A schoolteacher in rural Sudan

This is the sixth in a series of posts on designing innovative education solutions in Sudan, based on a mission that took place from September 3 to 23, and ongoing work. This series is by Panthea Lee, a consultant for UNICEF and principal at the service design firm Reboot. Some of the earlier posts are being published retroactively, partly due to the poor internet connectivity while the team was in country.

Our Sudan team is currently focused on holistic methods for improving the education system, accounting for not only students, but teachers, governments and other partners. To that end, we have three areas of focus in Sudan. In previous posts, I touched on what our team aimed to do for students and teachers, and in this last post I will discuss how governments and other educational partners can better monitor and encourage progress throughout their school systems.

3. Real-Time Programme Information Tracking

“We have enough information to evaluate past programmes. We need information to help us plan ahead,” said a senior official at the Ministry of Education. This is a sentiment that we’ve heard time and time again in our first week here, from UNICEF staff, from their local partners, and from their government counterparts.

Technology has given us low-cost, scalable solutions for sophisticated information management – even in the most resource-constrained contexts. How we can collect and manage data in real-time so that it’s useful to teachers and educators at the school level, and to UNICEF and governments at the district, state, and national level?

Here, RapidSMS comes to mind. RapidSMS is an open-source enterprise-level SMS framework co-developed by UNICEF that has been extremely handy for, amongst other things, the distribution and tracking of supplies. In Nigeria, UNICEF recently distributed 6 million bednets in areas with high risk of malaria. Each lorry of bednets was tagged with a tracking code that stays with the shipment through the distribution chain. When they arrive at each destination, the distribution staff or partner texts in the tracking code to a free shortcode so UNICEF can track the supplies down the chain. Data is automatically stored in a database, where UNICEF can analyze it. There is also an electronic record generated for each contact that texts into the system, so when hiccups in distribution occur, UNICEF can immediately call the person and course-correct as needed. When working with partners that may be forgetful about texting in, incentives for timely reporting can be useful – distribution staff might, for example, receive a nominal token of appreciation (e.g. phone credit) each time they text. UNICEF has applied this model in other contexts, including the distribution of textbooks in Zimbabwe.

These examples only scratch the surface of how new technologies can be used to support quality education systems and all the various stakeholders involved. Investing in strengthening systems so that they can develop and maintain their own innovative education initiatives is far more cost-effective and sustainable than continuing to fund one-off projects. Maybe that’s where UNICEF’s skills and resources would be best focused.

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