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Simu Mwalimu

Distance learning that leaves no child behind

Photo of Frank Bierens
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Ten million Ugandan school children are unable to get any form of formal education due to school closures caused by Covid-19. Distance learning is promoted to mitigate the impact of the widespread closure of schools and educational institutions, worldwide. However, in sub-Saharan Africa, 82% of students lack internet access and are therefore excluded from internet-enabled remote learning.

Alternatives, such as SMS and USSD-based distance learning programs do not reach all, due to the reading-based nature of their teaching. Many Ugandan school children are low literate and therefore need another type of remote learning.

Next Billion Learners is a social enterprise that offers interactive voice courses to Ugandan out-of-school youth to help them improve agricultural and income-generating activities. Applying the successful technology of the Janala voice courses for simple mobile phones in Bangladesh (25+ million learners), the platform is rolling out nationally in Uganda and is interconnected with 11 million mobile phone subscribers through its telecom partners.

Although currently, the platform offers income-generating courses for out of school youth, we are adapting this IVR-platform to provide primary –and secondary students free interactive voice lessons based on the national curriculum. Using the platform, Simu Mwalimu (meaning "mobile teacher" in Swahili), all children would have access to education.

The content development is a wiki; crowd-sourced from participating Ugandan teachers and tailored to make the custom-built content as accessible as possible for pupils in different regions. To safeguard the curriculum standards, experienced educationalists curate the content. While using, students can rate the content so the best teachers and lessons will be the most prominent on the platform.

The features of Simu Mwalimu are:

- Introduction and wrap-up of lessons done by popular celebrity voice artists from radio and television

- Minimal investment for learners – only a simple mobile phone with network coverage is required

- No network charges for learners

- Mobility of lessons - can be listened to at home, in the fields, in rural or urban settings alike

- A-synchronicity of timetables allowing learners to study whenever the phone is available

- Interactive content through which learners respond to questions and receive automated feedback

- Progress and feedback are tracked, tests and quizzes are integrated

Simu Mwalimu is a distance learning platform for all, that is capitalizing on the African oral tradition while upholding social-distancing. The learning content follows the national curriculum and is closest to classes in school, using a low-tech platform which leverages local expertise and experience of Ugandan teachers.

Everyone has the right to education. Let's develop distance learning that leaves no child behind.

What part(s) of the pre-COVID school system do you wish to leave in the past? Why?

Despite progress, millions in East Africa are still denied the chance to go to school. Those from the poorest households are less likely to enter -and complete school. In Uganda, out of 100 children from the poorest households, around 90 enter school and just 49 make it to the end of the cycle. In addition, primary education is not of sufficient quality to ensure that all children can learn the basics. In Uganda, just 17% both reached grade 4 and achieved the minimum level of learning. And across East Africa, two out of three pupils in Standard 3 are not able to pass basic tests in English, Kiswahili or numeracy at the Standard 2 level, according to Uwezo. Factors related to the low performance of the students include large class sizes, low capacity -and high absenteeism of teachers, lack of teaching and learning materials, and low system capacity to monitor and support learning. If we go back to “normal”, Simu Mwalimu helps to mitigate each of the above factors.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to share this idea.

Frank Bierens has a track record working on the edge of media, development and education producing products and services for the masses in sub Saharan Africa. He produced more than 4000 high impact debating/current affairs television programs in local languages in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, with an average of 1m viewers per country per day and a SROI impact ratio of 30:1.

As 15% of the young people looking for a job market will ever find formal employment, all others have to make their living in agriculture and the informal sector. To increase their income generating activities, Simu+ has been launched, which is designed realizing that most people have a simple mobile phone and do not have internet access. 50% is low-literate and want to commmunicate in their own local language

Simu+ offers courses for 15 yrs+ using the mobile on an anytime anywhere basis. The courses are delivered via audio with IVR-interaction in local languages, accessible by all simple mobile phones.

What region are you located in?

  • Eastern Africa

Where are you located?

Kampala, although due to Covid-19 stuck in The Netherlands, now


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