Mobile Soft Skills Training

Get it on Google Play

The University Support and Workforce Development Program (USWDP) –  funded by USAID and implemented by FHI 360 – aims to bridge the gap between universities and the needs of the labor market. The in-person soft skills courses created through the program are oversubscribed. To meet student demand, FHI 360 decided to transition to a blended model with students completing mobile course modules on their phones before attending in-person classes.

Ustad Mobile has created an open source app called ‘Mobile Soft Skills Training’ which enables students to experience interactive video-based simulations that work on smartphones and feature phones. The app content is based on the existing in-person soft skills course materials and contains four pre-employability modules (CV writing, cover letter writing, job search skills and job interview skills) and five post-employability modules (communication skills, workplace values and ethics, time management, report writing and entrepreneurship). Each module contains a short introductory video which explains the learning objectives and relevance of the module to the students. Summative and formative assessments are conducted on a rotating basis as the learners progress through the modules choosing how to respond to simulated situations.

Afghanistan is an ethnically and linguistically diverse country and this is reflected in the module content. All modules are available in Dari, Pashto, and English. We anticipate that some students may be preparing for interviews in English and choose to complete the modules in English irrespective of their native language. Actors and actresses of different ethnicities were cast by DNA Media Productions Ltd. to provide positive role models for all Afghan students.

The app enables the use of text, images, audio and video without requiring any connectivity. Usage data – such as time spent on each module and quiz scores – is logged to devices offline and automatically uploaded securely to a cloud server when a connection is available. An in-app peer-to-peer feature enables wireless offline sharing with nearby devices at high speed.

A pilot was conducted to ensure the app is easy to use for students and USWDP staff who assist students in installing the app on their devices. Feedback was solicited from both male and female students to be certain that the app serves both genders equally well. The pilot evaluation found that student outcomes increased from an average of 32/100 prior to using the app to 71/100 after using the app. There are no excess equipment costs as the students complete the modules on the devices that they already own.

While the mobile modules serve as a passport to attending USWDP classes for eligible university students and recent graduates, Mobile Soft Skills Training is freely available to download via the Google Play Store and the Ustad Mobile website.

Going to the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit? See Steven Ehrenberg (Associate Director for Learning and Technology, FHI 360) speak about how the University Support and Workforce Development Program is using mobile technology to increase access without compromising learning outcomes on September 27th at 2:20 pm.

This post was co-authored by Steven Ehrenberg Mike Dawson and Benita Rowe. Many thanks to Abdul Basir Quraishi, Gul Mohammad Hamad, Afifa Qurieshi Shams, and Abdul Malik Wafa from USWDP and the USWDP Translation Department, to Mohammad Atif for his translation and voice-over services, to Shoaib Shirzai for his translation services, to Varuna Singh for his work on the reporting system, to Lukundo Kileha for his work on the offline peer-to-peer functionality, to Mohammad Zeytter and the cast and crew from DNA Media Productions Ltd. for filming the video simulation, to Andrew Guy, Isabelle Amazon-Brown and the USWDP staff and students for their feedback on the UX. 

Mobile Learning Data: It’s a tossed salad (MLW 2014 Reflection)

Mobile Learning Data (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
Mobile Learning: Healthy, tastes good, but now you got so many apps on your plate… all working independently… how do you bring all this data together? (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

At Mobile Learning Week I saw presenters from all over the world describing how they are picking and choosing applications to deploy mobile learning like they would pick up good healthy stuff from the salad bar. We get App A for one thing, App B for another, and then ask students reflect and share it with App C. But if now at the end I want to figure out the total nutritional value I put on the plate I am out of luck. Every tool has it’s own portal, it’s own stats, and trying to combine them is about as much fun as asking a fundamentalist vegan to work their way around the chicken.

There were a few projects that were not collecting usage data logs and based their research outcomes on self reporting.  This is in my opinion totally unacceptable when using mobile devices that are built to record, process and transmit data. Self reporting is fatally flawed; to expect bottom of the pyramid beneficiaries to say anything negative having been given a new mobile phone and likely transportation money for attending workshops is insanity.  We found this in Ustad Mobile projects; some students would tell us about how great they found the program in spite of the fact the usage logs clearly showed they weren’t actually using the program.  These insights are valuable but meaningless without data.  We can get informed consent from users on this; just as handing in a piece of homework represents informed consent that the teacher will judge it, possibly share it with the principal.

It is essential that we standardize around sensible technical standards: and that standard is the Experience API (aka TIN CAN).   To start with learning objectives first technology second is correct, but you need to make some sensible technology standards choices otherwise one is very soon going to get a massive indigestion problem.

UNESCO is to be commended for getting that many serious Mobile Learning practitioners together in one place. That particular place being Paris might have made it that much easier to attract them, but ultimately people running everything from small experiments to some of the biggest school districts in the United States came together in one place.

Photo Credit: mEducation Alliance
Photo Credit: mEducation Alliance

I was greatly encouraged by the attendance of the session we ran that was a practical lab. It was bring your laptop, and let’s create a course. Trying to get the authoring environment installed on all the laptops was the trickiest part given the connectivity situation. I also see how we really need to focus on getting down to having one click, one button publishing – make that course appear on my mobile. No folders, copy/paste, find it, move it there stuff is acceptable these days.

We at Ustad Mobile, having worked in Afghanistan and the like are very much aware that the world is not always connected together at super high speed. UNESCO together with the IBIS hotel down the road made sure that everyone else also understood this and I remember how much better my connectivity situation had been even in remote Afghan districts than in the middle of Paris.

There is a definite authorware problem for the mobile learning space. Creating content by purchasing each student, teacher, and others a $1,500 per year subscription to licensed tools like Captivate and Articulate storyline is clearly not an option. Educators are not looking for a one way create and consume model; they are looking for ways to enable creation and sharing as well.  That is where the beauty of eXeLearning comes into it’s own: 10 years of work on a great open source authoring platform from Spain, New Zealand, Afghanistan, Dubai and more…

Anyhow… it is one thing to criticize; another to try and do something about the problem at hand.  With that thought in mind it’s back to design and code to make publishing courses to mobile easier.

Known and unknown in mLearning


It is the question that will not die and doesn’t evolve as it should. Can technology improve learning outcomes?  We have known for decades that certain things can help in the learning process: computer aided instruction, Sesame Street, reminders, feedback since way before the proliferation of mobile phones. The right questions are how?, how can we measure that?,  and most important: how much does that cost?

Known knowns

space-learningBefore lamenting the state of evidence on the role of technology in improving education; I wish to lament the state of evidence on improving education in developing countries more generally.  That is not without reason; these are difficult to reach places. In some countries in remote areas we don’t even know if the school building physically exists to the extent we need GPS enabled smartphones, drones or satellite imagery just to be sure that the school is actually physically there.  Knowing or measuring what students are learning, assuming they actually physically come to the building, is a new challenge.  So: A known known is that we often don’t know what students and teachers know or don’t know there if we don’t so much as know that classes are running there.

What does mobile learning really include? Well using apps is a form of computer aided instructions.  There are serious games, so game based learning research is hardly out the window.  Reminding learners about something via SMS is a form of reminder nevertheless.  Even we have research from Matthew Kam’s MILLEE project that shows this research still holds true when applied to using games for learning on mobile phones: there were statistically significant improvements in learning outcomes.

Patrick McEwan just published meta analysis of 76 RCT’s locatable on education improvements in developing countries (that is up from a total of 9 being available in 2003) – even the dramatic rise in RCTs means there is a maximum peak rate of 6 or 7 RCT experiments in developing countries published per year.  The number one program type that achieved statistically significant improvements in student learning: “computers or technology”.  Just ahead of teacher training. RCTs are not cheap exercises; insisting on RCTs before more basic experimenting creates a no innovation chicken and egg loop.


We know we know that students can know more faster with technology enhanced learning and we know this is applicable to small portable computers (also known as mobile phones).

Known unknowns

Key recommendation of the report: report cost data. 56% of these interventions had no data on cost; that clearly is a problem. We still don’t have sufficient comparable cost data on what works to use for decision making on opportunity costs. Right now it looks like computers or technology are relatively expensive: so let’s rework the question:

The question is not “does it work?” The question is: how much does any of this cost and then how can we do that cheaper and sustainably?

We don’t know how to build capacity to create mobile learning applications. That’s what we’re working on with Ustad Mobile. I know if you look in the app store you won’t find any way to make your own materials for low cost devices without learning how to code BREW or Java 2 Micro Edition (and re-invent the wheels of audio video slides, quizzes and mini games). Given that we know cost is a problem spending time and therefor money re-inventing this is a problem.

We know that we don’t know enough about the cost of technology for people to learn to know stuff.

Mike Trucano of the World Bank has a very good answer that addresses this: The best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford. I’d say we really have to do better with the devices we have: there’s a whole lot that needs more than 160 characters in an SMS message to teach.  But these $30+ Java enabled feature phone of which there are 3 billion out there now can do audio, video and small apps. Ustad Mobile will enable all of those to provide a full computer aided learning experience.

Unknown unkowns…

Ehhh… hmm…  Where’s my hoverboard already?