According to UNESCO, “Literacy is universally linked with poverty reduction, economic growth and wealth creation.” If you’re interested in development, poverty reduction, healthcare, and essentially any global social justice issue, you’re sure to agree that improving literacy rates is extremely important. So you might be interested to hear about how a school in Papua New Guinea increased English literacy among children by 50% after just two academic terms with nothing more than text messages.

International development organization VSO designed a program called “SMS Story.” Teachers at Bunamgl School in Papua New Guinea received a daily SMS story and lesson plan via mobile phone for 20 weeks. They would write the story on a board in their classroom for students to learn. Half of the teachers received the materials and half did not in order to evaluate SMS Story’s efficacy. Not only did the children of participating classrooms grow in their ability to read, the teachers themselves benefitted from the material and lesson plan assistance.

In schools with hardly any access to reading materials – in English or in their native tongue – this way of delivering resources and encouraging literacy could be revolutionary. It’s not at the level that m4Ed4Dev enthusiasts might dream about, like a world where young adults in impoverished communities can obtain university degrees via only a tablet. But as exciting as that opportunity will one day be, classrooms even in developed countries have had difficulties executing tech based learning programs. One of the most famous education technology failures is a New Jersey school district’s attempt to provide laptops to all students. After many students lost or broke the laptops, security software slowed functionality to a crawl, and teachers found it overwhelming to create new, tech-focused curriculum, the laptops are now being recycled.

So, while the push for ways to overcome the digital divide continues, VSO’s demonstration that existing, simple, and cheap technology can be used to tremendously improve literacy is inspiring. Other programs have demonstrated similar success. Yoki, formerly m4lit (mobile phones for literacy), created a series of stories specifically written to appeal to South African youth and allow them to comment in discussion boards. The stories were downloaded tens of thousands of times, and thousands of users participated in a writing competition and took part on the discussion board. This type of two-way engagement not only keeps readers interested, it also provides avenues for developing additional material; this would be particularly beneficial for creating educational material that may not yet exist in certain local languages.

Women and adults have high illiteracy rates in many developing countries.

Mobile learning seems to appeal especially to women. UNESCO reported after a literacy project that women felt empowered by being able to text and type phone numbers without help. A literacy program for women run by the Afghan Institute of Learning used text messaging to have the ladies practice with one another. Usually two course levels would take 18 months to complete; 83% of the women using the SMS component in their class were able to successfully test out of two levels in only 5 months. Besides the general learning opportunity for women, having the ability to communicate with one another via mobile was very empowering for the women.

The groups with higher percentages of illiteracy – women and adults – may find learning to read on their phones useful, private, affordable, and convenient, which may not be the case with a literacy course. For learners starting from ground zero, it would be interesting to see if a combination of voice and SMS messages could be used.

Again, we applaud VSO’s success on SMS Story, and we hope to see more SMS literacy projects in the near future!