Ustad Mobile: Innovative learning without the frills

Afghan women use Ustad Mobile to learn to read.
Afghan women use Ustad Mobile to learn to read.
When Mike Dawson headed the One Laptop Per Child project sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Afghanistan, he saw a fundamental flaw in the program: it was not sustainable.

“It’s just too expensive,” Dawson recently told the Gulf News Journal. “You’re talking about a cost of $400 to $500 per child over four years, which is the same as a teacher’s salary.”

Dawson decided that rather than force users to update their devices for his software, he would downgrade the software. He saw that feature phones, devices that can connect to the Internet and run basic Java code but lack the advanced functionality of a smartphone, were wildly available -- and extremely affordable. So, he created Ustad Mobile, or Mobile Teacher.

With Ustad Mobile, educators utilize simple software to create content in the form of audio, video, text or quizzes that can be loaded onto most types of phones. The student can then go through the content, and their progress is uploaded and monitored as they utilize the program.

In 2013, Dawson ran a test pilot with the women’s Afghan police. The police force has 150 female officers in 11 provinces, and 70 to 80 percent of the Afghan National Police are illiterate, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Limited funds made it impossible to hold daily classes, and so they used Ustad Mobile to complement a course that met once a week.

After the successful pilot, Ustad Mobile was exported to Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Today it has more than 1,000 users and the company is  working with various non-governmental organizations, government and international agencies including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the British Development Agency. Yet, Dawson found that working out of Afghanistan was expensive and difficult given security issues. So, he moved the company's operations to Dubai.

“We moved to Dubai to save money, which I think is pretty unusual,” Dawson said. “It’s very expensive and very difficult to get people to come to Afghanistan. Also we wanted to spread this out internationally, so Dubai was the logical choice.”

Dawson and his team arrived in Dubai at a time when there were no startup hubs. New businesses were required to pay their yearly rent of approximately $50,000 upfront. Yet, except for a single seed investment from Turn8, Ustad Mobile have avoided going to investors for money. Instead, the team of two has relied on side projects that provide training solutions and consulting to keep the company afloat.

Today Dawson is looking to better solutions to education problems in developing countries such as Afghanistan.

“Our mistake, was that we were quite solution centered and not problem centered,” he said. “It seemed so obvious to us to put something out that provides a learning solution. However, we see that that may not actually be the biggest first problem in terms of education.”

Dawson and his team are now tackling issues of monitoring and transparency. Huge amounts of funds are wasted on ghost schools, registered institutions that don’t actually exist. In addition, teacher absenteeism accounts for as much as 20 percent of the education budget in Afghanistan.

“That seems to be the pain point that people are thinking about before thinking about using technology for learning itself,” he said.

Organizations in this story

U.S. Agency for International Development 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW Washington, DC - 20004

United Nations 760 United Nations Plaza New York, NY - 10017

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