Education is essential for economic and social development. Despite massive improvements in enrollment rates over the past 20 years, over 775 million adults worldwide—or 18 percent of the population—are still unable to read and write in any language (UNESCO 2012. These indicators are particularly low in the landlocked countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where literacy rates typically range between 30 and 50 percent. In Niger, the subject of our study, fewer than 30 percent of the population is literate, with large discrepancies between men and women.
While there is a substantial amount of research on how to increase school participation, especially for school-aged children, there is still considerable debate about how to improve learning in a cost-effective way. A number of randomized evaluations have shown that spending on particular inputs has not increased test scores, thereby leading to general skepticism about the value of such inputs (Hanushek 1995, Glewwe, Kremer and Moulin 2009). Yet a key question emerging from many of these studies is whether such inputs are relevant to the local context.
Despite the immediate private and social returns to adult education, adult education programs are a highly neglected entry point for development interventions. This is often attributed to low enrollment, high drop-out and rapid skills depreciation (Romain and Armstrong 1987, Abadzi 1994, Oxenham et al 2002, Ortega and Rodriguez 2008), possibly due to the limited relevance of such skills in daily life or limited opportunities to practice in one’s native language.
The widespread growth of mobile phone coverage in many developing countries, including Niger, has the potential to increase the incentives for and facilitate the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills by illiterate adults (Aker et al 2012). By teaching students how to use mobile phones, adult learners may be able to practice their literacy skills outside of class by sending and receiving short message services (SMS), making phone calls and using mobile money (m-money) applications, all of which require basic fluency with the numbers, symbols and letters on mobile phone keypads. Mobile phone technology could also affect returns to education by allowing households to use the technology for other purposes, such as obtaining price and labor market information and facilitating informal private transfers (Aker and Mbiti 2010, Jack and Suri forthcoming).
Our research team ran a successful randomized evaluation in Niger in 2009-2011 (Project ABC) and showed that a mobile phone-enhanced adult education program improved literacy and math skills of adult education participants by 19-25 standard deviations, equivalent to an additional year of education (Aker et al 2012). This difference remains significant over time, even as learning depreciates. The results were not only cost effective as compared with the regular adult education intervention, but also as compared with other education interventions also cost effective, costing less than $US 2 for every additional .1 s.d. increase in test scores (Evans and Ghosh 2008).
This research will build upon the existence research in five ways. First, this new research will assess the impact of the traditional adult education program (without mobile phones), which was not possible in previous work. Second, the mobile phone-based literacy program will be implemented in more villages and more literacy participants (25,000, as compared with 6,000), allowing us to determine whether the results remain once scaled. Third, the program will be implemented without the distribution of shared mobile phones, thereby overcoming an important cost constraint to implementation by the Ministry of Non-Formal Education (MNEF). Fourth, the program will assess the potential role of mobile phone technology in distance learning by providing educational content on agriculture and health-related themes over the mobile phone. Finally, the research will assess the impact of both the adult education and ABC program on other economic outcomes, self-esteem and self-efficacy and educational attainment of children, key issues justifying the investment in adult education programs (Blunch and Portner 2011, Banerji et al 2013). And finally, the program will assess the way in which education and technology affect intra-household and inter-village dynamics.
This study will use a randomized evaluation methodology, whereby villages within two regions of Niger will be randomly assigned to either a treatment (an adult education program with or without a mobile learning component) or control (no adult education program). We will also cross-cut these treatments by assigning certain villages to the SMS-based adult education program. In addition, a subset of villages in each group will be assigned to mobile phone monitoring, in an attempt to understand whether information technology can reduce the moral hazard problem.