Operating in remote schools in Simbu and Madang provinces, SMS story has raised standards in four out of five reading skills among a group of 1,000 children.
Research consultant, Dr Amanda Watson, says the project has been so successful those behind it are calling for SMS story to be established on a national basis.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Dr Amanda Watson, Mobile communications research consultant in Port Moresby
WATSON: What we did was we started sending out text messages to teachers on school days. There's two text messages they received each day. The teachers received firstly a short story and secondly a lesson plan, giving them ideas about how they could teach reading using that short story.
EWART: So how do the messages then go from the teacher to the pupils, how does the interaction come about?
WATSON: In the lesson plan, the very first step that was suggested to the teachers was that they could write the short story up on the chalk board and then the next step would be that they could read the story out to the students, pointing to each word at a time, introducing the students to new sounds, letters and words, and then a series of other activities, such as asking the students to read the story out loud, getting the students to read the story to one another, doing games, writing other stories, making pictures, all sorts of things to do with how the students could use the stories and the teachers could use the stories with the students in classroom.
EWART: So what's been the impact of the scheme so far, particularly in terms of children's reading ability?
WATSON: What's been really great is that we've actually run this as a controlled trial. The VSO Organisation, which is an NGO Voluntary Services Overseas designed the trial as a controlled trial and it's been funded by the Australian government. And so in that trial what we had was about 100 teachers in schools in Simbu and Madang provinces receiving the text messages and about another 100 teachers in similar schools not receiving the text messages.
At the start of the trial in Term 1 last year, we tested the reading ability of all of the students of those teachers. About 2,500 students were tested and it was found that there was no difference between the two groups. Then we ran the SMS's, sending out a total of 200 SMS's over 20 weeks and in Term 4, we went back to the same school and tested the reading ability of the students and we found that there was a statistically significant difference in the results of the two groups, meaning that students whose teachers had received the text messages performed better in terms of their reading ability, than students whose teachers had not received these resource through their mobile phones.
EWART: How much of that improvement would you put down to the availability of the content and how much of it would you put it down to the fact that the children and the teachers were interacting in this new way and in a way which you would imagine would particularly appeal to the children?
WATSON: I think the content was really important, because noone involved in this trial would suggest that schools shouldn't have books. We all would like to see more books in schools, but the reality is that in these schools there are very few books and so the content created a lot of enjoyment for both teachers and students. There was quite a bit of humour used by the VSO team that was writing the stories, so I think the content was humorous and valuable. I also think that the other benefit which relates to what you were asking about the interaction in the classroom was that the teachers were actually receiving materials and ideas and suggestions daily. So rather than perhaps being given a training manual a couple of years ago or having been given a guide at the start of the school year or something. The teachers actually received almost like a reminder to teach, a bit of a motivator to keep teaching and they received that every single day and we think that really helped them to realise that they're supposed to be teaching reading every single day, five days a week.
EWART: Is this a starting point for perhaps a new approach for education in a country like Papua New Guinea, where books in many parts of the country, as you say, are either in short supply or just not there at all. You can communicate in this way by a mobile phone, but maybe you can go beyond that, looking maybe at tablets and getting books onto tablets?
WATSON: There's a lot of value in thinking through the things that you've said. There's a range of things that could possibly be done with technology. However, I think one of the beautiful things about this trial was that it was using very simple technology. The teachers already had mobile phones in their possession, they were already aware of how to send and receive text messages and I think that's one of the great things about this trial, is that it's not introducing additional technology, which requires security, which requires electricity as well, which is a big issue in many parts of Papua New Guinea, and, of course, SMS or text messaging can be done on any phone. And I think to be honest with you, for many years to come this could prove to be a very valuable way of getting resources out to teachers and possibly also to health workers and other workers throughout Papua New Guinea and indeed perhaps in other places in the Pacific, where it might be difficult to get books or other resources to those important workers.
EWART: So finance permitting, can we assume that this project will be expanded far and wide across PNG?
WATSON: At the moment, we're having important discussions between the Australian aid program, the Australian government, the Papua New Guinea Department of Education and VSO about what we might do next.
We do think that this is a cost-effective way of being able to get resources into classrooms, because they've been various attempts to get books into classrooms and this does prove very difficult in Papua New Guinea. So we think that perhaps something like this could be a great way forward.
In the meantime, the teachers who received the messages last year are going to continue to use them. They've written them in exercise books and they're looking forward to using the stories in their lessons this year and indeed, there's other things being done with those stories and lesson plans by VSO while we're trying to work out whether we can do something like SMS story again.