In less than a decade, mobile technology has spread to the furthest corners of the planet. Of the estimated 7 billion people on Earth, 6 billion now have access to a working mobile phone. Africa, which had a mobile penetration rate of just 5% in the 1990s, is now the second largest and fastest growing mobile phone market in the world, with a penetration rate of over 60% and climbing.
The phones themselves are not advanced by developed nations’ standards. Most people in developing countries have what are called “feature phones,” which are less sophisticated and powerful than smartphones and have fewer features. But they do have numeric keypads, and can access the internet on a tiny screen–which, by the way, is not a tiny screen to them but a window of vast opportunity.
Other types of mobile technology have spread to these corners too. In areas where schools can’t afford to receive traditional educational materials, mobile devices have moved in. One library in Ghana that has no books on its shelves, but now has an e-reader, giving the students of its village access to hundreds of books that could never be physically sent to the library.
Still, UNESCO reports that 250 million students worldwide cannot read, write, or count, even after four years of school. Close to 775 million adults– 64% of whom are women–still lack reading and writing skills, with the lowest rates in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia.
How schools respond to the growth of mobile devices will affect generations of students and their readiness for college and the workforce. It will also impact how well teachers, administrators, and staff do their jobs. We must all do our best to ensure that accessibility and quality remain top priorities as technology develops.
Who’s Making A Difference and Where
1. Eneza Education, Kenya
In Kiswahili, “eneza” means “to reach” or “to spread.” Eneza (originally called mPrep) is a mobile assistant for teachers that gives schools and parents access to solutions such as quizzing platforms, performance dashboards, and tips for helping their students. Through SMS or the Web, students can receive educational content, browse through Wikipedia, and ask teachers questions. The platform can improve student engagement and increase their scores. Nokia, SafariCom, and GSMA were involved as partners.
2. Ustad Mobile, Afghanistan
Ustad Mobile (Mobile Teacher) is a mobile course creation tool developed in Afghanistan. The open source toolkit has already been used by policewomen in Afghanistan to develop literacy courses in local languages. Smartphones or feature phones can be used to access the content, developed by instructors on computers. The software is a free download, and can be used to design quizzes, multiple choice questions, math drills, and so on. Instructors can use the cloud reporting tool for real time access to detailed reports on effort and performance. The tool has been created by Paiwastoon, an Afghan-international ICT firm headed by UK tech entrepreneur Mike Dawson.
3. One2Act Mobile Feedback, Norway
Mobiles can be used to get realtime feedback from learners’ devices using One2Act, allowing teachers to provide rapid and customised feedback to learners. Teachers get an instant dashboard of the students’ understanding of the topic covered, using this to increase classroom interaction, group collaboration, and peer learning as a springboard for reflection and discussion. Offerings include Peer Learning Assessment System (PELE), a mobile-based voting system.
4. TBR Mobilisation & Emerging Technology, Tennessee
This research and resource project from Tennessee showcases what is possible in the ‘m-campus’ with social networking and mobile devices enabling gaming, simulations, and virtual worlds. These can be used to increase recruiting, retention, and graduation rates; to improve teaching, learning, and workforce development; and for meeting the needs of 21st century workforces. The site features examples of student digital art, augmented reality apps, and infographics of student use of mobiles on campuses.
5. OER4Schools Programme, Commonwealth
OER4Schools is a Commonwealth professional development programme for low-resourced primary schools. Interactive teaching of mathematics and science is supported with digital technology. The programme is freely available as an Open Educational Resource (OER) and builds on an established teacher-led process for sharing and reflection. Uses include lesson pacing and effective questioning. Interactive teaching is possible with and without ICT.
6. UNESCO, Nigeria
In Nigeria, UNESCO is piloting a program with English teachers. Program leaders send messages daily with examples of how to teach English language to teachers throughout the country. The messages are formatted specifically for viewing on inexpensive devices common in Nigeria and are modular lessons. UNESCO has received feedback from participating teachers that the support is changing their teaching style and helping them to improve. It also allows teachers to share their learning with one another, previously very difficult to do between remote rural villages. An agreement with the mobile provider keeps costs for users low.
7. Open Education Resources University, Worldwide
A recent initiative that will reduce the cost of obtaining a formal education is the Open Education Resources University (OERu), which is a consortium of accredited universities around the world that is planning to offer formal courses at a significantly reduced cost, making education affordable to millions of students.
The OERu system will check students’ prior knowledge and skills to see if they already have the expertise in the course they are interested in completing. If students pass the prior learning assessment, they will not have to complete the course and they can move on to the next course. The OERu will play an important role in lifelong learning around the world since learners of any age can complete courses at an affordable cost, and will have a major global impact if the courses are delivered on mobile devices.
Other initiatives, organizations, and events include the EduLoc location-based project tool, Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE), ICT for Rural Education Development, Open Education Europa, Mobiles for Education Alliance, and the World Conference on Mobile and Contextual Learning.
What You Can Do
Improving access to mobile learning ultimately begins with educators themselves. Here’s how you can help make a difference in this important movement:
1. Do more with less.
Creative doesn’t always mean complicated. In developing countries, mobile connectivity has leap-frogged fixed line connectivity. Students and teachers who weren’t connected at all before now have access to the same volume of online materials that those of us in developed countries do.
“By no means is that experience (on low-end devices) what you would get on an iPhone,” says Nickhil Jakatdar, who founded the successful mobile video company Vuclip five years ago. “But it’s way better than what one can imagine when one thinks, ‘Oh, it’s a small screen on a lower level network.’”
When these students see a small screen, he says, they don’t just see a small screen; they see a great opportunity. And so should we. The shiny new tech phenomenon shouldn’t keep us from doing more with less.
2. Encourage the use of apps that work on smartphones and basic phones alike.
Vuclip already has about 45 million unique monthly users who log onto the company’s platform to watch mobile videos that automatically adjust their resolution and other features based on the level of each user’s network and device, especially for those with low-end devices. We need to focus more on using and creating quality apps that are compatible with multiple networks and devices.
3. Advocate for clear policies.
The uncertain policy moment plaguing most of the world does not exclude Australia and the U.S. Districts are bringing tablets into the classroom or allowing student to bring their own devices, but haven’t always set clear policies. Some schools, recognizing the ubiquity of mobile devices, are taking their acceptable use policies and shifting them to become “responsible use” policies, trying to teach students how to use their technology respectfully.
Becoming active in your school’s mobile technology policy sends a clear message to leadership that you’ve considered mobile learning, want to engage with it, and have ideas surrounding the conditions under which it can happen.
4. Help parents understand the benefits of mobile learning.
Contrary to popular (parental) belief, mobile technology neither distracts learners nor disturbs learning environments –especially if it isn’t made taboo by authority figures.
5. Create Open Educational Resources with a mobile, international audience in mind.
Traditional course material should not be copied and placed on the Internet as an OER. Instead, it should be designed properly to facilitate flexible delivery. It should take into account cultural differences, different values, and different contexts of the learner. This means staying informed on a political and cultural level, or at least collaborating with someone who is.
In addition, make your OER easy to locate. A 2011 study found that two major obstacles for teachers’ use of OERs are locating and finding the most appropriate resources. Tag your OERs properly so that anyone from anywhere can locate them.
6. Use mobile tech to reinforce newly learned material.
The biggest problem for new literates is forgetting what they’ve learned unless that knowledge is reinforced. In one project focused on literacy for young women in Pakistan, students would travel to a central location for lessons in Urdu, then return to their remote villages for several weeks. The only way to reach them quickly was through text messages, so teachers texted reminders to the girls about reading and discussion assignments. This practice has played a very important role in the teaching and learning environment since.
7. Convince your colleagues it doesn’t have to be expensive.
While data in developing countries has traditionally been more expensive for users to purchase than in developed nations, its price appears to be falling more rapidly during the past 12 months. Selling data in a packet model format similar to how it’s sold to smartphone users in the United States and other developed nations is gaining steam. This in turn may encourage users to have fewer concerns about the amount of data they consume, and thus seek more video content.
Vuclip follows the two-tiered model that has become a standard for many startups: offering free services to most users while charging users who wish to purchase premium content and features, the rationale being that delivering educational content to developing countries will drive up the company’s user numbers.
8. Make content easily digestible.
The traditional course delivery structure, where vast quantities of information are transferred from teacher to student, doesn’t fly in the mobile world. Information is now recorded in an electronic format, allowing learners to access it anytime, anywhere rather.
But this means the structure and length of courses must be re-examined. For example, courses could be designed as modules, about four to eight hours long. Each module could consist of several learning objects that are independent but linked together. After students complete the learning objects in a module, and have their learning properly assessed, they will have successfully completed it and can be given credit for that module.
Along the same lines, Jakatdar says educational video publishers will need to shorten more of their clips into the two-to-three-minute range.
“That seems to be the sweet spot of what a consumer can consume at any one stretch,” Jakatdar says. “The two-to-three-minute clip I expect will remain popular for quite some time.”
9. Design content and choose platforms that can be used in the workplace.
According to a survey by Vuclip, 41% of us consider career development their number one learning goal. Coupled with the fact that people are now using mobile devices throughout their lives, it only makes sense that we should design mobile learning platforms and course content to be easily transferrable from school environments to professional settings. If students know they will need to use these tools to build their careers in the future, they will be more receptive to them now.
As an added bonus, it will be easier for them to continue their learning journey post-graduation.
10. Provide input to software and hardware companies.
Frequently, mobile applications are developed for business and entertainment rather than for education, forcing teachers to adapt the education system to fit the technology. This is why we need to provide input to both hardware and software companies to develop appropriate, multi-purpose mobile technologies that meet the needs of various sectors.
11. Spend more time explaining content than creating it.
A lesson on mathematics can be developed and validated by experts at one educational organization and placed on the Internet for everyone to access rather than having millions of teachers around the world developing the same lesson. When multiple teachers develop the same lesson on a topic, it is a misuse of human resources and a waste of teachers’ time. We should spend time tutoring students rather than duplicating the development of learning materials.
12. Support your own professional development.
To really achieve our mobile access goals, teachers need to stay informed. But this doesn’t have to be your district’s responsibility. You can become an active tech user yourself, following education blogs, or you can simply spend a few hours each month, reading new work from various research journals. However you choose to stay tech savvy is up to you, but you do have to be committed.
13. Ensure quality.
Because we now have the capability to massively increase the audience of our lessons, we need to make sure the lessons themselves are as effective as possible. What constitutes quality in mobile learning still has yet to be clearly defined and agreed upon on a global level, but we know that it can differ greatly from what constitutes quality in traditional settings. Be part of discussions on the subject, contribute your own thoughts on the matter, and do your best to achieve what you believe is quality in the 21st century. Students from all over the world will thank you.
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Saga has built her writing and editing career at Tin House Books, Night Owls Press, and Dancing Moon Press. Along the way, writing education and education reform have become two of her primary interests. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, OR.