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Special delivery: Text messages bring courses to disconnected students

breaking barriers

Young innovators noticed gaps in accessibility for some students and are creating entrepreneurial learning opportunities around the world, including in besieged Yemen. 

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Michael Ioffe, a student at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., has started what he dubs 'the first text message college course.' It's a daily dose of entrepreneurship education, an attempt to boil down the key lessons of a semester-long course into four weeks of daily texts.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Someday, after Yemen emerges from the conflicts that have gripped it for much of his life, Mohammed Al-Adlani wants to rise to the top of the Yemeni government.

In the meantime, the young man who left the capital city of Sanaa last year to attend the American University of Beirut is part of a modest project aiming to inspire and educate his Yemeni peers, to prepare them to shape a new way forward for their country.

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He’s helping two American college students with an idea sparked by Mr. Al-Adlani’s observation that students in Yemen have limited access to school and the internet, but not to cellphones: Why not use texting to deliver a basic course on entrepreneurship?

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It’s an experiment, but the motivation has been long in the making for these innovators: to narrow gaps that can put young people onto radically different trajectories.

“Most students don’t have access to conversations with innovators, leaders, and entrepreneurs that they look up to, so there’s this huge social-capital gap,” says Michael Ioffe, a first-year student at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and co-founder of Arist, the company developing the text message courses. “Entrepreneurial thinking … enables students to solve problems in new and unique ways. That applies not just to business, but also our personal life and our community life.”

By the end of May, the first four-week SMS text course is expected to be available free to students in Yemen, translated into Arabic. On May 15, English versions will start up for $12 in the United States, India, China, Nigeria, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, and Britain. 

It isn’t Mr. Ioffe’s first mission-minded startup. In high school, he hungered to learn from local business leaders about their career paths. So he “cold e-mailed” 100 of them in his hometown of Portland, Ore. Most rejected his invites to chat over coffee, but one agreed to a meeting if the teenager would bring a group of friends.

The experience inspired him to start TILE, a nonprofit that helps hundreds of student-led chapters in 43 countries sponsor live events where young people can talk with entrepreneurs and leaders in various professions.

Cellphones as a lifeline

Amid a drawn-out war and humanitarian crisis, the seven TILE events that Al-Adlani assisted with in Sanaa offered slivers of hope. Some of the speakers had risen out of poverty, and the conversations “helped a lot of high school students to have a general idea of their future,… the possibilities … [and the] challenges. The events empowered them and inspired them,” he says during a Skype interview from Beirut.

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Now, he says, “the situation there is very bad. Most of the teachers cannot get their salaries because of the war.” 

More than 1,000 schools in Yemen have been destroyed or are housing displaced people, reports the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The agency and its partners are distributing a condensed curriculum on paper that about 15,000 high school students can do at home to prepare for 9th- and 12th-grade exit exams.

A new entrepreneurial course delivered via text message launches in May of 2018 and will be available around the world. Michael Ioffe, a course developer, shows one of the related texts.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Cellphones are a lifeline, Al-Adlani says, and should enable students to access the new text-message course from home. 

“It would be wonderful [to help] young people to know how to manage an accounting book” or other business basics, says an official with USAID in a phone interview. But it’s also important to bear in mind their need for resilience in a stressful environment. “They need hope quite desperately and support quite desperately, and to some degree, we don’t want to raise those [hopes] when we aren’t sure what the context will allow them,” says the official, who preferred not to be named due to safety reasons. 

Mindful of such concerns, Al-Adlani, Ioffe, and other course developers adapted the Yemen course to focus on using entrepreneurship more for community improvement than for creating businesses.

Help for those who are stratified, too

War is an extreme example, but it’s not the only door that can seem to close off opportunity. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of who’s in the network of a teenager’s family and friends.

In high school in Portland, students were “clearly stratified,” says Riley Wilson, Ioffe’s longtime friend and co-founder of Arist. (He has also been involved with TILE, the nonprofit, which is supporting the free course in Yemen.)

“We realized there’s nothing inherently different between us or any other person, it’s just … advantages we’ve accrued,” Mr. Wilson says, like learning through their middle-class families how to pick courses and use counseling resources to be competitive on college applications.

Their idea of boiling an educational course down to text messages did raise questions.

“My first impression was some skepticism,” says Fritz Fleischmann, one of Ioffe’s advisers at Babson. But because the content is introductory and includes “a kind of consciousness raising about entrepreneurship and self-realization, the short format may actually work quite well,” he says.

A two-week pilot in the US showed the text-message format may help young people pivot – even if just briefly – toward a more edifying use of their mobile phones.

“We want ‘good’ technology – technology that doesn’t force you to stay up all night, as people my age do with Youtube and Facebook,” Wilson says. The text messages will, however, link to optional longer readings and exercises.

In a survey, 81 percent of the 100 pilot participants said they would take a text message course again.

Just getting started

Whether or not the idea takes off as they hope, Ioffe, Wilson, and Al-Adlani appear to be just getting started.

Wilson, a first-year student at UCLA, is studying philosophy.“I want to be able to claim that I’m doing good for fellow men and women everywhere, and without really studying what good is in a systematic manner, I don’t really think I can make that claim for myself,” he says.

Al-Adlani has one brother studying in the US, while his parents and his six other siblings are struggling to hold their lives together in Sanaa, much of which is now crumbling. He is helping get the text-message course to people there, and plans to major in public administration. “I want to hold a high position … and try to help the underprivileged people in my country,” he says.

And Ioffe, the son of immigrants, already has a reputation as a mover and shaker at Babson, a campus teeming with entrepreneurs. “He saw a need … and he did something about it. That’s just the way he is. These needs are not theoretical to him,” says Professor Fleischmann.

Some would call Ioffe’s idealism unrealistic, but Fleischmann doesn’t. “He has a vision of young people around the world taking charge of their lives, in often unfavorable circumstances," he says, “and that is a worthy goal.”