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We need a Signal School — to be prepared for future crises

In May 2020, two Finnish teachers started to taught 23 Finnish children living in the Al-Hawl refugee camp.

From their homes in Finland, every schooldays at 9 AM teachers sent text, image and audio messages to their students’ mobile phones — school assignments of the day. In the camp children were having a daily schedule to study Finnish, maths, environmental studies, history and later English as it was requested by the students themselves.

Students were different ages and divided into four groups; (1) three to five year old, (2) six to eight, (3) nine to 12 and (3) secondary and upper secondary age. For each group the assignments were based on the Finnish national core curricula for early childhood education and basic education.

During the day children completed the assignments and sent them back to their teachers who then provided feedback in new messages. In a typical day teachers sent hundreds of messages: images, short texts with emojis and voice messages with Finnish children’s poems and stories, such as the Eduard Uspenski’s book Uncle Fedya, His Dog, and His Cat, chapter by chapter — read by the teachers in Finnish.

With private messages teachers were able to tailor their assignments based on each student’s interests. If someone was interested in big animals or maps they got assignments related to them. With private messages teachers got to know the children, listen to them, to understand their needs. This way they were also showing for the children that they really care about them.

Originally the project was supposed to last only couple of months, but as there are still some Finnish children in the refugee camp the distance teaching this way has continued now over a year and half. Those children who already made it to Finland are now attending local schools. It is obvious that, the distance school prepared these children for the new experience, new language and culture. They hopefully understood that they are welcome and there are people who care.

In this beautiful story there is only one major problem.

The messaging app used in the project was WhatsApp. The choice of using the app was understandable, as it was already used by the parents of the children to stay in touch with their friends, family and Finnish authorities. It was right there. Ready to taken in use.

To put forward this kind of distance school, to make it global initiative with WhatsApp, however, would be deeply unethical. Why?

The app is own by Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) with a long history of collecting data for commercial purposes and political manipulation, selling private data, literally supporting distribution of fake news and ignoring human right violations caused by their platform. WhatsApp does all this, too.

I assume you all agree that all this is exactly what school should not be. Actually, education and schools should fight against all these matters.

What could be done then?

How could we enable this type of distance school, taking advantage of so called smart phones that are already in the hands of billions?

We need a Signal School. In practice, we should organise distance school the way the Finnish teachers organised they school of 23 children in a refugee camp. Except that this time using Signal and having thousands of schools, teachers and children — when ever needed.

If you do not know Signal, let me summarise the main points why it should be the platform for the global mobile distance schools.

Firstly, Signal is free and open source software. This is important. I will come back to this later.

Secondly, in Signal there is privacy by design. The software developer is not collecting any private data from its users. For the messages there is end-to-end encryption and the servers are collecting only data that is necessary for the service to run. No private data. If you do not believe, you can always check the source code — it is widely peer-reviewed.

Thirdly, there are apps for Android and iPhone and desktop programs for Windows, macOS and Linux. All these are open source, too. This means that they are also open for building extensions, such as curricula and assignment banks to help the teachers work.

Fourthly, Signal is owned by the nonprofit Signal Foundation, run by donations and grants. This means that we all may donate to Signal, to fund its future development. And if you are a software developer you may donate your code.

Schools are primary infrastructure for and of a common good, not a business as a such. This is the case with Signal, too.

So, how does Signal compare to WhatsApp when it comes to features?

All the features used in the Finnish distance school are available in the Signal. The only difference is the lack of status (also called stories).

Who should take an action? I really don’t know but I can wish.

World Bank / UN / UNESCO / UNICEF. Obviously. They all have raised the issue of learning losses from COVID-19. With the climate crises we may assume that in a near future we will see more and more school closures here and there. This means that we should be prepared for future crises and not only think “a path to recovery“.

World Economic Forum. WEF have long promoted to connect every school to the internet. Fair enough, children with a mobile phone, Wi-Fi and Signal may then use the schools’ internet connections to join the Signal School. The connectivity is necessary an issue. Therefore the operators should also provide no cost data for children to access the Signal School. The net neutrality, 5G mobile networks and fair and competitive market are also important. I assume WEF promotes all these.

Wikimedia Foundation and Signal Foundation. Compared to the earlier, they are really small players. They, however, have at least two advantages: technological knowhow and mission to make the world a bit better place. The curricula and assignment bank could be build on Wikiversity. To the Signal desktop, primary used by the teachers, there could be an extension using the resources found from the Wikiversity.

Epilogue

After sleeping over this, I felt this blog post needs a list of action points. Some concrete steps that could make us better prepared for the next crises that will close schools again and force us to rely on distance teaching.

  1. Educational crises fund. A global fund that is reserved to respond to the future educational crises when schools are closed.
  2. Signal School infrastructure. There is a need to build some basic infrastructure to make the Signal work globally and precisely for this purpose. The mobile and Internet operators should make their network open for no cost for all Signal School data traffic. The most responsible operators would naturally keep it this way also outside the time of crises, as the Signal School could be used also to provide basic education for children who are not in school for whatever reason, living in a refugee camps etc.
  3. Signal School version. We should develop some software extensions making the use of Signal software easy for teachers and children in the situation of crises and school closures. There could be some ready made educational assignments and pedagogical hints for teachers — simple things like if you haven’t heard from your student in three days give them an audio call and ask how are they doing.
  4. Signal School brand. People working in the educational sector should be aware of this. There should be a global marketing and communication campaign.
  5. Teacher training. Although the basic features and basic use of Signal is more or less familiar for more or less everyone on this planet, there is a need for teacher training. Teachers are trained to teach in a classroom, not with messages. There are many pedagogical and didactics matters that knowing them their work will be easier and gain better learning results.

I leave it now here. There are better experts and people with more power than me, who could can make this real. “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.”

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