As a Penn undergraduate, Sharon Wolf studied in Ghana for a semester before graduating in 2006 with a degree in psychology. Now an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education, Wolf is leading a research project on reaching parents in rural Ghana with supportive text messages to share information about helping their children, especially girls, continue and succeed in school.
Wolf is the architect and lead author of the pandemic-born study conducted from January to June last year. The team’s discoveries, some surprising, have implications for collecting data in remote and impoverished areas and for improving parental involvement in their children’s education.
“We learned a lot about how to do that in a way that builds trust and helps the participants feel engaged in the program,” says Wolf, who has been on GSE’s Human Development & Quantitative Methods Division faculty since 2016. “I think if we could do mobile phone interventions the right way, it's a chance to really reach and offer certain services to families who can’t access them otherwise.”
Creating a connection
The study, “Nudges to improve learning and gender parity: Supporting parent engagement and Ghana’s educational response to COVID-19 using mobile phones,” was commissioned by the World Bank’s Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund and also funded by the Jacobs Foundation.
The research team partnered with the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and Movva Technologies to develop and test the impact of the message campaign. The team also worked with the Ministry of Education in Ghana, which is interested in using text messages to get information to families, Wolf says.
With schools closed and pandemic restrictions in place, the team used phone numbers from a previous study to recruit participants, and about 2,600 families enrolled, Wolf says. Most people in Ghana have at least a basic cell phone.
The project included five rural regions of northern Ghana, some of the country’s most impoverished, Wolf says. The study targeted all the children in households who were between the ages of 5 and 17.
Partnering with local researchers in Ghana, the team created and sent through SMS text messages “short, actionable, timely information to encourage engagement in schooling” and reenrollment once schools reopened, Wolf says. The researchers and data collectors worked in 11 local languages, she says.
“There was an additional focus on girls because we know that especially adolescent girls are at highest risk of not returning to school,” Wolf says, and more likely to drop out and enter into early marriage and early childbearing.
Texting is inexpensive and can be used on a large scale to reach a wide range of people, she says, but also tailored to certain groups or even individuals. And texting is easily adapted, “so if things change on the ground, you can quickly get that information out to people,” she says.
New methods of collecting data
In starting the project, researchers learned valuable lessons about collection of the data itself, she says, which will inform their future studies. “We put a lot of thought into how we can gain the trust of parents and caregivers and share with them that we think this program might help them and support them,” she says.
People with cell phones in Ghana, like just about everywhere, receive a lot of spam text messages. The data collectors gave participating parents the phone numbers of the researchers so they could create contacts on their phones, eliminating the need to screen each communication allowing them to call with questions. And they shared the organization’s website address for verification.
The most formidable barrier to remote data collection was network connectivity, she says. “We would try to do phone calls specifically on market days for the households we had a hard time reaching, when they would most likely come to an urban setting to do their shopping or to sell things,” Wolf says. “We think making that extra effort made a difference.”
Even small changes can make a big difference in reaching participants and help demonstrate where future investments could make the most impact, she says.
“We had some puzzling and surprising findings, which actually we think are really important,” Wolf says. “We saw that it worked for parents who had some formal education but not for those with no schooling experience, which was an important lesson to learn.”
About 35% of the parents had some experience in school, from one to five years, but the other 65% had never been to school, Wolf says.
“For the families whose parents had some formal schooling, the texting program had benefits, and parents were engaging more in their children’s education,” Wolf says. “They were asking their kids about school, reading more to them, helping them with their homework, talking with them about their future goals and aspirations, and their children actually had some improved schooling outcomes, with better social and emotional development.”
But for some of the parents who had never gone to school, the text messages actually reduced educational engagement, she says. “We think it’s possible that the messages to them signaled that there are things they should be doing that maybe they felt they weren’t equipped to do, and so they actually ended up feeling less confident about their parenting skills and then actually engaged less with their kids about school.”
As a result, the team members are going to refine their approach based on more research this year, she says. They are working with partners at the University of Ghana to conduct focus groups and interviews with parents and teachers. The team plans to revise and further develop the SMS texting program based on those results and to conduct pilot programs to test their new approaches.
“We have to do a lot more community-based, participatory research where we’re really listening to parents to find out what they feel they’re doing well and where they feel they need support and use that to build more strengths-based programming,” says Wolf, who plans to travel to Ghana this summer.
She also hopes to involve the children in the redesigned program, she says, and to eventually expand the program to support teachers and teaching quality by using messages to encourage teachers to provide more activity-focused and play-based opportunities for learning.
The experience with this study, she says, has had a direct impact on her research agenda in rural Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. She has extensive experience working in West Africa, including a Jacobs Fellowship to examine ways to support early childhood development and education and family well-being.
“I’m really interested in the role that families and schools can play in providing opportunities for children who face adversity,” she says. “How can we give both parents and teachers the tools to be able to create those opportunities for children? How can we actually make it work for the families?”
And she says she hopes that the texting support program can be expanded across Ghana “but in a way that’s targeted to parents that ultimately really supports them to invest in their children’s education and to support their children’s development and build on what the parents are already doing well.”
The study authors are Sharon Wolf, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education; Autumn Brown, Penn GSE doctoral student and research fellow; Elisabetta Aurino a researcher with Imperial College London; Edward Tsinigo, a research manager at Innovations for Poverty Action in Ghana; and Richard Murphy Edro, a research associate for IPA’s Parental Nudges Project.