Technology is essential in fight to bring education to all

Wednesday, 21 September 2016 12:10 GMT

Egyptian mother Wafaa Mohamad Ramadan who grew up illiterate has learnt to read with the help of a phone app. Photo taken by Ayman Abbas/Positive Image Studio

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Wafaa signed away her house, jewellery and shop because she couldn't read, but a new literacy app has changed her life

By Andrew Dunnett, Director, Vodafone Foundation

Wafaa Mohamad Ramadan was just 12 when she got married, and was forced to sign away her rights to her husband. With little education, Wafaa was unable to read the document and so did not know what she was signing. She lost her house, her jewellery and her shop.

Later on when she had children, Wafaa admits that she once gave them the wrong medicine when they were ill because she couldn’t read the label, and she recalls how she often got badly lost because she inadvertently took the wrong bus.

She describes her illiteracy like “being in darkness”.

Forty years on and life is very different for Wafaa. A couple of years ago, Wafaa was given a mobile phone with a preinstalled literacy app designed to teach reading and writing skills. She laughed at the idea at first, but soon started learning to read and write using the app.

Like Wafaa, hundreds of thousands of people in Egypt have learnt to read using a free mobile-based literacy programme that we developed and delivered at the Vodafone Foundation working closely with local NGOs.

Since it launched in 2011, more than 360,000 people have completed the programme, which aims to eradicate illiteracy in Egypt, a country where an estimated 24% of the population are unable to read or write.

The Knowledge Is Power programme has a particular focus on helping illiterate women learn to read and has so far reached around a quarter of a million women like Wafaa who missed out on education when they were younger.

We know illiteracy is a major barrier to individual empowerment, economic growth and participation in society. And in a country where an estimated 60 percent of the illiterate population are women, the Vodafone Egypt Foundation wanted to offer a mobile-centred programme to help improve this statistic. The flexibility of mobile-based learning, which can take place anywhere and anytime, and classes held in easy to access locations, has seen the programme attract huge interest from women who want to improve their literacy skills. Seventy percent of all participants in the scheme are women. 

Four of Egypt’s regions (North Sinai; AlWadi AlGadid; Ismalia and Red Sea) have now reached record levels of literacy, with 93 percent or higher of the population now literate. The Egyptian government has credited the ‘Knowledge Is Power’ programme in helping to achieve this result.

With flexible and intuitive programmes like this, we believe that technology can play a vital role in delivering a quality education for all. This week as we offer our support to the UN’s #GlobalGoals, it’s timely to remember how technology and connectivity can offer people in hard to reach and poor communities access to a quality education.

Our work with young students in refugee camps in Africa is bringing a digital education to an estimated 30,000 young people a month in some of the poorest and most remote communities on earth. Instant Network Schools brings together our technology with digital resources and training for teachers, many of whom have never used the internet before, and who would otherwise be reliant on often poor quality or out-of-date text books. The programme is resulting in higher school attendance figures, along with better engagement and exam results – in short, better opportunities for young people.

What is exciting about using technology in this way is the possibility for scale. This autumn, we begin a new programme which offers young people across the whole of Africa free-to-access digital educational resources tailored for each country’s curriculum and language. Working with local content providers, we are going to be offering millions of young people the chance to learn in a flexible and engaging way. Any child or young person with access to a smartphone, tablet or computer will be able to learn for free.

Globally, there are an estimated 57 million children who aren’t in school, and more than half of those children live in sub-Saharan Africa.

But the scale of the opportunity for digital education is clear when you consider the growth of mobile. By 2020, there are predicted to be 540 million smartphones in Sub-Saharan Africa – a growth of 380 million from the end of 2015. 

As the UN stated in their global goal for education: “Obtaining a quality education is the foundation to improving people’s lives and sustainable development.”  And in the words of Wafaa, reflecting on her experience of learning to read and write:  “Whoever said that knowledge is power and a light spoke the truth”.

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