Pop Quiz: What Does It Really Cost to Run an ICT for Education Program?

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As part of USAID’s Education Strategy and its goal of improved reading skills for 100 million children in primary grades, USAID mission staff wanted to know what it might cost to take an evidence-based early grade reading intervention to scale; and both USAID missions and host country government staff want to know what it might cost to sustain an early grade reading intervention once taken to scale.
As a result, RTI International developed Early Grade Reading Costing Templates and Guidance to help implementing partners account for the cost and cost-effectiveness of USAID’s incremental funding, which is usually layered on top of existing host country government efforts and expenditures. So there is no calculation of the costs for the host country’s education system investment.
What Are Early Grade Reading Cost Categories?
RTI developed three broad cost categories for education programs to help USAID and Ministry staff know the composition of program costs in order to inform future planning and budgetary decisions.
Management and associated technical costs.
Management costs are those associated with running the project through which the technical work is being provided. This category would include much of the cost of the project office, the labor cost of the project’s finance director, home office, etc. Associated technical costs are those tied to the provision of technical labor, such as the transportation, lodging, and per diem costs tethered to the provision of a short term technical advisor and the housing costs associated with the provision of a long term technical advisor.
Development costs
Costs of developing all of the materials, survey instruments, training programs, etc. Once developed, these materials are assumed to become the property of the host county government and would therefore not need to be redeveloped (only recurrent costs associated with printing would need to be included under the “implementation” category below).
Implementation costs
Costs associated with the implementation of the program. This cost category is of primary interest to USAID and host country government staff as it can inform future budgets and designs for scale up. The total implementation cost is also used to generate the cost effectiveness ratio.
What Are Early Grade Reading ICT Interventions?
As part of the All Children Reading Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD), a series of competitions leveraging science and technology to create and apply scalable solutions to improve early grade literacy in developing countries, grantees were free to experiment with ICT4Edu interventions to provide different levels of reading content to students, and the technologies facilitated individual student advancement.
Grantees incorporated a wide range of technologies into their projects, including hardware such as feature phones, smartphones, computers, tablets, and FM radio, or various assistive devices, including DAISY3 players, braille embossers, Jot-a-Dot portable braillers, and others, to support students who have low vision or are blind and their educators.
Grantees also provided literacy content to beneficiaries through diverse software technologies, including mobile applications, websites, and others. Solutions included:

  • The GraphoGame in Zambia let struggling readers to advance through different modules—letter sounds, syllables, and words—at their own pace.
  • The Qysas application in Jordan allowed students to advance through nine levels of e-books as their reading skills improved.
  • The Mundo de Libros project in Mexico considered both a student’s reading level and a book’s difficulty levels to make customized reading recommendations.
  • The E-books 4 Khmer activity in Cambodia provided students with a differentiated learning experience through the SmartBooks application.
Overall, leveraging technology to deliver reading materials appears to have been anecdotally and empirically beneficial to children. Reading materials were electronically delivered to children, schools, or families that had little or no access to print materials, and children who have low vision or are blind were using technology to produce reading materials for their schools.
What Does An ICT Education Intervention Cost?

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School-to-School International analyzed ACR GCD grantees‘ program costs using the Early Grade Reading Costing Templates in the Lessons Learned From ACR GCD Projects Report.
Project staff completed a costing template based on the activities from the project work plan, and each expenditure was classified based on the three categories. Project spending by category varied widely between grantees and the results are surprising in their honesty.
Management Costs Averaged 40%
As we all know, it takes time and money to manage a project, and even small projects (ACR grants were typically $400,000) require significant investments in client management and stakeholder buy-in. However, who is brave enough to submit a realistic budget that has 40% or more in management costs that can be interpreted by donors as dreaded “overhead”? Or a donor realistic enough to accept that 10% or 15% limits on overhead are a financial distraction from what it really takes to execute a successful program?
Development Costs Averaged 25%
I was surprised that development costs were so low. This may be because many of the interventions leveraged Open Educational Resources and therefore did not have to create their own content. However, OCR does not eliminate the need for or cost of teacher guides and translation/localization. Luckily, most interventions leveraged low-cost technologies, such as SMS, mobile phones, and tablets at low volumes.
Implementation Costs Varied From 30-70%
As you might expect when projects vary from 50 audio stories on DAISY3 players and braille books for 115 children in India to a mobile application with 75 stories and audio and interactive literacy games for 500 children in Mali, costs varied widely for all the recurrent activities, including materials printing and distribution, training, M&E, events and presentations, workshops, and human resources activities. As a result, the report authors argue that their findings should not be generalized beyond the pilot phase of these project.
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