Our three trainings for the village health workers (VHWs), which have spanned the course of the summer, are always active. Every day that the VHWs come into training they begin with a seated discussion or lecture but soon after the lecture ends they know they will have to practice everything they’ve learned on each other. The enthusiasm of the VHWs, influx of new information, and atmosphere of the hospital together guarantee that everything we do begins and ends with chatter and laughter. But the task of teaching the VHWs to use forms on FrontlineSMS started off less hectic than previous trainings, as it required the VHWs to stay seated and interact with their phones rather than with one another.

We wanted the VHWs to fully comprehend the concept of FrontlineSMS and PatientView. After they submitted dummy data from their phones, they watched the data come onto PatientView. That lesson was surprisingly simple. They all understood exactly how their information was formatted when it reached PatientView and how the doctors would check the data. We soon realized the concepts of PatientView and FrontlineSMS would not be the problem – it was simply learning to master the phones.

“Master” is the key word. Every VHW has a cell phone and is familiar with its basic functions but their abilities to use functions besides “call” varied.  We needed to assist everyone so that they would be comfortable enough on the phones to fill out forms quickly and efficiently. What we thought would be our least exciting training shifted entirely and the scene moved from a calm and seated session to an active text messaging competition.

We pulled from our memories of middle and high school when our teachers made us work in groups and race each other in everything. In high school, we were usually encouraged by extra credit or candy but Zahra and I didn’t come prepared with candy or other prizes. We already knew that this wouldn’t be a problem because the VHWs have showed that learning is prize enough. So we placed them in pairs, gave each pair messages to write out, and congratulated those who completed the messages the fastest. The VHWs who had not mastered texting were given extra practice throughout the day and tasked with writing messages during their free time in the evening.  By the next day, they came in ready and able to maneuver the phone’s keypad as well as the VHWs who sped past them the day before.

Mobile phones are supposed to be the force in the project that makes the VHWs job easier. In some ways, it is the only part of the project that can be controlled. They’ve been learning the ins and outs of antenatal care but naturally, since they are working with people’s health, the antenatal care itself should be the most challenging part of the project. It shouldn’t be the phone. Whether they are sitting by a computer and watching information come on PatientView or racing each other in a texting challenge, we are doing our best to make sure the VHWs are grasping the concepts of the software tools and becoming as familiar with the phones as possible so they can focus on the more pressing and unpredictable healthcare needs that they’ll be faced with once training is over.

Faye Maison