Formal and Informal SMS learning environment

SMS: The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated

A colleague of mine, Ronda Zelezny-Green of GSMA, recently tweeted the following. Apparently, Zambia telecom Airtel Zambia announced that they will be rolling out a service which will allow users to access their Facebook accounts on their mobile phones without the need to have an active internet connection in place (via SMS). It seemed innocuous enough when I read it, but it had me thinking a bit more about SMS and the usefulness it still manages to demonstrate in spite of the more sophisticated technologies that come and go.

So Airtel Zambia creating a SMS version of Facebook (good on them) makes one think it can’t be that difficult to do the same for most any other service. Google offers (or it did at some point) SMS equivalents of Gmail, Calendar, Blogger, and Twitter has a SMS version as well. There are other SMS blogging services and large writing communities dedicated to cell phone novels and composition. SMS is still strongly represented in mobile learning as a strong, massively accessible communications technology. So Airtel Zambia investing in providing a social media service made me think that developing a more complex SMS environment for learning as opposed to developing one-off SMS services for various social media might be a good idea.

Smart Routing and SMS Workflows

I have written about how SMS can be used to support learning and academics, including a few of these posts below:

The last post in particular, I think, is useful for considering design issues. In that post, I was thinking that routing logic specific to the community would be useful in cutting through some of the complexity of larger SMS environments. In this structure, specific texted words would trigger specific menus or workflows that could be navigated.

Routing Logic for SMS
Kiswahili Routing Logic for SMS

Building on this a bit, I am thinking it would be relatively easy to create a more accessible system of activity within a SMS-environment that would allow the learner to access their services for both informal and formal learning. I think part of the issue now is the development of these applications suffer from one-off syndrome, each beholden unto itself. This creates different workflows for different services, creating a bit of redundant activity. In the above example, the routing logic is generated from local context and would help the learner navigate towards a specific set of activities relatively painlessly.

Building out from this, it stands to reason that these smart triggers for routing logic (localized in the local language) could be applied to a larger structure of learning activity, as illustrated below. This example is specifically for informal learning.  SMS Gateway

To keep the structure relatively accessible, I would first create a SMS environment as illustrated below, iterate based on use, apply smart routing logic after some participatory design sessions to elicit the appropriate words, and then add a parallel track of activity to support formal learning. Beginning with the first stage of participatory design and informal learning, each output would be promoted, released, iterated, and trained on before adding the next track of activity. Releasing the entire thing all at once would, more than likely, lead to non-use.

Formal and Informal SMS learning environment

I would also like to iterate a few functions in there that allow for outputs to be shared, one for the formal learning track and one for the informal learning track. For the formal learning track, the teacher would have access to activity logs (perhaps formatted in a particularly useful way) as well as inputted assignments (blog entries, reflections, etc.). In the informal track, the learner would be able to share their notes, ideas, and subsequent compositions and projects with their peers (via SMS) and with their teachers. This is an attempt to explicitly bridge the informal to the formal and create a flow of activity between both. This could all be done, presumably, through a SMS gateway service or even through an appropriation of Frontline SMS.

Training and the need for participatory design

The complexity of such a system represents an obstacle to use. The overall environment would reduce the amount of navigation that the learner has to engage with to access these services, but it is a new system and, as such, new systems need guidance. Without this critical piece, the overall environment would collect dust from non-use. So I would begin this process with the following:

Participatory Design Sessions

  • One with teachers, one with students
  • Elicit list of services, elicit workflows, elicit curriculum requirements, needs, localized context
  • Elicit smart logic routing structure
  • Iterate a prototype and elicit reflections on that prototype


  • For teachers before the school year
  • For administration and technical support before the school year
  • For students at the beginning of the school year

Release and Iteration

  • For teachers during the school year- workshop and feedback session
  • For adminstration and technical support- workshop on future development, needs analysis, and design
  • For students- feedback on use, future deliverables, reflection on learning to date

If this were to be a grant-funded project, the vast majority of the funds could be directed towards participatory design, training, and workshops as the development of the environment itself will have minimal costs associated with it (mostly time). The face to face sessions would be the connective tissue in which the use of the SMS environment would emerge. At heart, this is all still an exercise in communication, a human affair.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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