Two years ago, I found myself banging my head against a wall trying to figure out how to deliver digital learning content to students in Yemen.

The problem? Most students in Yemen, an impoverished country which has been engulfed in war for over four years, don’t have reliable access to the internet. They also face an educational system in complete disrepair—and many are desperate to learn. The lack of technology and internet access are enormous barriers to residents’ ability to access MOOCs and other eLearning, even when content is free and available in Arabic. It’s not only Yemen; technology barriers to global eLearning are common.

A crowded classroom with young men sitting in every available spaceFigure 1: Students in Yemen

After a series of conversations with Mohammed Al-Adlani, a student leader in Yemen whom I befriended through my work with, an entrepreneurship education organization I had founded, I began to realize that text messages could be the solution. Over two-thirds of the country had access to cell phones, and delivering course content over text message could be a viable solution.

Compelled by the power and reach of text messages, a close friend and I spent the next few months brainstorming what text message learning could look like. After lots of trial and error (and tons of guidance from professors at Babson College and USC), we ended up building the first text message course in March 2018, which taught Community-Oriented Entrepreneurship over 30 days—entirely using text messaging. The course was designed to be free, accessible, and easy to translate into different languages, with teens as a target audience.

Text-filled smartphone screens show content on budgeting from a text message eLearning courseFigure 2: Screens from the Community-Oriented Entrepreneurship course

To test the concept, we piloted the course in May 2018 with around 100 students from UCLA, Babson, Lincoln High School in Portland, and a handful of other locations globally.

The feedback from students—gauged by a follow-up online survey, in-course response tracking, and one-on-one interviews—was instant and passionate. Completion rates were very high—about 92 percent—and over 90 percent of students loved the experience of learning with text messages.

Students reported that they felt more productive, more engaged with the educational content, and more knowledgeable overall, with one student even reporting a sense of withdrawal after the course ended.

Effective, engaging, and flexible

Inspired by the positive feedback for the first text message course, and after seeing research confirming the efficacy of text message learning, we realized that text message courses could be as effective as they were accessible. We considered the possibilities for teaching topics as diverse as harassment prevention and architectural history. Here’s why:

  • Texts are (by nature) short, meaning writers are forced to use only the most important and relevant content
  • Texts meet us in our most native, intimate, and frictionless environment—our messaging apps, where we regularly communicate with our close friends and loved ones
  • Most text message courses are delivered every morning over the course of a month, embedding learning into daily routines and nudging learning and action on a regular basis

Arist pilots a new eLearning model

We’ve taken what we learned and, over the past year, our team has been building Arist. This text message learning platform lets companies, institutions, and individuals seamlessly create, launch, and assess text message courses for all types of learning and training use cases.

Arist text-messaging courses are compatible with SMS, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. This flexibility and accessibility makes them ideal for students who have an enormous desire to learn but face unstable internet or lack access to technology. For example, over half of the planet still lacks access to the internet speeds necessary for watching a MOOC.

Furthermore, Arist is now being used or piloted to improve learning and training outcomes at a number of leading universities, including Babson College, and over a dozen Fortune 500 companies, and we’re excited to make text message learning a reality for hundreds of course creators, training directors, and professors over the coming year.

We are also excited to be launching versions of Arist’s flagship Financial Literacy and Entrepreneurship courses in Arabic over the next few months, finally making text message learning a reality in Yemen.

Making learning accessible—globally

The best part? For each text message course taken on Arist, we donate one to students in need through our network of nonprofit partners. Our aim is to ensure that underserved regions like Yemen gain access to high-quality educational resources.

One example is Dream in Mexico, an initiative led by Harvard professor Maria Luisa Parra. This fall, Dream in Mexico will launch a series of text-message courses for undocumented immigrants who have been deported and no longer have access to educational resources.

At Arist, which supports a 501(c)3 organization and a foundation, we believe that text message learning will have an enormous effect on eLearning over the next decade. Explore our vision, try out a text-message course, and learn more about using the Arist platform.

Here’s to learning!