|Programme Title||M-Shule SMS Learning & Training|
|Language of Instruction||Host country’s language; second/foreign language|
|Date of Inception||2017|
|Programme Partners||Tusome, Xavier Project, Aga Khan Foundation, Education Design Unlimited, Oxfam, VSO International, Danish Refugee Council|
|Funding||Private sector, national NGO, international NGO|
|Annual Programme Costs||Project-dependent|
|Annual Programme Cost per Learner||USD 2–5 per learner per month|
|Annual cost of the digital tool||USD 2–5 per learner per month|
|Digital tool(s) used||Mobile phone, SMS text messaging, chatbot over messenger app, web app|
|Learner age||5–75 years|
|Learner to instructor ratio||n/a|
|Target skill(s)||Literacy, numeracy, financial literacy, life skills|
Education in Kenya faces multiple challenges. The Kenyan Ministry of Education reports that more than 40 per cent of children who begin Grade 1 are no longer in school by Grade 4 (Kenyan Ministry of Education, 2019, p. 12). Such high dropout rates occur because many poor families are unable to pay indirect schooling costs, which remain prohibitive even though Kenya eliminated fees for public schools in the early 2000s. There are also ‘wide disparities in access to education, based on gender, location and region’ (ibid.). For example, in the capital city of Nairobi, 250,000 people live in Kibera, one of the largest urban slums in Africa (Owino, 2020). Kenya also hosts over 500,000 refugees and asylum seekers from the neighbouring countries of South Sudan and Somalia, many of whom live in the rural Dadaab camp in east Kenya (UNHCR, 2021). In these rural areas, schools are few and far between, and require difficult and dangerous commutes, leading to families keeping children at home. Additionally, female students in all regions experience high rates of child marriage and discriminatory gender norms that prevent them from completing school (EFA GMR, 2013).
For students who are able to complete secondary school, there remains a wide skills gap. Many students do not graduate with strong maths or literacy skills, leaving them unprepared for university or the workforce (ibid.). In 2018, 18.5 per cent of Kenya’s adult population (aged 15 and older) was reported to be illiterate (World Bank, 2021a). The Kenyan Ministry of Education (2019, p. 12) states that only 20 per cent of students who finish secondary school are prepared for university. This gap in learning is partly due to a gap in teaching. Teachers and schools lack access to ongoing high-quality training and resources (World Bank, 2019).
To address some of these issues, M-Shule – ‘mobile school’ in Swahili (the primary language of Kenya) – was developed to provide educational services to those who need them in a way that they can access. Accessibility was of particular important in the Kenyan context because 25 per cent of Kenyans have no electricity, while 77.5 per cent have no internet connectivity (World Bank, 2021b). However, mobile phones are widely used: there are an estimated 54.5 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 people. M-Shule therefore sought to capitalize on this high penetration rate by developing ‘the first personalized, mobile learning platform in Africa to connect any learner with tailored training, capacity-building, critical information and analytics through SMS’. SMS, or short message service, is what is popularly referred to as text messaging. M-Shule’s platform ‘was designed to equitably reach low-income and vulnerable populations from urban slum to rural areas – even if they do not have smartphones or internet connectivity’.
SMS services are practical and accessible, maximizing impact for the country’s most vulnerable learners. By providing education services that are accessible beyond the confines of school buildings, M-Shule furthermore allows adult learners (parents and community members who did not complete formal education) to engage in literacy learning alongside their children. By making school mobile, families can take a holistic approach to education. When the adults around them value and participate in education, children are more likely to stay in school and remain engaged in training and professional development opportunities. Parents who learn with their children and gain competency in the language of the school are more likely to collaborate with school leadership to advocate for high-quality education for their children (UIL, 2017).
Overview of the programme
As stated on its website, M-Shule is a mobile learning management platform (M-Shule, 2021). It uses the technology most readily available in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa and syncs it with primary school curricula, providing learning support for student users. It also uses ‘artificial intelligence to deliver personalized learning support, skills development, and data collection tools over text message and chatbots’.
M-Shule content developers and staff access the curriculum from local schools, and design lessons and activities based on its content. Work is delivered to student users through SMS on mobile phones. In what could be understood as a ‘smart programme’, M-Shule uses data generated by student users (individually) to create more challenging content (or review difficult content if necessary) so that students can progress through the curriculum. In this way, M-Shule delivers personalized content based on each student’s needs. For example, if a student needs help with multiplication tables in their maths class, M-Shule will send activities to the student’s phone so that he or she can practise multiplication and increase his or her knowledge. By providing crucial educational content via technology that is readily available to a large percentage of the community, M-Shule is able to provide educational services to marginalized communities that would otherwise have no access to them. As M-Shule cannot rely on students or even schools having an internet connection and/or computers, it uses SMS via mobile phones to maximize its outreach to students who need its services. Since its inception in 2017, the learning platform has delivered educational services to more than 23,000 students.
The founders of M-Schule recognized that, without accessible technology, there were few or no affordable options for low-income communities in sub-Saharan Africa to continue their education. It was imperative that existing resources be leveraged in order to serve African communities in situ. The M-Shule programme objectives were to establish a platform providing:
- equitable access: by offering digital content via SMS, the platform takes advantage of existing resources (e.g. learners´ phones);
- robustness: the platform combines in-service training, data collection and data management into one, making it easy for learners to track their own progress, and for programme teams to gain insight into learners’ performance;
- personalized content: tailor-made content for each learner, delivering training of varying complexity and allowing different learners to enrol in courses covering the topics they need the most;
- data-driven: real-time, integrated data and analytics allow organizations instant insight into individual learners’ performance.
M-Shule users can be of any age and from any socio-economic background. All they need to participate in the programme is a device that can send and receive SMS messages. M-Shule particularly encourages learners from low-income and marginalized communities to participate. The primary beneficiaries of the programme are refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda who presently live in Kenya. Of these, 35 per cent (approx. 8,000) are aged 15 or over, while the remaining 65 per cent are primary school children aged 6–11. Gender representation is almost equal, with slightly fewer female learners.
Learners can use M-Shule in both Swahili and English. Students can take more than one course at a time, for example a maths class and a science class during the same term.
Video 1 from M-Shule’s YouTube channel features a young boy, Jobson, who studies at the Tenderfeet Education Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. The young man speaks in English and is an excellent example of how students can use M-Shule content to supplement their education.
credit: M-Shule Team
Video 1: M-Shule Yangu: Jobson’s story. Source: M-Shule, 2018
Enrolment of learners
Learners register for M-Shule either by themselves or through a school or other educational or training institution. Using their phones, students send a text message to M-Shule and receive an SMS with registration instructions. They are required to provide demographic information, such as their name, age, gender and most recent grades, and to indicate which course(s) they are interested in (M-Shule, 2021). M-Shule uses the information provided to enrol the student in a course that matches their age and educational or training needs. After completing an entrance survey and prior to enrolment, students may be asked to take a short diagnostic assessment.
Figure 1 showcases the enrolment process via SMS as outlined above.
Figure 1: Screenshots of a learner initiating learning with M-Shule (Source: M-Shule Team)
On M-Shule’s YouTube channel, a programme representative explains the registration process. Speaking in English, Claudia reminds viewers that the SMS used to register students are free of charge. In less than two minutes, she shows how simple it is to register for M-Shule (Video 2).
credit: M-Shule Team
Video 2: Zindua M-Shule: Registration.
(Source: M-Shule, 2019a)
Assessment of learners
M-Shule uses a robust system of data tracking to assess students. The curriculum uses ‘adaptive learning technology’, meaning that the system creates more challenging content as the student progresses through the curriculum. This will be discussed further in the section on technology.
The programme ‘continuously tracks each learner’s proficiency, performance, and areas of strengths and weakness in order to deliver reports to teachers, trainers, schools, and supporting organizations’. There is a dashboard that students, parents, teachers and administrators can access at any time.
M-Shule continually assesses users, providing content that progresses to a higher skill level once a student has demonstrated mastery. Content can include activities, quizzes and other educational tools.
The technological nature of its services allows M-Shule to collect detailed data on its users. The programme continually tracks information about users’ proficiency and makes this information available to parents, schools, administrators and teachers, who can then use it to make decisions about the lessons they deliver in schools.
M-Shule can point not only to increased numeracy and literacy skills among its users, but also to improved skills in digital literacy. It can document improvements in overall school attendance, lowering drop-out rates, and increases in secondary school enrolment by users of its services. M-Shule takes pride in acknowledging a positive impact on parents, teachers, children and schools.
Teaching and learning approaches
M-Shule reports that it has created more than 60,000 content items. Designing content for this kind of programme entails a detailed level of planning that involves many educational stakeholders, including users, teachers, administrators and curriculum developers.
M-Shule learners work at a self-study pace ... with bite-sized lessons and micro-courses ... that support mastery of academic and vocational skills.
Curriculum designers are careful to align content with the national curricular standards while upholding pedagogical principles. Curriculum development involves the following three major processes:
- curriculum reviews, skill mapping and proficiency analysis;
- creation of robust content databases designed to help students practise target topics and objectives;
- maximally efficient learning pathways to support a set amount of learning or training per student per week.
Once the programme content has been mapped out, created and uploaded, the learning content is deployed via SMS to reach students. This step ensures that every student participates, even those in remote and/or low-income areas lacking strong computer infrastructure. To date, more than 1 million learning messages have been sent out. Figure 2 shows three SMS messages containing learning content:
Figure 2: Learning content in the form of SMS (Source: M-Shule Team)
Both literacy and numeracy courses are offered in the programme. The curriculum is presented via imagined scenarios, with practical maths and/or writing tasks embedded in the story. Learners are required to provide answers to the tasks they have been allocated.
For youth and adult learners with a particular interest in income generation, M-Shule offers courses in financial literacy, entrepreneurship, marketing, leadership and community-building.
Recruitment and training of facilitators
The M-Shule programme does not employ teachers to deliver its educational services. While its literature refers to curriculum developers, M-Shule also works with a team of learning designers, trained teachers and content developers to build a database of content in line with curriculum expectations, training guidelines and student needs.
Technology: Infrastructure, management and use
The M-Shule programme delivers educational services through low-stakes technological means, with the aim of reaching as many users as possible. By combining the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and adaptive learning with the accessibility of SMS, the programme can tailor relevant and engaging content to the needs of each learner. This fosters learners’ skill acquisition, facilitates collaboration, and makes data available to all stakeholders, making ‘innovation affordable even for low-income learners’ (UIL, in press, p. 5).
Student users of M-Shule do not require any technology other than a phone that can send and receive text messages, and a SIM card. Programme content and design emphasizes that users do not require airtime, data plans and/or connectivity, smartphones or computers to participate. While 23 per cent of Kenyans have internet access, M-Shule has identified that 80 per cent of households own or have access to a phone (ibid., p. 3). Multiple courses, surveys and tools are delivered to users simultaneously, making it easy to provide several services to the same user(s) in one place. The platform can easily be tailored to particular targets by designing unique content or data collection methods, by reporting to multiple stakeholders, by adapting analytics dashboards, and so on.
M-Shule school and partner dashboards feature analytics and insights that are updated in real time. This feature is designed to help teachers differentiate instruction in the classroom, and allows schools and organizations to make better resource investment decisions. The online reporting dashboard also tracks key performance indicators (KPIs) related to student interactions, learning rates, lesson outcomes and question responses. Student progress information can be delivered at learner, class and school level. In addition, school heads and teachers can log in to their respective dashboards to receive updates. Figure 3 presents two dashboards: one for a teacher and the other for a student. The teacher’s dashboard shows the number of active learners, new registrations and overall learners, while the student’s dashboard shows the course title, course progress and summarized content.
Figure 3: Teacher and student dashboards in M-Shule SMS (Source: M-Shule Team)
The AI is designed based on item response theory that tracks and updates each learner’s learning profile according to their responses. For example, a medium-level question is asked, and the performance of the learner is evaluated based on whether he or she provided the correct answer. Learners are then automatically assigned to either the same or the next level. The programme designers are currently working on integrating more machine learning and natural language processing into the programme. This will allow it to better track different types of information and understand the way people respond to questions.
Programme impact and challenges
Impact and achievements
In the early stages of the programme, M-Shule reported that users’ exam scores improved by 7 per cent compared to non-users after using its services for more than one hour per week. Since then, it has reported the following improvements:
(increased) exam performance by 20%-plus, as well as improving problem-solving, self-confidence, and digital literacy (UIL, in press, p. 11).
Moreover, 82 per cent of parents reported that M-Shule had had a strong positive impact on their children’s lives. Teachers stated that the reporting system had improved their own classroom planning and confidence in their decision-making, while reducing time spent on administrative tasks (Table 1).
Benefits to participants
Benefits to community
• Improved literacy and numeracy in the classroom, and in national and international exams.
• Increase in twenty-first-century skills (digital literacy, self-efficacy, communication, problem-solving, etc.), based on qualitative reports.
• Reduction in absenteeism and dropout rates, and higher rates of primary school graduation.
• Increase in secondary school enrolment, secondary school graduation, and future employment prospects.
• Students build learning skills, allowing them to adapt, set and achieve their own pathways to success.
• Parents change their mindsets from passive to active, participating in their children’s learning, and dedicating themselves to their children´s long-term education.
• Teachers and schools change their classrooms from curriculum-driven to student-driven learning centres, with diverse approaches for different learning needs, paying particular attention to issues of gender.
Table 1: Summary of benefits to M-Schule participants and their communities.:
As previously noted, M-Shule reaches whole households, not just the student. A testimonial, M-Shule Yangu: Isaac’s story, highlights M-Shule’s work from a parent’s perspective. Isaac, an M-Shule student, speaks of his dream of becoming a pilot, and his mother shares how happy she is that M-Shule is helping him achieve this dream by improving his performance in school.
Clara, a student in Class 7, attests to the effective use of mobile phones:
Learning through the phone has helped me in maths revision. I used to get around 48% in maths but in the end of year exam I got 80%. It has motivated me and I can't wait for next year.
Similarly, Mathew, a Class 8 graduate and a refugee from Sudan, proudly shares his ‘great grades with M-Shule's assistance’, which for him means attending a good high school. The help he received from M-Shule has made him ‘very confident and it has boosted my morale (since) I used to get 300 marks but got 340 marks in KCPE’. A similar sentiment is expressed by Mercy, a Class 8 graduate, who claims to have ‘a better understanding of maths and the formulas used to solve problems. It has helped me improve and so I will go to a better high school and university thereafter’. Finally, Dennis (Class 5) shares that M-Shule ‘helped me revise and get good marks. I improved from the last position in my class, 28, to number 7’.
Learner A: ‘Thanks to the financial literacy course I have managed to come up with a saving plan and a long-term goal.’
Learner B: ‘[I] have tried a small saving plan and I’m progressing well. … [I] am about to reach my target.’
Anonymous testimonials from adult learners who participated in M-Shule’s Financial Literacy courses
A local teacher’s perspective adds to the positive testimonials by students and their parents. Video 3 comes from Headteacher Vincent from Kwa Watoto Centre and School. His institution seeks to provide education to the needy and marginalized in his community. He describes how M-Shule’s services are a support to him and his learning community.
credit: M-Shule Team
Video 3:Headteacher Vincent from Kwa Watoto Centre and School.Source: M-Shule, 2019b
M-Shule reaches at least 20,000 of the 8 million-plus children of primary school age currently living in Kenya (UIS, 2021). While not all of those children attend schools, there is potential to increase the number using M-Shule’s services. To reach these children, however, M-Shule cites two major challenges that it must overcome:
1). Strategic: Content contextualization and digital literacy.
Curriculum content and digital literacy levels vary widely across communities and markets. This variation necessitates a flexible approach to learning design, training, onboarding and user experience, among other factors. Since M-Shule’s digital platform can support any content, the programme has developed knowledge maps or pathways of skill acquisition for numeracy and literacy skills based on best practice. These knowledge maps can easily be adapted to local curriculum timelines and requirements.
2). Accessibility: Mobile networks and connectivity.
M-Shule has scaling potential because of its accessibility on even very basic mobile phones. Nevertheless, some level of phone penetration is required to ensure learner access and requires the support of telecommunication companies. M-Shule recognizes that lower levels of feature phone penetration and mobile network operator (MNO) restrictions may be a barrier to growth.
Stakeholders and partnerships
In 2020, M-Shule provided educational services via mobile technology to Oxfam, VSO International, Jacaranda Health and the Danish Refugee Council, providing training programmes for over 2,000 users.
As a for-profit social enterprise, M-Shule targets non-profit organizations, multinationals and corporations that need to reach more users in order to provide better learning and training products at scale. As well as offering tutoring and training courses to young learners, it provides surveys and assessments, data, insights and analytics, and learner management systems to be used in diverse contexts.
M-Shule plans to work with governments and content partners to increase the usability of its platform by identifying curriculum needs and conducting market-responsive training in local languages. In order to address the challenges mentioned above, M-Shule aims to scale in markets with higher mobile penetration rates. As organic penetration grows with time, M-Shule intends to work with governments and partners to promote device access. Finally, M-Shule intends to work directly with MNOs as well as through partners and governments to ensure that its partnerships are sustainable.
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