Teaching through Text Messages

IP&T Master’s Student Cade Dopp Brings Tech to Education in Rural Ghana

Most BYU students celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks and parades, but instructional psychology and technology master’s student Cade Dopp spent his July in Ghana with junior high students and cell phones.

After winning the Ballard Center Y Prize Challenge with his team from the David O. McKay School in winter semester of 2017, Dopp set out to make a difference in Dabanyin, a rural village in Ghana.

The award-winning project was aimed at utilizing technology in junior high students’ lives to help them learn more effectively. In a tiny rural village in Africa, access to technology is limited, but Dopp’s project took advantage of the available technology.

“We were giving students access to a text message-based tutoring system,” Dopp said. “They don’t have access to the internet, but they have access to phones.”

The cellphone penetration rate in Ghana is a staggering 130 percent. So, for every 100 people, there are 130 phones—there certainly isn’t a shortage. The sheer volume of cellphones made this project plausible, and the difficulties of introducing new technology in developing countries reinforced the strategy.

Unfortunately, past experience has shown that when computers or other new technologies are introduced in developing countries they are abused or sold rather than used for their intended purposes. Thus, Dopp planned to use the technology they already had in abundance—cell phones.

Using the funding he received for the project, Dopp paid for an automated text message tutoring system so that the students could have unlimited access to the program. Personalized tutoring was just a text away.

Teaching through texts
Dopp's work is changing the way education happens in Ghana

The kids simply texted the subject they wanted to study, then they received some brief content to read. The students could even text back questions to get more detailed help. Next, a quiz would come through so the students could test their newly acquired knowledge.

“They loved it,” Dopp commented. “They would have 50 to 100 messages going back and forth—they were using it, and they loved it.” However, only some of the students could benefit from the service.

The type of phone a student had dramatically altered their literacy. Those with smartphones were mostly literate, but those with “yam” phones (basic talk and text phones) were much less so. By Dopp’s estimate, about 90 percent of the kids had “yam” phones, and only 20 percent of those could read well enough to use the service.

The next step for Dopp is bringing technology to the teachers; his plan is to bring the first digital teaching tool in Ghana. Dopp is currently developing a mobile application that will assist teachers in lesson planning. The pilot for the app is coming in January.

When reflecting on his time in Ghana this summer, the most meaningful experience Dopp could remember had to do with a boy named Kofi (pronounced like coffee). Kofi was a 12-year-old boy with a difficult, abuse-ridden past. He was hard to love and was resented by the other students—and even staff members—at the orphanage where he stayed.

Dopp saw an opportunity to make a change by using the nightly bedtime stories to teach a lesson. The mostly Christian students would frequently ask Dopp to tell them stories about Jesus, and one night he shared a particularly poignant story. In Matthew 25, Christ teaches that we must feed the hungry and clothe the poor, and then exhorts, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (Matthew 25:45).

Dopp said, “Some of them audibly gasped.” These young students were spiritually attuned enough to realize that Kofi was among the least of them, so they must treat him as they would treat Jesus. This revelation meant a big change.

“A kid like Kofi isn’t the way he is because it’s what he deserves,” said Dopp. The same could be said for all the kids in rural Ghana who need technological help in their education but just don’t have access to it right now.

There were no fireworks, barbecues, or parades commemorating the strides taken in Ghana this summer, but the work done is certainly something to be celebrated. Dopp’s project is just one way that technology can change the way kids learn in developing countries and get the education they deserve.

Writer: Jake Gulisane

Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922