Using a Gig Economy Model to Develop a Paraprofessional Teaching Force in Rural Liberia
One in three high-school-age girls in Liberia leaves school due to pregnancy, and only one in five women in Liberia are literate and numerate. Learning Links, a new, innovative USAID pilot program uses a gig economy model to bring these two groups of women together to improve education and employment outcomes in the country. Typically, a gig economy is defined as a labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.
Kevin Wheeler, CEO of the Kaizen Company, shared program details in his presentation “Learning Links: Incentives and Technology Unlock Rural Liberian Teacher Capacity” at the 2018 Mobiles for Education Alliance Symposium. Literate and numerate women who want to help their community and supplement their income in Gbarnga, Bong County, are trained as tutor-mentor paraprofessionals and compensated to support the education of out-of-school girls. They meet in small groups and the tutor provides instruction in literacy and numeracy following the Liberian Alternative Basic Education (ABE) curriculum.
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Providing educational and psychosocial support
The tutor-mentors activate daily SMS (short message system) mini-quizzes for program participants and provide feedback on answers submitted. Periodically, paper-based quizzes are administered to provide an additional level of assurance that skills are being developed. Based on student performance and participation, the tutor receives modest compensation and the students receive micro-payments in cash or via mobile technology for an education savings account.
Learning Links also provides psychosocial support for girls. A caseworker meets with every program participant and creates an individualized plan that refers girls to local providers that can serve their needs in and around Gbarnga. Caseworkers check in on the girls monthly to monitor their progress.
Kaizen evaluates pilot results using several metrics, including daily SMS quiz scores, monthly exam scores, the number of girls who return to school, program retention and the marginal cost of an additional learner. Learning Links also deploys staff members to visit communities approximately once per month. These staff members provide the full range of Learning Links services, including placement tests, technical troubleshooting, and social-emotional learning/psychosocial support.
Kaizen also collects feedback from participants using the mobile platform, complemented by data-driven deep dives to solicit high-priority feedback. They analyze data weekly to target under-performing tutors and students, and a combination of SMS, phone calls and in-person visits are used to determine potential causes of low engagement levels. Learning Links evaluates the participation rate (questions attempted) and learning performance (correct answers) of every student. Based on the engagement numbers, they calculate the activity rate and performance of each learning group (and by extension the performance of each tutor-mentor). Learning Links then contacts the tutor-mentors who performed in the bottom 10% to determine why in order to tailor tutor-specific support. This enables Learning Links to focus their resources on the greatest needs.
Kaizen also contacts girls who have returned to school to determine what drove them to do so and whether Learning Links played a role in that decision.
This model provides tangible benefits for tutors as well as students. Helen Zolia, a tutor-mentor in Sergeant Kollie Town, Liberia shares, “I am a high school graduate. I joined Learning Links in November 2018 and am tutoring seven level-one learners in my session. Since I joined Learning Links, my life has improved from when I was sitting doing nothing. With the incentive I am receiving, I am building myself a two-bedrooms apartment house. Being a tutor-mentor for Learning Links has built my self-esteem.”
Looking to the future
The project began in May 2017, and the first year focused on getting it up and running successfully and demonstrating the feasibility of the cash-for-service support model. Based on the positive and statistically significant evaluation of the pilot project, the hope is that in years two and three, the project can be scaled. Consistent learning results in both highly monitored (monthly exams) and unmonitored (daily SMS quizzes) settings show learning gains of approximately 65% of the material covered in a given time interval. These results have remained relatively constant when Learning Links was testing the model with just 50 students, 300 students, and now with nearly 1,000 students.
Training the tutoring paraprofessionals and matching them with students requires significant legwork from the start to ensure that local considerations are met and that it involves community members and local organizers. The project adapts and uses the host country’s ABE curriculum to ease implementation and enable the transition back into the traditional school setting. The long-term goal is to eventually hand the Learning Links model over to a Liberian NGO or government entity while continuing to build capacity.
The Learning Links model has not been tried in another country yet, but Kaizen believes that it will be highly replicable because across the world, even in low literacy areas and areas without access to formal education, there are typically still some literate and numerate women. These women are an untapped resource of potential basic education teachers who, with the right alignment of incentives and support, can be activated to teach millions of out-of-school children. Kaizen is working toward sustainability and scale with plans to reach 2,500 students and 300 tutor-mentors over the three years of the pilot study.
Learning Links currently pays all SMS charges, but they are exploring partnership opportunities with local mobile service providers to reduce costs. A key project goal is to demonstrate that this model can deliver effective educational outcomes while achieving cost parity with those students enrolled in the traditional national education system.
Talk about this topic with USAID’s ICT expert by emailing Anthony Bloome at [email protected].