Beyond Mobile: Tablets as Tools for the Extreme Poor

03 December 2014

The power of cell phones to advance development issues is well-documented. By February of 2014, there were almost as many cell phone subscriptions (6.8 billion) as people on earth (7 billion). These devices serve many purposes that go beyond basic communication – phones are electronic wallets, vehicles for information, and ways to connect with essential services, for instance. A decade ago, few would have imagined that nearly every person in the world would have a mobile phone, but now they have become an important ingredient to the success of international development programs particularly in Africa.

But mobile phones are not the only technological tool being used for development. Tablet-based apps are also becoming more common, and are being used to address a range of issues such as health, education, and personal finance. For example, the LISTA App is an award-winning innovative financial education tool developed by Fundación Capital to help bridge the financial education gap in Colombia and is expanding throughout the region. A similar comprehensive application which includes not only financial education, but also entrepreneurship and soft skills (communication, negotiation skills) is being used in the Graduation Program at Fundación Capital. While maintaining the main building blocks of the Graduation Approach (consumption support, savings promotion, skills training, asset transfer, coaching), Fundación Capital has made important adaptations such as the introduction of cash instead of in-kind asset transfers, and the use of ICTs (tablets) for training.

Photo Credit: Fundación Capital

A key challenge when using technology-based learnings within poor communities is creating relevant, engaging, and practical content that addresses issues of interest to those at the bottom of the pyramid. Sendhil Mullainathan, in his research about how scarcity “captures the mind,” presents how the mind orients automatically and powerfully toward unfulfilled needs. Therefore, other perceived “less important” tasks - such as skills training - become secondary. To break through this cognitive trap, educational content needs to focus on a poor person’s priority areas. Taking into account learnings from the psychology of scarcity, tablet-based applications are tailored so that the content delivered relates to the basic needs of the targeted extreme poor. But this technology is not sufficient in its own. Persuaded that the contact between program beneficiaries and field staff is a key element of the Graduation Approach, Fundación Capital decided to streamline the coaching component of the Approach through the development of an e-coaching system. Families who are perceived as fast climbers and who are active technology users rotate the tablets among a group of fast climbers. It allows for the coaches to review the modules at a swift pace since these families had a chance to familiarize themselves with the content. More importantly, this gives coaches the opportunity to dedicate more time with families perceived as slow climbers. The tablet-based curriculum also reinforces the critical social, emotional and technical support already given by coaches.

Behavioral nudges, or reminders, can also contribute to building an effective training program. Studies by Thaler, Sunstein, and many others, suggests that constant repetition can help improve long-term memory by helping individuals to retain relevant knowledge and recall the information when needed. There are many ways to achieve this. Fundación Capital’s LISTA initiative, for example, includes the delivery of text messages throughout training, in order to reinforce the content. The graduation project in Colombia uses calendars in order to focus participants’ attention on key messages. BRAC uses a list of 10 practices that are at the core of the 24-month training, and provides constant reminders to the participants, so they start acquiring new, healthy habits.

When Fundación Capital first started using the tablets as part of our financial education initiatives, we weren’t sure how effective they would be. There are many learning environment constraints to be considered. Would the tablets be suited to the living environment of program beneficiaries? Would the tablets get stolen or broken in the field? After more than two years of the combined LISTA and e-coaching Graduation experience, not a single tablet has been lost or damaged. This highlights a major step that has been achieved: establishing a trusting relationship with participants, which is fundamental for transforming beneficiaries of the program into empowered citizens.

Photo Credit: Fundación Capital

Educational researcher Sugata Misra inspired many with his Hole in the Wall experiments where he installed an internet-connected PC in Delhi slums without an instructor and observed children learning by themselves and teaching each other. What helped drive the success of these experiments is that the technology existed where people actually lived. If he had installed his computers in a library, school, or bank, the outcomes would have been very different. At Fundación Capital, we are taking cues from Mr. Mitra. Technology has the potential to foster scalability of development-oriented projects in a cost-effective way. By putting it in the hands of the people, we help facilitate the learning process, but more importantly, we help them acquire the necessary tools they need to build sustainable livelihoods.

Note: The views presented in this blog are attributed to the author and not to Fundación Capital.

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