Press One For English: BBC Janala Offers English Language Courses Over Mobiles

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Sep 10, 2010

BBC Janala is part of a multi-platform effort to bring English language education to millions of Bangladeshi people. It is part of the BBC World Service Trust’s “English in Action” program, dedicated to teaching English to 25 million people in Bangladesh. Using mobile phones, BBC Janala offers audio English lessons and quizzes to callers – and in a short amount of time has seen rapid pickup across the country. 

Building the Program

BBC Janala launched in November 2009, and since then users have listened to its English language lessons more than two million times over their mobile phones. Built on an IVR (interactive voice response) system, the service is accessible from any basic mobile phone. Users call BBC Janala (by dialing 3000) and are presented with an audio menu; from that menu, callers can select their skill level and if they want an audio lesson (each of which lasts two to three minutes) or a quiz (quizzes are either audio recordings with questions that users respond to by pushing numbers on the keypad, or are delivered over SMS). Users can also practice English by recording their own stories into their mobiles. Now in its tenth month, the service has nearly 250 bi-lingual (Bengali and English) lessons available for callers that teach pronunciation, vocabulary, targeted language for specific situations (such as business), and grammar.

An example of a BBC Janala English course on using everyday language:

BBC Janala Conversational English by mobileactive

An example of a BBC Janala pronunciation course, focusing on "J" and "TH" sounds: 

BBC Janala Pronunciation J and Th by mobileactive

Sara Chamberlain, head of BBC World Service Trust Interactive, gave a presentation on BBC Janala at “Using Mobile Phones for Literacy – Promising Practices and Research,” an online panel hosted by USAID for International Literacy Day. During the panel she said, “We wanted to make sure that at whatever point you called the service, you would be able to participate easily.” Thus the service was built on an IVR platform (although there is also a BBC Janala mobile website, which has had over 100,000 downloads so far).

The service is part of the larger “English in Action” program and is funded by the U.K. Department of International Development. Content is distributed to mobile operators free of charge. The relationship that BBC Janala built with telecom operators is unique – the BBC World Trust was able to negotiate with all six Bangladesh-based telecommunications companies to offer users one price for accessing BBC Janala, regardless of carrier. Calls made to BBC Janala cost roughly 50% less than standard call rates, while SMSes to/from the service are 75% off the normal rate. Explained Chamberlain, “All six operators are partners in BBC Janala and we were aided in this process by the Bangladesh regulator BTRC […]We did this because we wanted the operators to pass those savings on to the consumer.”

Designing for an Audience

“In order to bring the mobile phone operators on board, we had to develop a very robust business case that would project the number of calls we were going to receive over the course of the project, and thus the amount of revenue they were going to make,” Chamberlain explained during the online panel. To do this, the organization had to clearly define their audience – and how the program would be useful to that audience. 

The organization decided to target users who were already literate in Bengali, the language the lessons are presented in, who had at least five years of school education. Each lesson is a stand-alone piece, so that new users can join in without being lost in a storyline, and repeat callers don’t fall behind if they miss a week. In order to decide how best to design the program (and to determine if mobiles were the most effective means of transmitting the lessons), the organization conducted multiple nation-wide surveys to determine mobile use habits, learning styles, and to gauge the demand for English lessons.

Chamberlain explained, “The actual, specific content requires a huge amount of customization because it’s culturally very specific. And we must have done over 100 hours of in-depth, one-to-one interviews with people all over Bangladesh, male and female, from lots of socio-economic backgrounds to design content that they could engage with.”

That level of preparation has greatly contributed to the level of participation. The current audience break down is: 10.8 million young people, 4.8 million merchants, 2.3 non-merchant adult men, and 2.3 million women. Chamberlain said that each group had unique reasons for both wanting to learn English and for wanting to use mobile phones to access the lessons. Youth in Bangladesh are used to cell phones, so using mobiles for English lessons fits into their day-to-day lives. Adult men tended to be drawn to the lessons because they believed English would help them with business and because they can access the lessons anywhere– such as on the way to work. Women at home reportedly took the lessons because they wanted to pass on English lessons to their children, in order to improve their children’s education, and because the mobile phone allowed them to fit in lesson plans on their own time without leaving the house.

Chamberlain reported that BBC Janala’s preliminary surveys into the results of the program have found that improvements were highest among women, who had the lowest levels of English language ability when they entered.

The audience is highly engaged – the return rate for first-time callers in 46%, and Chamberlain said that the organization has had more than 177,000 “interactions” (meaning that in addition to calling in, users have taken quizzes or recorded stories). The presentation was a great look at how mobiles can fill an educational niche with an engaging service.  

Press One For English: BBC Janala Offers English Language Courses Over Mobiles data sheet 13292 Views
Countries: Bangladesh

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