Mobile phones helping education in Somaliland

Residents of Elwak town in southern Somalia listen to local officials from the Ministry of Education on the importance of using their cellphones to boost the quality of education the area. (Doreen Ajiambo|ARA Network Inc.)HARGEISA, Somalia – Around the world, teachers discourage their pupils from using their cellphones in class, fearing that the devices distract from students' education.

But in Africa, mobile phones are actually playing a vital role in expanding access to education.

Every month, the Somaliland Ministry of Education, the department responsible for educating students in Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia, surveys tens of thousands of children and their parents on their mobile phones about the quality of local education. Their feedback is then captured 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 very vital here, they are everything to us,” said Fatma Farah, 32, a mother of four who lives in Borama, where around 200 families regularly use the service. Three of Fatma's children are in primary school. “We can contribute to the education welfare of our children 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 complained to the ministry of education that there were not enough textbooks in their school via using their phones. 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 education ministry representative. “We act 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 and classes were being held outdoors. The ministry of education promptly constructed and renovated classrooms, built a library and installed new toilets and drinking water taps for the kids.

“For us 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 directly get the correct and timely information on the quality of education from parents, teachers and students and implement them," said Abdi Ahmed, a teacher at Bursade Secondary School in northwestern Somaliland. "I think you can now see the difference when there was no mobile phones and right now. 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 independence in 1991, the infrastructure in the eastern Horn of Africa along the Red Sea had been completely destroyed by three years of armed struggle with Somalia’s dictator, Siyad Barre.

Since then, the autonomous state has tried to revive the collapsed educational system with help from the United Nations and other international organizations, achieving myriad successes regarding the development of education in the country since 1998.

But 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 Somaliland Ministry of Education has been transferring functions, authority, responsibilities and financial resources to district administrations so that locals can easily access the educational services at a local level. The introduction of the mobile phone system has helped achieve those goals, said.

“Community members have been able to raise pertinent issues that concern education of our children and as officials we have been able to implement them,” said Omar.

Somaliland has been using the system since 2008, a technological trend that can be seen elsewhere across the continent.

In Uganda, around 150,000 parents and others use U-report, a free mobile messaging tool, to report on whether textbooks and other materials have been delivered to schools as promised, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, thousands of students in primary and secondary schools access educational materials, quizzes and even live discussions with teachers on their phones.

The explosion of mobile phone use made the trend possible.

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 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 a dictatorial regime was overthrown after more than 20 years in power, sparking civil war and Somaliland’s separation. More recently, Al Shabab militants linked to Al Qaeda have sought to destroy the network.

The 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 enrolment has grown from 450 students in 1999 to more than 100,000 in 2016, according to the Somaliland Education Ministry.

“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 most students to become confident in class and also contributes much to our performance.”

A version of this story can be found on Al-Fanar Media.
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