Strengthening the System, Part Two

This is the fifth 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. My previous post focused on skills training for children, and this one will examine our second goal, centered around teacher development and support.

2. Support for Teachers and Educators

Education projects often focus on students, but it is often teachers that are a major hurdle to an effective education system. Especially in rural areas, where teachers are likely to be demotivated, poor teacher performance sabotages the children’s progress. Thus, making the day-to-day lives of teachers easier and more rewarding is key to decreasing teacher turnover and increasing teacher performance and morale.

And before we foist laptops on them, heralding the dawn of a new age of learning, teachers need to understand the benefit of technology in their own work and for themselves. Thus, by being provided with simple tools to alleviate their work burden, teachers have the opportunity to become comfortable with – and see the value of – technology at their own pace. This sets them up well to support eLearning and other Tech4Ed programs in the future.

One way to support teachers is to give them feedback. Being a teacher is always a thankless job – you work long hours with often ungrateful children and parents, you’re asked to fill out a sizable number of forms and reports which then get sent into a bureaucratic black hole, and, especially in rural areas, you are often ill-trained for the job and have no support networks to turn to. We’ve been examining ways that technology can help alleviate these problems.

Take an example from Afghanistan, where UNICEF has recently begun working with community health workers (CHWs) around household compliance for polio vaccinations. Like many rural teachers the world over, the CHWs feel underappreciated and they do not understand the value of the data they are required to collect and send in – once they complete and return a form, it goes into another black hole, never to be heard from again. UNICEF is now piloting a project around the collection and management of vaccine compliance data through basic mobile phones, where the CHW-collected data is sent in real-time to the Ministry of Health and UNICEF. UNICEF can use its substantial data processing capacity to then support the CHWs in contacting the local sheikh in neighbourhoods where households are non-compliant. CHWs are always thanked for their input into the system via SMS – don’t ever underestimate the value of a simple thank you – and the positive reinforcement motivates them to continue their work.

Such as a system could be immensely helpful for rural schools, where teachers often feel as if their efforts were for naught. In this case, the CHW would be the teacher, polio vaccine compliance would student attendance (or some other indicator such as completion of assignments), and the sheikh could be the students’ parents who, in Sudan, typically value education highly but do not have easy entry points through which they can engage with their children’s progress.

Both the CO and the Ministry of Education have stressed the importance of teacher support, and we’re excited to be moving this concept forward in the coming weeks.

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