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Breaking the silence: SMS helps Liberian schools improve education

Source: Fri, 6 Dec 2013 12:35 PM
Stickers that explain the Tell-it-True system in Liberian English, photo by Blair Glencorse
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Dorcas Pewee is a young Liberian woman who has faced unimaginable challenges. She suffered severe hardship during the brutal 14-year civil war and has struggled to make ends meet during the subsequent decade of peace. Liberia has a female president, but is a deeply male-dominated society. As a result there are few opportunities for women to realise their full potential.

Dorcas is determined to overcome the legacies of the past by using education to change her life, and to create a better future for herself. However, the education system in Liberia has many problems including resource abuse, teacher absenteeism and sexual harassment. Through our Accountability Film School, Dorcas recently made a no-budget, award-winning film based on her own experience of a pervasive issue – having sex in return for scholarships.

Unfortunately, with problems like these, schools in Liberia often teach corruption and undermine capacity rather than building knowledge and a sense of civic responsibility. As a result, Liberia is 174th out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index at a time when around 75% of the population is under the age of 35. This is a dangerous combination.

At the Accountability Lab, we talked to hundreds of students like Dorcas about the challenges within the education system, and brainstormed potential solutions. Students told us that there is a desire for change, but that a “culture of silence” exists around these problems because students cannot afford to speak out and risk failing classes. At the same time, we talked to professors who want to improve the system but do not have the evidence or support to do so. Traditional complaint mechanisms run by administrations are often mistrusted, abused and/or ignored.

Student Maria Fahnbulleh, a friend of Dorcas’, used the information gathered during these discussions to kickstart a confidential, anonymous SMS suggestions box throughout academic campuses in Monrovia. It’s called “Tell-it-True,” which means “tell the truth” in Liberian vernacular. The system provides a free, confidential short-code – 8355 or “TELL” – to students, professors and administrators. Users can send a text message to the number when they face a problem. An operator calls back within 24 hours to gather details on the issue and to provide ideas for solutions.

Information coming through the system is then discussed on a periodic basis with the academic administration, student government or Parent Teacher Associations. These groups collectively agree on relevant steps to be taken. A meeting is held with the larger student body to share the findings from the process, explain the actions that will be taken, and encourage further use of the system. This leads to a self-reinforcing loop of deterrence, reporting, discussion and action.

Tell-it-True has recently been piloted on one university campus. The system documented a range of issues across the board, which are being discussed and addressed by the administration. For example, attendance in class was an issue. As a result, attendance monitors are now in place. Also, students were unaware of certain regulations. So a handbook, which outlines rights and responsibilities, is given to all incoming pupils.

More broadly, the information gathered through the Tell-it-True system provides a useful and tangible platform for collectively generating ideas for change. Based on this experience, other university and college campuses have asked for the system to be used. The Monrovia Consolidated School System, which runs the 28 public schools in the capital city, has recently asked to deploy Tell-it-True across their campuses. Maria is now busy talking to many more school principals and students about Tell-it-True and the role it can play in improving accountability.

The idea has been carefully fitted to match the context, and the technology is simple and open source. We have used SMS to Text Pro and Auto SMS for SMS response and management. The information is recorded in a simple spreadsheet and the system is entirely offline because internet coverage can be difficult in Liberia. In addition, we persuaded the major mobile operators to provide the short codes for free. We tend to think of innovation as high-tech, but often the most effective solutions are relatively low-tech, especially in these kind of contexts.

There are potential hurdles of course, and Maria has certainly faced challenges. Building trust and reassuring users that their information will remain confidential has been a long process. The system is anonymous to avoid abuse, but there still might be incidents of false reporting or misunderstanding as to what problems can actually be addressed. At the same time, many administrators might not want to fix some of the issues on their campuses for various reasons, and building the political will for change can be tricky.

However, the progress is encouraging. Students and professors are using the system. And as Maria, Dorcas and others continue their outreach and advocacy efforts, noticeable shifts will take place. The Accountability Lab acts as an incubator for high-impact, low cost, creative ideas. We provide the support that is needed – such as training, networking and mentoring – to implement Tell-it-True across Monrovia and beyond. The youth of Liberia are using simple technologies to make their country a better, more accountable and more equal place. And we’re excited to help them do it.

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