This is the last of a series of medium posts about the MUVA Mesh pilot (previously profiled here and here). The MUVA Mesh pilot was designed to address a relatively clear problem: many schools in Mozambique do not have adequate access to educational materials.
During the design of the pilot, it was found that many students in public schools own or have access to mobile phones that could access the internet. It was proposed that setting up a digital platform for sharing educational material whereby students and teachers could access material via mobile phones could improve access to educational content.
While there are many e-learning platforms available, the majority are web-based or rely on users having sophisticated smart phones. While many students have access to mobiles, data costs can prevent students from being able to access the internet.
The proposed solution was to develop a simple digital platform for sharing educational content between teachers and students and to host this on a mesh network. Mesh networks are local networks that operate similar to wi-fi networks.
Rather than relying on individual wi-fi routers, they use multiple interconnected nodes that can provide a faster, more stable and reliable network across large areas.
The pilot tested this in a secondary school in Maputo, Mozambique throughout 2018 by:
· Identifying a secondary school and building partnerships with school leadership teams, assessing the equipment the school had available and types of mobile devices students used.
· Setting up mesh network hardware in the school and supporting school staff to be able to manage the network.
· Developing a basic platform (the “MUVA Mexe” platform) that students and teachers could use to share educational content that could be hosted on the mesh network and accessed via mobile devices.
· Working with teachers and students in groups to find ways that the platform could be incorporated into lessons.
· Iteratively collecting user feedback from teachers and students to find out what worked and what did not, and how the user experience could be improved.
· Finding routes to scale and identifying stakeholders would could support rollout on a large scale.
Results, challenges and learnings
Despite much excitement in the approach, the pilot was not taken forward to go to scale. A few of the key challenges and lessons are summarised here:
· While the mesh technology itself worked, the school infrastructure caused issues: Very thick building walls meant the reach of the network was relatively limited. There were also power outages lasting a few hours, 3 or 4 times per week, when the network did not work at all. This made training sessions with teachers and students difficult and meant users were frustrated because they could not always access the network.
· Lack of motivation from teachers: One teacher in the pilot showed high levels of engagement with platform and started adding lesson plans and other content to the platform which his students responded well to. However, most teachers saw the platform as additional work and were not motivated to use it.
· Lack of a usable interface: Students could access the platform but were not familiar with the interface. Many students use social media, so it was not using an online platform that was the problem, but it stressed the importance of having an intuitive and easy to access platform.
· Students were particularly frustrated about only being able to access the platform in schools: Many students have to leave school as soon as lessons finish (for example, because may have house work or part time jobs to go to) so did not have time to access the network in school. There were many requests to make the content available online.
· Difficult for users to autonomously use the platform: Students and teachers often forgot their passwords and login details. Many students were less familiar using emails which required support from the MUVA Mexe team. This made it more.
While mesh technology has strong advantages over other local network solutions, it was not the appropriate technology choice in our context. It was too complex for schools to maintain the network, too costly and there were simply cheaper and easier to use alternatives for sharing digital content. A central lesson throughout the experience has been to always keep users at the centre of the development and ensure that the solution delivers value to them.
A link to the final project report summarising the lessons learnt can be found here.