HARGEISA, Somaliland—Around the world, teachers discourage their pupils from using their cellphones in class, fearing that the devices distract from students’ education.
But in Africa, phones are playing a vital role in expanding access to education.
It’s happening in Uganda, where around 150,000 parents and others use a free mobile-messaging tool to report on whether textbooks and other materials have been delivered to schools as promised.
It’s happening in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, where thousands of students in primary and secondary schools access educational materials, quizzes and even live discussions with teachers on their phones.
And it’s happening here in Somaliland, an autonomous region in northwestern Somalia that declared its independence in 1991. Although Somaliland has not won international recognition as a separate state, it has set up a functioning government that has provided a degree of security to its people, compared to the violence in southern Somalia. It has also made gains in expanding access to health care and education. A mobile-phone messaging system is one of the tools it is using to improve the quality of local schools and encourage attendance.
At this time, such a system does not appear to be in use in any of the Arab countries, where the quality of Internet is uneven and the prices for broadband or mobile-phone data can very high. But with Arab school and university classrooms often crowded to the bursting point, the electronic delivery of education might be a solution. Egypt is going to distribute one million tablets to 10th grade students, teachers and school directors in the next academic year, and Somaliland’s experience might be a model for Arab teachers to adopt.
Every month, the Somaliland Ministry of Education, based in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, surveys tens of thousands of children and their parents on their mobile phones to monitor conditions in schools around the region. The parents’ and pupils’ feedback is collected in monthly reports called “community scorecards” that are shared with local officials and discussed at regular meetings with parents, administrators and others.
“Mobile phones are vital here. They are everything to us,” said Fatma Farah, 32, a mother of four who lives in Borama, a city on the Ethiopian border about 70 miles west of Hargeisa where around 200 families regularly use the service. Three of Fatma’s children are in primary school. “We can contribute to the education and welfare of our children,” she said, “and it makes a difference. The system is helping parents, teachers and local officials to ensure students get quality education.”
Last year, parents, students and teachers at Ahmed Salan School in Borama used their mobile phones to complain to the Ministry of Education that there were not enough textbooks in their school. Almost as if placing an order on eBay or Amazon, the ministry sent textbooks shortly thereafter.
“We value the parent’s contributions because it’s crucial to ensuring children get quality education and other basic services,” said Abdishakur Omar, a local representative of the education ministry. “We react promptly to any challenges they raise during the meetings and all questions shared via mobile phones.”
In 2016, teachers at the Borama Girls Primary School used their phones to inundate the ministry with requests for more classrooms amid a spike in student enrollment so dramatic that classes were being held outdoors. The ministry promptly constructed and renovated classrooms, built a library and installed new toilets and drinking water taps for the pupils.
“Mobile phones are key to improving the quality of education in our schools,” said Hassan Abdi, a teacher at Borama Girls Primary School. “With phones we are able to communicate effectively to students, parents and local officials. We are able to know the number of students in school and track down those who are absent.”
Parents have also used the scorecard system to complain about officials’ lack of response to poor student attendance and discrimination against girls. Officials are still trying to address those problems, but until then, the scorecard serves as a record of the complaints that they can’t ignore, said parents and teachers.
“The ministry is now able to get directly correct and timely information on the quality of education from parents, teachers and students” and make needed changes, said Abdi Ahmed, a teacher at Bursade Secondary School in Berbera, a port city on the Gulf of Aden. One difference Ahmed noted: “Parents are now taking their children to school and more are graduating because of this collaboration between the locals and government through mobile phones.”
Such progress is good news in a region that has faced significant challenges. When Somaliland declared its independence in 1991, the infrastructure in the region had been devastated by years of armed struggle between armed opposition groups and the forces of Somalia’s last dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre.
Since then, the autonomous region has tried to revive the collapsed educational system with help from the United Nations and other international organizations and has achieved numerous successes. Such experience could be also considered in educating hundreds of thousands of the refugees in the Arab region. (See a related article, Lessons On Providing Higher Education To Refugees).
But, of course, there are still challenges.
There aren’t enough trained teachers or classrooms to accommodate thousands of students. Schools lack funding, resources and learning materials and proper curricula.
To counter all these challenges, the Ministry of Education has been transferring responsibilities and resources to district administrations so that people can more easily access educational services at a local level. The introduction of the mobile-phone system has helped achieve those goals, said Omar, the ministry representative.
“Community members have been able to raise pertinent issues that concern the education of our children and as officials we have been able to implement them,” he said.
Somaliland has been using the system since 2008, a technological trend made possible by the explosion of mobile-phone use across Africa.
Around 90 percent of Somalis have mobile phones, according to the World Bank. Mobile banking, finance and cash-less payments are widespread. In Somaliland, people make around 34 digital financial transactions a month, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the mobile-phone company Telesom.
Somalia’s mobile-phone network has managed to function despite the lack of guidance or regulations from the central government since 1991, when Siad Barre was overthrown after more than 20 years in power. More recently, Al Shabaab militants linked to Al Qaeda have sought to destroy the network.
The mobile-phone network has proved invaluable for dealing with the growth of Somaliland’s education system, said teachers and officials. Since the year 2000, enrollment in primary education in Somaliland has grown from 12,000 to more than 200,000 students, while secondary education enrollment has grown from 450 students in 1999 to more than 100,000 in 2016, according to Somaliland’s Ministry of Education.
“Our education standards have improved since the system started working,” said 18-year-old Ahmed Mohamed Noor, a student at Sheikh Ali Jowhar Secondary School in Borama. “This is making students become confident in class and also contributes much to our performance.”