Researchers Sharon Wolf and Elisabetta Aurino ran a study in Ghana in which SMS messages were sent to parents. The goal was to encourage parents’ engagement in children’s learning, and to improve learning outcomes and gender equity. Zoe Bozzolan-Kenworthy asks Sharon and Elisabetta about the lessons learned from running this type of study in a low-literacy area.

Zoe Bozzolan-Kenworthy: Governments around the world are increasingly using text messaging intervention programs, which were recently described by the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel as a “smart buy” for improving educational outcomes in low- and middle-income countries. Do the results of your study with parents in Ghana support that characterisation?

Elisabetta Aurino: During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an explosion of programs that sought to support children’s education by sending parents SMS-based ‘nudges’, or tips. These programs provide targeted information that addresses behavioural and cognitive barriers to educational engagement. They have a lot of advantages over other interventions: They are cheap and have the potential to reach a broad audience because so many people have mobile phones, including in countries like Ghana. They can be a good, scalable education solution for low- and middle-income countries, as well as during times of crisis and in emergencies.

Our study in northern Ghana – the country’s most economically and educationally-disadvantaged area – examined the impact of SMS nudging designed to help parents enhance the home learning environment during the pandemic. We ran this study as schools re-opened after almost a year of COVID-related closures. Parents received SMS messages with tips on engaging with their children, creating an active learning environment at home, and supporting children’s social and emotional development. Among other things, the messages suggested making sure children have enough time to study and asking children about their school day.

“They can be a good, scalable education solution for low- and middle-income countries, as well as during times of crisis and in emergencies.”

Elisabetta Aurino

The findings were quite surprising. Parents’ educational backgrounds played a critical role in the effectiveness of the messages: Those who had some level of formal education, even just primary school, responded positively – they engaged with their children more after receiving the text messages. Their children also attended school more regularly and improved their social-emotional skills.

In contrast, the two-thirds of parents with no formal education responded negatively. They engaged less with their children, who then attended school less often. These parents also had lower aspirations for their children’s education after receiving the messages, and believed school attendance was less important. We suspect that our nudges reminded parents about their own lack of education, causing them to pull back from educational investments.

Sharon Wolf: Most of the existing evidence on SMS-based nudging programs comes from middle- and high-income countries where parents tend to have higher levels of education. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, most studies included parents with much higher education levels. As a result, this evidence may not fully apply to low-resource contexts where parents have low levels of literacy. Whether or not this is true has rarely been tested. Our findings warn us about what happens when these programs are implemented in low-literacy contexts. These are very common across rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

It appears that text messaging programs need to be carefully adapted to the specific needs of parents with less education. However, we don’t yet know the most effective ways to design messages that resonate with these parents.

“It appears that text messaging programs need to be carefully adapted to the specific needs of parents with less education.”

Sharon Wolf

SW: Like many countries, Ghana has made tremendous progress at improving access to education and boosting school participation over the past three decades, but there are still many issues with the quality of education and the learning environment. Poor learning outcomes are a major concern for the current Minister of Education, as students are struggling in maths, English, and science. Challenges include overcrowded classrooms, inadequate infrastructure, insufficiently trained teachers, and a lack of educational resources like books.

Furthermore, in Ghana, parents tend to support their children’s learning less than in other countries, because many parents have never attended school themselves. That’s despite caring deeply about their children’s education. The gender gap is also an issue – while there is generally gender parity in early childhood and primary school, gender disparities grow as children progress through school, especially at the secondary level. Adolescent girls, in particular, encounter obstacles in continuing their education past primary school. Inclusive education for children with disabilities is another key concern, as these children often remain excluded from schools.

ZB: Do you have any initial ideas about what you might try next?

EA: We plan to draw on the findings from this study and others in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, specifically in rural, low-literacy contexts. There are several evidence-based strategies that may help us improve children’s learning and social-emotional skills through SMS messages.

We hope to raise awareness of the importance of parental involvement in children’s education by engaging directly with the community. Our local teams might explain to parents that they are receiving tips not because they are inadequate, but to help them support their children’s education. Other programs have complemented SMS nudging with in-person meetings and training sessions for parents, increasing their engagement and understanding. These sessions can help parents connect with the program on a different level and provide a more comprehensive educational experience for both parents and children. Unfortunately, community engagement like this was impossible when we launched our study because of COVID-related restrictions.

“We also want to explore personalising the messages for parents.”

Elisabetta Aurino

We also want to explore personalising the messages for parents. We don’t yet know which specific elements should be personalised for different groups of parents – but we have learned that there can be different dynamics between fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and mother and sons. We may be able to tailor the messages in a way that helps fathers better understand how to talk to their daughters, for example.

Finally, we believe that timing the messages carefully could make a difference. Parents spend most of their day working and are very busy. So perhaps we should send messages over the weekend, when they may have more time to read them and engage with their children straight away.

More on SMS nudging
Can remote interventions effectively support parents?

ZB: Can SMS nudging help to reduce gender inequalities?

EA: One of our initial objectives was to test a modified version of the program to emphasize gender equality in the messages, particularly in regions with significant gender disparities. This was especially important in the aftermath of COVID school closures, as girls were less likely to return to school. Surprisingly, focusing on gender equality had no positive impact – nor did the parent’s gender make a difference. Instead, parental educational background was the primary factor in the program’s effectiveness.

SW: We hope that by thinking more about how these programs are framed and presented to parents, we might make the messages more effective in improving gender equity in education, and in improving children’s overall learning outcomes. These changes could make SMS nudging even more of a “smart buy” for low- and middle-income countries.


Read the full paper here.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Keep up to date with the BOLD newsletter