t even have the answer!). Third, go back to the basics that have worked — believe it or not, there are countries that have exceptional public education systems, and which don’t connect all the teachers via cell phone — and see if any of it transfers. Meanwhile, try not to be distracted by the existence of Facebook, Twitter, or the iPhone.

Unfortunately, this is a less-than-ideal world, where development budgets and jobs are allocated under “ICT” line items, and people with “ICT” in their job descriptions have to find a way to be relevant to all sorts of random situations. It makes you wonder whether “Plumbing and Piping” ever enjoyed a similar heyday, with P&P4D experts going around trying to connect teachers with lead pipes. Or, P&P for microfinance, anyone?

But, getting back to the topic at hand, the Jester thinks, the question here is what exactly the point of the “teacher support network” really is. It could be one of three situations…

  1. The teachers are competent, but require core academic content. Frankly, that can best be distributed as physical materials (either as teachers’ editions of textbooks; or as CD-ROMs, if teachers have PCs available; or as DVDs, if TV and DVD players are common; or as SD cards that can be inserted into some mobile phones, etc.). There is really no need for a real-time system that allows teachers to interact, given that the core of basic education is not going to change any time soon. Conversely, if teachers have these materials, but think they need more, see Situation 3, below.
  2. The teachers are competent, but need emotional support. Perfectly understandable in places with overcrowded classrooms, abusive or indifferent headmasters, poor school resources, etc. If so, permitting teachers to have lots of talk time is probably the best thing. Audio bulletin board systems might be effective; see, for example, Avaaj Otalo, by Neil Patel et al. If social networking technologies aren’t good for helping people connect and vent, what are they good for?!
  3. The teachers are somewhat less than competent or well-meaning, and need X. Whatever “X” is, the core problem in this case is not going to go away with any amount of clever use of cell phones. It would be far more effective to lobby for more teacher training resources, such as workshops where teachers are physically brought together, teacher mentors who work with teachers on site, ongoing teacher training, etc. Of course, this puts us back in the ideal world, which we are not in. Alas!

%d bloggers like this: