Ustad Mobile to answer education demand through Expo Live grant

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Open-source app enables users to teach, learn and share online or offline

Expo Live is a dedicated $100 million fund to support projects with innovative, creative solutions to pressing challenges around the world – helping to improve people’s lives, preserve the planet, or both.

The Innovation Impact Grant Programme, which has completed five cycles to date, is already supporting 140 grantees from 76 countries, with more than 11,000 applications received from 184 countries. The programme has an allocation of up to $100,000 per project, as well as expert advice and the opportunity to share their ideas with a global audience.

Expo Live projects look for solutions across 14 different sectors, including agriculture, education, environment, employment, energy, and healthcare as organisers look for projects that would not reach their full potential without its support.

Here, Arabian Business talks exclusively to Mike Dawson, founder and CEO at Ustad Mobile, an open-source app that enables users to teach, learn and share online or offline.

Mike Dawson, founder and CEO at Ustad Mobile.

Tell me about the project: When was it set up? How many people are involved? Where does it operate?

Ustad Mobile is a small social enterprise that was founded in 2014 by myself and Varuna Singh in Dubai. I worked in Afghanistan on software development and spent several years working on increasing equitable access to education in places where connectivity was an issue. Now the company has six employees including software developers and international education and development specialists.

The Ustad Mobile application is a versatile open-source product that has supported kindergarten children in Jordan, teachers in Bangladesh, and tertiary education students in Afghanistan among others.

It can also be utilised in technical and vocational education and training. It has been used in projects supported by various leading organisations in the humanitarian sector, including UNHCR, UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee, and Voluntary Service Overseas.

Why was it set up?

Ustad Mobile was set up to make the benefits of education technology as inclusive as possible. There were a lot of laptop-based education projects at the time, but not much using mobile phones. Using phones and devices people already own drastically reduces the cost, and that helps it make EdTech far more accessible.

The education budget in Afghanistan where I was working was only a little over $100 per child per year (including buildings, teacher salaries, books, etc), so reducing the cost of access to such technology was essential.

What is the mission of the organisation? Who is it designed to help?

Ustad Mobile’s mission is to create an inclusive open-source digital learning platform that reaches educators and learners, including those with limited Internet access, limited device access, and/or disabilities and enables education providers including governments, NGOs, and the private sector to improve the delivery of inclusive and equitable quality education and reduce inequalities.

Learners are able to easily access educational content with no or minimal Internet access required, and they can complete their assignments even when connectivity is interrupted. Refugees who move school can bring their learning records with them.

Teachers benefit from an easy-to-use interface that enables them to send assignments, track student progress and give feedback instead of multiple WhatsApp groups buzzing 24/7. They can readily identify students who need further support and can distribute content to learners without the Internet using the app’s offline sharing feature.

NGOs and organisations delivering education services in humanitarian settings: The app enables them to continue education services during the Covid-19 pandemic for those with limited Internet access. The app also provides valuable monitoring and evaluation data to help them improve program outcomes and raise resources.

How will the grant from Expo Live help? What will it be used for?

Achieving scale is the top priority for Ustad Mobile to maximise impact. Thanks to the Expo Live grant the company invested in developing new software features in 2020 (self-service content management, user management, classwork and more) to support a pivot to a more scalable business model. This will enable the creation of a network of local reseller partners in countries affected by humanitarian crises who will resell Ustad’s hosting services and provide training on a commission basis, quality assurance testing, and business development operations.

Our aim is to reach over 10,000 active users, including teachers and students who are refugees, internally displaced persons, or affected by humanitarian crisis. The app will be available in 10 additional languages and also be accessible to those with hearing and visual impairments.

What are the future plans for the organisation?

Our ultimate aim is to make education technology more inclusive.

Ustad Mobile seeks to become the leading learning management system for use in limited resource settings. This must be accomplished by providing a user experience that matches or exceeds alternative products whilst engineering the software to manage limited connectivity, limited device settings as seamlessly as possible.

The business and implementation model of Ustad Mobile makes it possible to provide services to multiple partners, regionally and globally.

We are working on a new version of the app that will work on many non-smartphones available from $11.

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