Learning from Track and Trace: Tackling System-Level Challenges with ICT
Cost-effective and appropriate uses of information and communications technology (ICT) can be essential components to supporting basic education, including accelerating the development of literacy and numeracy skills and improving the management of schools and education systems. But in low-resource settings with limited funding, where does one start with ICT investments?
The answer is clear: identify the outcomes to be achieved and appreciate where technology can strengthen the educational system. While technology access and use can provide great opportunities to access skills and information at the classroom level, we know far less about their use to demonstrate tangible improvements on specific learning outcomes. However, the case for using technology targeted within the larger education ecosystem is simply one of efficiency.
In looking at the various roles and processes throughout an education system, there is no question that technology can be used well—for example, from capturing data to supporting teacher professional development, from paying teacher salaries to facilitating the development of and distribution of textbooks and other learning materials more efficiently.
Creating Ripple Effects: The Textbook Distribution Example
Among other areas, the education “value chain” in a country includes administration, teacher professional development, material creation and provision, and family and community engagement. Technology can strengthen service provision in all of these areas, including in the area of textbook distribution.
Sadly, for a variety of reasons, textbooks already in country often don’t reach their intended destinations. As Sonny Lacey, lead technical consultant for the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development partnership, recently wrote, “It is common to hear reports of selling textbooks, unwillingness or inability to ensure delivery in the last mile, usurping cargo space for more influential clients, etc. Community members are rarely notified of upcoming book deliveries or their status and are left out of the distribution process.”
Experience in developing countries suggests that when local stakeholders know what books are to be delivered and when, they will advocate for on-time delivery. But, as Lacey noted, they rarely have this information, and even when they do, they are not equipped to track books in transit. Likewise, government and donor agency officials may discover that materials have not arrived at schools, but without tracking information, they do not know where they were lost. And so the cycle of inadequate textbook distribution continues.
ICT to the Rescue
A little innovation goes a long way. Thanks to a competition launched in 2015 by the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development—a partnership between USAID, World Vision and the Australian government—more textbooks are now getting into the hands of readers.
The Tracking and Tracing Books Prize Competition sought innovations to track books destined for early-grade classrooms and learning centers in low-income countries that would allow stakeholders to quickly and easily access relevant tracking information. Two winners emerged, and their low-cost solutions were piloted in four schools in rural Malawi.
One winner, John Snow, Inc. (JSI), developed a Logistics Management Information System that uses basic mobile phones with SMS and interactive voice recordings, smartphones for reading barcodes and web interfaces for data management to enable parents, teachers and local officials to receive up-to-date information on the status of books and materials. The other winner, Community Systems Foundation (CSF), built upon their OpenEMIS platform, an open source solution that tracks the delivery of items into schools using a web interface, a mobile app and SMS technologies.
The Global Book Alliance (GBA) is working to incorporate technology solutions that have been developed as best practices. Among these is Track and Trace, an essential tool to ensure that books are being delivered on time and equitably across geographic areas. This is part of a comprehensive system that will ensure children are able to have the books they need to learn to read.
Since the competition, several other providers have integrated some version of the track and trace system. For example, JSI’s prototype has been upgraded from a system perspective and is now being implemented in Cambodia. And Creative Associates International is implementing the Northern Education Initiative Plus effort in Nigeria and supporting the delivery of 7 million books to 2,400 schools. Similarly, Creative Associates has also been implementing the distribution for the Afghanistan Children Reading program since March 2017 for more than 500 schools in four provinces.
As instrumental as these technological solutions are, they and others like them will not succeed long-term without community involvement. As Lacey wrote, “community-led accountability will be a factor that increases year-over-year demand for the right textbooks delivered at the right time, and thus improves the systems’ sustainability...Additionally, to ensure sustainable use of any tracking and tracing solution, it must be customized and managed by the Ministry of Education and in-country partners.”
What’s more, as a field, we need to devote more resources to doing various forms of evaluation; without hard evidence, it is difficult to justify the replication of a practice, however promising. If countries are going to master the use of technology to improve their education systems, they need data. And that is precisely where low-cost, high-efficiency solutions, such as use of track and trace software, come into play.