Sierra Leone: A dictionary in your hands with a mobile app

The government of Sierra Leone has deployed an innovative mobile-based application that places a dictionary in the hands of every Sierra Leonean. The solution seeks to support literacy improvements in learners and citizens across the country at no cost to the users.

January 18, 2021 by David Moinina Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Sierra Leone
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3 minutes read
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Illustration from the Ebola-Info-Sharing mobile application. Credit: ITU/M.Jacobson-Gonzalez
A mobile phone user in Sierra Leone
Photo credit: ITU/M.Jacobson-Gonzalez

The government of Sierra Leone has deployed an innovative mobile-based application that places a dictionary in the hands of every Sierra Leonean. Any citizen, with the push of a button on any kind of mobile phone, can receive a text message with the meaning of any word they search for. They can also sign up for a ‘word of the day’ service, which sends a daily text message to their phone with a new random word in the dictionary and its definition. This solution seeks to support literacy improvements in learners and citizens across the country at no cost to the users.

When COVID-19 forced schools to close in 2020, 1.6 billion children around the world were directly impacted. Out of these, 2.6 million children who stayed at home and had their learning affected were in Sierra Leone. Global education research institutions have urged countries to innovate or risk reversing the gains made towards the achievement of SDG 4 on universal education and learning.

Jumping into action at the start of the pandemic

At the same time that the government of Sierra Leone locked classroom doors in March 2020, the Ministry of Basic Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) received a Global Partnership of Education (GPE) Emergency Response Planning Grant of US$70,000 through the UNICEF country office in Sierra Leone. The grant was committed to support the ministry with its planning and response to the emerging pandemic.

The MBSSE quickly established an Emergency Education Taskforce consisting of four pillars: Communications; Continuous Distance Learning; School Reopening Readiness; and Operations, Policy and Planning, all geared towards reducing the country’s education poverty.

In January 2021, the MBSSE launched the SMS 8447 / USSD *8447# mobile application in partnership with UNICEF Sierra Leone, all the major telecommunication companies and a local start-up called Digitallé. Digitallé worked closely with the ministry on the continuous learning outputs to develop the concept of value-added services that allow mobile phone users to search for the meaning of words at any time and anywhere using ubiquitous SMS and USSD technologies.

A user interaction/flow of the mobile application to search for a word
A user interaction/flow of the mobile application to search for a word

Solutions adapted to our context

While several countries focused on developing e-learning services that rely on high bandwidth connectivity and data, the context in Sierra Leone is different. Coverage rates of 2G voice/text mobile and 3G/4G data access in Sierra Leone are approximately 85% and 20% respectively. Furthermore, the majority of cellphone devices available to the population are simple feature phones and not smart phones. These realities informed the solution development that covers a majority of the population.

Two weeks after an initial soft launch of the application, there have been over 2,500 word searches, with top 10 searches including “education”, “love”, “man”, “sex”, “innovation”, “noun”, “money”, “school”, “government” and “constitution”. So far, 259 citizens have subscribed to the ‘word of the day’ SMS messages, which arrive at 7am daily. Citizens can select one of three literacy levels for ‘word of the day’: primary school, secondary school and advanced level. This is an encouraging start. With the help of our partners, we will conduct community engagements so that the service, which is freely available to all citizens, contributes to improving literacy throughout the country.

Among several deliverables, the $70,000 GPE grant was also used to monitor activities during the school reopening five months after they closed, and to evaluate the Radio Teaching Program, which was critical during the school closure. Community engagement, focus group discussion, and support for the training of trainers in 16 districts on safe school protocols were also supported.

A second GPE grant of $7 million is also currently supporting our COVID-19 education response plan.

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Sub-Saharan Africa: Sierra Leone

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Comments

This system is very slow, I tried to search for the meaning of a particular word but it's taking forever

Hi my Rotary Club is running a literacy programme in the Côte d'Ivoire, in partnership with a local NGO. Is the dictionary available for sharing in Côte d'Ivoire?

In reply to by Mac Purcell

Hi Mac: Thanks for your question. The app isn't in available in Côte d'Ivoire, but a French dictionary is being added to the app in Sierra Leone. Maybe you can reach out to the ministry in Sierra Leone through the Rotary Club there for follow-up?

This looks really great! Well done. Because this works on feature phones, this means that there is no app to install, right? Does all of the user experience occur inside of the phone's basic messenger tool?

I'm super excited for this creative and innovative ideas by our humble minister of education. We all must work relentlessly to have a better Sierra Leone in the future

Indeed, this is such a good innovation for students especially in Sierra Leone, thank you. And I see it's not only for students but for ALL Sierra Leoneans. And I presume, students should be a priority. How far is the rollout for this? Because I know a lot of students who have not yet got this opportunity.

There is much ambiguity in the programmes that these grants are covering. How do you measure how much progress is made? How many children in Sierra Leone can afford a mobile phone to utilise this word search app. Why not provide the very basics for ALL children before moving on to more sophisticated methods of accessing learning? There is so much need for the monitoring of teachers' quality of teaching and accountability in the classroom rather than online.

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