October 31, 2012

Data Plan for Literacy

In the Philippines, EDC is researching whether cell phones can improve data collection.

The Philippines boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the developing world. But gathering literacy data from the country’s far-flung schools is a difficult task, and the Department of Education is continually searching for better ways to identify which student populations need extra support.

EDC’s Bill Potter and Yvette Tan are proposing a novel idea: use mobile phones to transmit test scores. USAID agrees, and recently awarded EDC a grant through its All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development competition to develop and field test this innovative approach.

“Mobile phones are the easiest way to communicate with teachers in the Philippines,” says Tan. “Text messaging is cheap, and 85.7 percent of teachers have access to a mobile phone. We think that we can use them as an effective device for delivering information.”

Potter and Tan came up with the idea for the project after observing the length of time it took to collect, score, and analyze data from the Philippine Informal Reading Inventory (Phil-IRI), a nationwide literacy test. Phil-IRI requires teachers to track their students’ performance on a series of reading tasks using paper and pencil.

But that’s the easy part. The data must then be compiled in Microsoft Excel and packaged with other data at the school, district, and division levels, all before it reaches the Department of Education in Manila. The process is so complex that schools often end up hiring temporary staff to manage the consolidation of test scores, straining already tight budgets. In fact, a full year can pass between the administration of a standard literacy test and the resulting analysis by the Department of Education.

Improving data collection by developing a simple application could give teachers the option to submit Phil-IRI scores from their mobile phones. Instant electronic delivery of data could eliminate much of the clerical work that slows down the analysis. And the ubiquity of mobile phones in Filipino schools would ensure high rates of data submission.

But gathering information is only part of the plan. Faster submission of test scores could result in better teaching. Teachers seldom use the Department of Education’s analysis of reading scores to improve instruction in their classroom, due to the lag time between the administration of the test and the publication of results. An enhanced data delivery system may allow the Department of Education to offer individual teachers timely recommendations about how to help their students succeed, perhaps even by text message.

The project will initially involve 900 teachers, school heads, and district supervisors from 50 public elementary schools in Mindanao, the southernmost archipelago of the Philippines. Potter believes that this pilot could prompt larger conversations with the Department of Education about scaling up a text-message data gathering approach across the country’s expansive elementary school system.

“There is a logical link between applying innovative technology, such as gathering data via text message, and helping schools use the data they are collecting,” says Potter. “This project will strengthen teachers’ understanding of how to use assessments to improve instruction, especially for struggling readers.”

Tan and Potter are looking forward to the challenge. “This is an opportunity for us to see whether we can make the system more efficient,” says Tan, “even if it is just at the local level.”