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Piloting Zambia’s first mobile-to-web education monitoring system

`Laurie Markle October 18, 2016
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About two years ago, Zambia’s Ministry of General Education (MoGE) approached us with an idea: let’s build a more routine, faster method for capturing key school indicators. At that point, the Ministry was collecting a 27-page annual census and using the data to make nearly every key decision like procurement of school supplies, investments in infrastructure, and distribution of teachers. The data was outdated by the time it was received and the Ministry needed a method of responding to student needs more than once per year. Shortages in teachers, textbooks and toilets require a more timely response than an annual survey allows.

And so began the work of setting up Zambia’s first mobile-to-web Education Management Information System (EMIS). Though education was a new sector for Akros, we knew what it takes to build out a national system and began applying those principles:

(1) Keep your eyes on sustainability

I remember walking out of our initial stakeholder meetings with a list of over 40 data elements in hand. We knew this was too many. Sending data, though inexpensive, adds up when you grow to scale and sending too much data creates reporter fatigue. It took us a few months of asking key questions, like “when are you making decisions?” and “What do you need to know in order to make them?” to get the list of data elements down to 11. With only 11 questions, we’re monitoring student and teacher attendance, school-feeding program activity, grant distributions, access to sanitation and menstrual hygiene management, and test scores in literacy and numeracy.

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dscf7856Sometimes you don’t need the fanciest smart phone on the market. I’ll never forget my first mobile-to-web training in rural Zambia. Handing a touch-screen over to someone who had only used button-based phones meant hours of practice learning to swipe and tap. Instead, we ended up using basic feature phones (i.e. the one you played snake on while standing in line at Blockbuster fifteen years ago). By selecting a simpler device, we reduced the barrier to entry and gave our field workers a tool that is more affordable, durable, and therefore, more sustainable.

Down the line, we have big visions for Zambia’s education system. For example, we could monitor individual student performance through electronic records already available throughout the country. But capacity and resource building takes time.

(2) Keep the Government in the driver’s seat

As an organization, we believe Akros has an ingrained understanding of what it takes to work in the developing world. That’s because we are in the developing world, with our largest office based in Zambia. We don’t always have stable internet access or reliable power. We manage our programs, from the top-down, with boots on the ground where the development is really taking place. We understand the language and culture in which we’re operating. We know what it takes to build the capacity of rural Zambians to report routinely with quality data. With this knowledge in hand, we’re able to adjust sails and work collaboratively with the Government of Zambia. This supports solutions that work and the necessary government support to sustain a program for the long haul.

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(3) Know the Rules of the Road

Protocols, capacity, power outages, and culture all impact the speed at which we operate. Respecting the host-country’s culture and protocols for engagement isn’t just critical for your professional success, but the success of the platform you’re building. If you haven’t engaged stakeholders appropriately, they won’t feel ownership of the final product. Systems are not built at a steady pace, but rather in fits-and-starts. We will spend months at stakeholder meetings deciding on what data we’re capturing, and once that final meeting gives us the green light, it’s always a sprint to build out a comprehensive system before launch.

We’ve done it. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the tremendous support of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, UNICEF and our EMIS program manager, Ilenga Nkhata. With MoGE in the driver’s seat, we’ve collaboratively built out a mobile-to-web EMIS. We are only four months into reporting, but already learning a lot. Some of our assumptions about the impact of school feeding programs, teacher attendance, and sanitation facilities on student attendance and student learning are being challenged; others are being affirmed. Challenging our assumptions isn’t always a painless process, but it gets a bit easier when there’s quality data in hand.


About Laurie Markle

Laurie Markle, MA is the WASH and Education Portfolio Lead at Akros. Previously based in Ethiopia and Zambia, she now works from Costa Rica. She has expertise in system design and implementation, and coffee consumption.


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