English in Action: Mobile Learning in Bangladesh

In her role as the Content Producer for the SOCAP conference series, Amy Benziger has the opportunity to interview innovators from around the world on how they are changing the landscape of social enterprise.

For this installment of Digital Diversity, she interviews Sara Chamberlain, project director for BBC Janala, an initiative based in Bangladesh that incorporates on-screen English tutoring through a television drama and a game show combined with English lessons via the mobile phone that build on the content in the programs.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Amy Benziger

Most people know of the BBC as a source of reputable news from around the globe. Most don’t know about the action arm called the BBC World Service Trust, which uses the “creative power of media to reduce poverty and promote human rights.” I was first introduced to and amazed by the BBC World Service Trust through The 2010 Tech Awards where BBC Janala was honored as one of the winners of the Microsoft Education Awards.

BBC Janala educational fair in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Copyright BBC World Service Trust. (Used with permission).

 

Janala is part of the English in Action campaign, which launched in November 2009. The initiative based in Bangladesh incorporates on-screen English tutoring through a television drama and a game show combined with English lessons via the mobile phone that build on the content in the programs. Janala’s three-minute mobile English lessons are equivalent to the cost of a cup of tea and accessible to those living on less than two dollars a day.

In my role as the Content Producer for the SOCAP conference series, I have the opportunity to interview innovators from around the world on how they are changing the landscape of social enterprise. I spoke to Sara Chamberlain, project director for BBC Janala, to learn more.

How did the BBC Janala program come about?

 

The Bangladeshi government was concerned about falling behind their neighbors, specifically India, because of a lack of English. The BBC World Service Trust was commissioned along with two other organizations to implement the “English in Action” program with a mandate to teach 25 million people English. I flew over to Bangladesh in 2007 to start the initial research.

The Janala program specifically targets adult education outside of the classroom. The goal is mass media saturation. We link the new lessons on the television show to written quizzes in the largest Bangladeshi newspaper to audio mobile lessons three times per week. Visual, writing, auditory learning create a fantastic package so that whether you are picking up a newspaper, turning on the TV or using your phone, there is engaging content available.

 

Mohammad Noor-e-Alam Siddiqui – 26 years old/Ghoshnogora, Tangail:

Siddiqui‘s father used to be a primary school teacher and always aspired for his son to be well-educated. However, due to financial constraints, Mohammad wasn’t able to pursue higher education. “Since my father always encouraged me to become highly educated, I still regret that I couldn’t achieve the optimum level although I had strong desire to. As a result I still consider myself as a learner and try to educate myself utilizing every opportunity I get.” Siddiqui has been using BBC Janala 3 times a week. He added, “In addition to ‘Essential English,’ I like the lesson of ‘How to Tell a Story.’ I can actually relate the stories to my real life and later tell my own stories in similar way.”

 

 

Why make English lessons available via mobile phone?

What is quite historic about BBC Janala is that we negotiated contracts with all 6 mobile operators in the country, so the service can be utilized on any handset, at any location and at any time. It opens up access that didn’t exist before for millions of people because once they left primary or secondary school, they’ve had no educational opportunities available.

There are English courses available from private tutors, but they are prohibitively expensive. On average each course costs 1500-6000 taka which is roughly $20-$80. Our service is 1.5 taka per lesson. The total cost of our course is 240 taka, which is under 5 dollars. It’s much more affordable and the quality is high. Having that flexibility to provide access to education at a very low cost is groundbreaking.

BBC Janala educational fair in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Copyright BBC World Service Trust. (Used with permission).

 

How do you measure success?

 

We have reached 4 million people in last 15 months via the mobile phone. You have to remember; we are targeting people who only very recently got access to mobile phones. Only 8-9% had received or sent SMS texts, so the quick uptake is amazing.

We are now a third of the way through the program, and we’ve started doing surveys of 8000 people in 4 out of 7 districts in Bangladesh. We are running a mobile specific panel giving participants oral tests every six weeks. We’ve been really pleased by their ability to reproduce the language and have conversations. They are scoring at 70% so there’s no doubt that the mobile service is teaching English.

 

Shafiqul Islam – 30 yrs old/Living in Mirpur:

“When I was in school English seemed very difficult to me and the village schools did not have teachers who were experts in English. They would just teach for the sake of teaching. Then BBC Janala came along and I saw the advertisements in TV. That’s when I started dialing 3000 and now I am a regular user. My willingness to learn English has led me to BBC Janala…English is always necessary; it doesn’t depend on past or future. We always need it. Now is the Internet time and in the future, the Internet will be used even more widely. If I want to pursue a teaching profession, I would want to use the Internet to collect all the latest information relevant to this field and to help my students. How will I do that if I don’t know English?”

How do you see mobile phones changing the learning landscape the developing world?

Many Bangladeshis have had a negative experience with education. Although the government is working towards the Millennium Development Goals of getting kids into the classroom, the challenge is that the quality is poor so they are dropping out as quickly as they’re going in. There is a very authoritarian approach to education so the fact that they can learn in private on a device that’s always with them when they’re waiting for a bus, walking home or for the few minutes at the end of the day is revolutionary.

 

 

Amy Benziger is the Producer focusing on content development for the SOCAP conference series. She is responsible for researching the social enterprise landscape, tracking trends and identifying thought-leaders to present at the annual event. For three years, SOCAP has brought thousands of individuals from over 40 countries to San Francisco to explore innovation in impact investing, venture philanthropy, design thinking, mobile technology, international development, public-private partnerships and food systems. Amy is a founding team member and strategic advisor to the Hub Bay Area, an incubator for social entrepreneurs dedicated to building solutions for social, economic and environmental sustainability as part of a global Hub community with 22 international locations. A lifelong traveler, she has lived and worked in Mexico, Spain, Argentina and Thailand. She currently lives in San Francisco, CA.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of kiwanja.net, Banks devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. His research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. Read all the posts in this series.

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Human Journey

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Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of kiwanja.net and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.