Low Tech, High Impact
Michael Neumann ’03, M.S. ’08, Ph.D. ’17 is using an unlikely tool to help high school students in Tanzania with their final examinations.
Call it Siri for the smartphoneless. Or an analog Alexa. Students in Tanzania can now get “online” help for their high school final examinations without a smartphone or even internet access. All they need is a phone capable of receiving SMS texts.
Michael Neumann ’03, M.S. ’08, Ph.D. ’17 first visited Tanzania as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2004. He taught physics and math at Hagati Secondary in the village of Mapera in Mbinga. He loved the people of the village but noticed problems with the school. Most classes didn’t have textbooks. Some didn’t even have teachers.
“There was a decade they didn’t have a biology teacher,” Neumann says. “There was a Catholic high school nearby so they’d get the biology teacher to come by for a few weekends.”
Not only was this a missed opportunity for students, but it made passing final exams nearly impossible—and this wasn’t a unique problem. Students all across Tanzania were expected to pass four years of every subject, regardless if they ever had a teacher.
In November 2008, Neumann and some of his fellow volunteers launched TETEA (which means to speak out for someone in Swahili) to expand educational opportunities in Tanzania. TETEA’s first offering was an online database of educational resources. Not just study guides but questions from past national examinations and links to helpful videos.
One problem: Only about 20 percent of the entire population of Tanzania have access to smartphones, much less an Internet connection at home.
So recently, TETEA expanded its resources to be available via SMS text—a technology first introduced in 1985 and one that is nearly ubiquitous in Tanzania. Students can send a text message to a phone number and TETEA will respond with the requested study materials. For example, a student could text “Give me civics notes” and TETEA will respond with a list of topics and subtopics to choose from. Once a student makes a choice, the notes are broken up and sent over two to three text messages.
The most popular feature, Neumann says, is a pop quiz function which sends a student multiple choice questions from past examinations via text.
“They’ll say ‘Give me history questions’ and they’ll pick a random question from the database and they’ll answer A or B or whatever and it’ll tell them if they got it right,” Neumann says. “It’s really helpful because some of the questions pop back up, they repeat after a few years.”
SMS also helps solve another problem: power. Only 15 to 20 percent of Tanzania is on grid electricity. An iPhone for example needs to be charged every day.
“Whereas an old Nokia is good for three or four days,” Neumann says. “So, the SMS service can be used by pretty much everyone.”
The impact of TETEA has been undeniable. The website had 700,000 unique users last year. Tanzania as a country has a high school population of only about 1.6 million. So, up to 43 percent of high school students in Tanzania accessed the website at least once. For context, only about 31 percent of Americans age 13 to 17 in the United States have Facebook accounts.
In addition to its educational resources, TETEA also mirrors the results website for national examinations, which helped expand the user base of TETEA. Since the national examination site often crashes when results are posted, students can come to TETEA’s website to see their results, and stay for the study guides.
Neumann handed off the day-to-day managing of the website to one of his partners but still helps TETEA track down study materials and develop new offerings. He’s currently working with Robbie Culkin ’19 to develop a system where young people in Tanzania can access information from Wikipedia via its SMS system. Effectively, students will be able to text a word and TETEA would grab the summary from Wikipedia and send it back via text.
Neumann finished his Ph.D. in December 2017 and is considering a few options including post-docs. Mostly, he’s just looking for the next project where he can make an impact.
“With TETEA the thing I like the best is looking up who’s using it, how many people are using it and from where,” Neumann says. “That reach is pretty cool.”