During our most recent CommCare training in Bihar, I asked all of the ASHAs to bring the pair of headphones that came free with their Nokia phones. The amount of free-flowing noise during our previous session had caused the instruction to suffer some and made it difficult the holdthe ASHAs attention. During the final day of training, I returned the 20 question knowledge assessment quiz that each ASHA had completed on Day 1 and asked them to correct their mistakes. With their headphones plugged in, the ASHAs read each question again and went about using CommCare to find the correct answers explained through audio messages. Silence. It was an open book exam and each ASHA had to learn how to navigate through her mobile phone and search for specific pieces of information on reproductive health and family planning topics. If the ASHAs got stuck they could consult with each other or raise a hand to get help from the trainer. Anyone with experience conducting such training sessions in interior villages of developing India might have been surprised by the calm, orderly nature of that morning and thought it akin to a high-tech classroom or language lab.

This specific CommCare application has two separate components, one to be used as a counseling aid for registering clients and guiding theclient/ASHA interaction, and a second to be used as a reference guide for the ASHA. Both the counseling aid and reference guide are divided into a series of lessons by topic, including contraceptive methods, STIs, and hygiene. The counseling aid, with its client registration piece and multiple choice questions inherently takes more time to get comfortable with, since it involves use of more buttons and text entry. However, the reference tool couldn’t be simpler. Upon selecting a lesson, the ASHA sees a series of informative prompts with a single message for each. To move through the prompts she need only press one button, and to repeat the message, another. With headphones in, each ASHA could move through each prompt at her own pace, allowing her to fully digest the information presented without distraction.

After this experiment, I realized that this method certainly should have been performed on Day 1, immediately following the introduction and initial knowledge assessment test. This would have eased the novice, mobile phone users into comfortably navigating through CommCare before being confronted with answer selection and text entry. It also allows for more one-on-one instruction and helps a trainer quickly identify which trainees needs more help in a discrete fashion, rather than in front of the whole group. I finally realized why my college French teacher seemed so happy every Thursday morning as she marched us through campus to the language lab, sat us down in our cubicles, dropped headphones on our ears, and turned Serge Gainsbourg on high…