Education via Toll Free Numbers, SMS and Missed Calls | Part 2: Non-Internet based technologies for School Continuity

Posted By Varun Bhagath On Tue, Apr 28, 2020

Non-internet based mobile technologies

In our last blog, Broadcast the New EdTech, we began delving into non-internet based technologies such as radio and television that schools can use to ensure education continuity for their students. We took cognizance of the need for more accessible technologies so as to reduce the disparities between those with economic means to access online education through internet enabled smartphones or laptops and those who were disadvantaged without the access to such gadgets and internet connectivity.

In today’s blog, which is the concluding part of the non-internet based technologies, we will continue to explore some communication related technologies that can be harnessed by schools to reach out to students whose parents have access to a basic mobile phone which can make/ receive calls and SMS.

Toll Free Numbers and Interactive Voice Response (IVR)

Through broadcast mediums such as radio and television, students can listen / see the programmes but have no means of a two way communication mechanism like asking questions for doubt clearing. We can take the example of India’s Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) which set up a network of educational network FM channels called Gyan Vani in addition to an internet audio counselling service called Gyandhara.

Toll Free Numbers for Schools

While your school may not have the requisite infrastructure or resources to set up a community service radio station, or buy air time to host class sessions, you can look at setting up Toll Free numbers, much like how IGNOU has done for students to call into for getting their doubts cleared.

Though used predominantly as a marketing tool, COVID19 induced lockdowns around the world presents an opportunity for them being used by education institutes as well.

These toll free numbers act as an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) – an automated telephony system that interacts with callers, gathers information and routes calls to the appropriate recipients.

Recommended Toll Free Service Providers in our target geos:

Toll Free Number Sevices

In India: Exotel, Knowlarity (applicable to multiple geos) and Tata Tele Business Services

In Pakistan: PTCL and  iTel Services

In Nigeria: Alliance Nigeria

How it works:

  • A student dials a toll free number to clear a doubt regarding a problem of mensuration in Mathematics for Class 7, Section A.
  • The IVR will ask her to dial a number on her mobile/ phone keypad that corresponds to her class and section
  • This will be followed by dialling a number corresponding to the subject
  • The call gets routed to the Mathematics teacher for Class 7, Section A.

This process can also be used to book appointments of teachers. What’s more? A school can set up this facility to also let students record their questions/ doubts for the teachers, which can be sent to the respective teacher who can then record his/ her responses to be sent to the respective students concerned.

A school can use the IVR set-up for both ‘Pull-based’ and ‘Push-based’ calls. While the process stated above explains a ‘Pull-based’ call (students/ parents dialling the toll free number), a ‘Push-based’ call would be a common message (usually a timespan of under 120 seconds) that is sent out to all students concerned received on their parents’ cell phones.

All this can be executed by the school administration with access to an online dashboard. This dashboard is a repository of call recordings and becomes a tool to direct the calls received to the right recipient. Let’s take the example of Exotel to get to understand the set-up and functionality:

Watch: How Incoming Calls work with Toll Free numbers 

Watch: How to Set-up an IVR flow 

Watch: How to make an out-bound call

The Costing:

While the costing for setting up Toll Free numbers is upwards of USD 15 per month / USD 125 for 6 months depending upon the features chosen, the call duration, SMS integration etc., schools can still justify this cost to cater to students without access to virtual classes as they’d be saving on other operational costs such as electricity, transport etc. during the lockdowns.


Short Message Service (SMS)

The preferred mode of communication before WhatsApp, SMS can work both from an instruction delivery as well as information seeking angle.

SMS for Schools

Schools can send out SMS blasts to the registered mobile number of the parents with instructions related to academic and non-academic activities that they can perform with their children. Practically, this is a one-way communication from the school to students, unless it is complemented with a Toll-Free number for completing the 2-way communication loop.

Watch: How to engage students via SMS

Some examples

Our portfolio company based in the state of Odisha in India – ThinkZone is conducting Home-based Learning Programs where daily instructions on Do-It-Yourself (DIY) activities are SMS’d to parents of students aged 3-10 in the rural hinterlands of the state. ThinkZone also has a call-in service where parents dial a number to get to speak to a teacher who’d suggest such activities for their child.

Watch: How ThinkZone is using IVR/ SMS for its Home based Learning Program

Another way SMS proves helpful is through the prospect of offering offline search. 

SMS Gyan Innoz Airtel

In 2011-14, when internet penetration was still low in India, there was a service by Innoz Technologies called SMS Gyan using which people could SMS a query to a given number and get a response. This was acquired by telecom service provider Airtel which later started offering it to its subscribers. Users had to SMS their questions to 55444 and would get responses via SMS for a cost.

Despite being a backdated technology, it is a potent tool that can be replicated in under-resourced markets.

Recommended SMS Service Providers in our target geos:

In India: Fast2SMS, Text Local

In Pakistan: SMS Cluster, SendPK

In Nigeria: Bulk SMS Nigeria, SMS Mobile 24


Missed Call 

Missed Call Schools

Call it ‘outlandish’, but we reckon this tool from a marketers arsenal can be applicable to the education space, wherein students can give a missed call to a number and get an information capsule of their school curriculum as an audio clip via a call back.

Though it’s never been tried before in education, it has been successfully applied in the infotainment space in media dark areas of rural India by FMCG major Hindustan Unilever’s mobile radio station – Kan Khajura Tesan (KKT).

All a person had to do is give a ‘missed call’ to the KKT number. The person gets a call back and entertainment content comprising Bollywood music,  jokes, poetry, educative content (for example, learning new English words) and timely information (content to spread awareness regarding voting around election time, for instance) gets played.

Recommended Missed Call Service Providers in our target geos

Most of the service providers listed above (for India) provide Missed Call services. In Nigeria, we haven’t identified any service provider, but Knowlarity can be explored to offer the service. In  Pakistan, there’s

This is a big opportunity for schools to work with education content providers and telecom service providers to help in school continuity using this medium.

Our Take

What Works with Non-Internet Mobile Technologies What Doesn’t
Complements broadcast based education, by serving as a medium for doubt clearing. The services come at a cost, which the schools need to judge if viable or not.
Cost effective for students With calls being directed to teachers, it will make it very tedious and time consuming for them to handle each student rather than many students in one go; unless prior appointments can be taken at times that are mutually convenient.


Can it be a worthy substitute to internet based EdTech?

  • The adoption of non-internet mobile technologies will depend on the cost rationalization by the service providers for Toll Free numbers, IVR, Missed Calls and SMS services. What can incentivize them is to make it a part of their CSR mandate if they are listed entities.
  • In some countries, Toll Free numbers are substituted by Virtual numbers. Callers are charged if they dial from a mobile phone instead of a landline.
  • Taking a hint from ThinkZone, byte sized activities conveyed in less than 160 characters per subject can be sent to students every day such as ‘Read Page 20-25 of the <subject> text book today’ as an SMS blast. Similarly, for calls to students – each information capsule needs to be not longer than 1-2 minutes. The challenge is to make the byte-sized content exhaustive and engaging at the same time.


What do you think about these recommended technologies for schools catering to under-resourced communities to adopt in the midst of the COVID19 lockdowns? Do share your thoughts on the practicality (or the lack of it) of these suggested technologies in the comments section below.

About Varun Bhagath

Varun is a Media and Communications Specialist at Gray Matters Capital and its soon to be launched Global Education Finance initiative.

With over 7 years of experience in the communications domain working for integrated marketing communications major Gutenberg Communications in Mumbai, Varun sees himself as a 'Storyseller' to make 'Storytelling' more effective and result oriented!

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