Prof. John Traxler: Potential of Learning with Mobiles in Africa

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership January 20, 2014

Using mobile devices to deliver learning in Africa is obvious and ought to be successful. The reasons are easy to identify and include near-universal ownership and access to simple mobile phones, and comprehensive, energetic and competitive mobile networks. Furthermore, other technology options that might deliver learning are practically non-existent owing to poor infrastructure including unstable mains electricity and poor broadband connectivity, lack of suitable clean secure buildings, lack of technical capacity, lack of software licenses and lack of human capacity. There is an awareness amongst mobile network operators (MNOs) that Africa could host their next billion subscribers, that these subscribers might represent a market for educational content and connectivity and that the availability of higher specification technology, in the form of both handsets and network capacity, continues to increase. The networks also provide an attractive environment for a wealth of lively value-added services.

So perhaps it is not surprising that recently there has been a discernible increase and a discernible shift in interest in using mobiles to support and deliver learning in Africa amongst the wider world of agencies, corporates and ministries, and this introduces a new dimension. In October 2010, for example, the Development Fund of the GSMA, are the trade association for the mobile network operators (MNOs) globally, published its mLearning: A Platform for Educational Opportunities at the Base of the Pyramid (GSMA 2010) intended to give the MNOs a sense of the business case. In August 2011, USAID convened the firstm4Ed4Dev symposium in Washington DC as a prelude to launching the mEducation Alliance in early 2012. In November 2011, the WISE debate in Qatar focused on mobiles, education and the hard-to-reach.  In December 2011, UNESCO in Paris convened its First Mobile Learning Week, consisting of both closed of experts and open sessions for the wider community. These sessions focussed, regionally and globally, on policy issues and teacher development, the latter seen as a crucial place to break into the educational cycle and promoteeducation for all. In March of 2012 there was a further International Symposium in Washington organised by UNESCO and drawing together major practitioners and stakeholders, and graced by the presence of Sir Bob Geldof.  The next mEducation Alliance Symposium, taking place in September 2012, entitled Partnering For Scale And Impact, illustrates the growing emphasis and direction of corporate interest and agency priorities. 

There have also been significant reports to the World Bank, eTransform Africa Final Report, and to the World Economic Forum, Accelerating the Adoption of mLearning: A Call for Collective and Collaborative Action, and another one from GSMA, their Transforming learning through mEducation, produced by McKinsey & Company in Mumbai. 

This is enormously encouraging for those of us that have argued this case for the past ten years but it is worth pausing to explore what we can learn from these ten years of effort and what we can hope for in the in the future.

Turning on Mobile Learning – in Africa and the Middle East, the UNESCO report published in 2012 and subtitled illustrative initiatives and policy implications, is a useful account of progress and specifically highlights a handful of successful projects. The report rightly points out that most of the projects and pilots in Africa have taken place in South Africa. A handful of undocumented projects may have taken place in francophone Africa and a handful in the Arab north. Most projects are fixed term and mainly small scale, mostly urban and text-based, and quite possibly, unless it is a requirement of their funding, they pass without visibility or recognition. Outside South Africa, some work has happened in East Africa, for example my project in Kenya using SMS to support national in-service primary teacher training and EMIS, and Niall Winters’ various research projects training different kinds of health professionals. A few projects have worked with farmers and with young entrepreneurs; other small projects are increasingly putting e-book readers into schools. Several projects have exploited messaging in order to support and connect dispersed students, distant from campus centres.

The mobile learning community now have an increasing number of opportunities, through reports, conferences and presentations, including those mentioned earlier and many, many others, to put their expertise and experience in front of policy makers, donors, corporations and ministries. This is not however necessarily benign or straightforward. Their various audiences will hear about success but probably not about failure, will hear about exciting innovation but not about sustained impact and will see the great-and the-good of mobile learning, the usual suspects of mobile learning not a cross-section of the community. So whilst we can look at a handful of projects and achievements in Africa, we must also ask about the others, the rest, the remainder.

One crucial observation is that large-scale progress is going to depend on exploring strategies that use learners’ own devices (BYOD, bring-your-own-device, in the US terminology) – any other option is unaffordable  – but this immediately falls foul of the widespread prohibition of mobiles inside schools. South Africa is at the forefront of this confrontation, with some schools negotiating new, consensual and sensible etiquette for using mobiles amongst both teachers and pupils whilst others continue to enforce confiscation.

Forthcoming developments include a mobile learning curriculum framework project, designed to provide teacher training institutions with a template enabling them to work through the process of embedding mobile learning in their portfolios, supported by the South African Department of Basic Education, and a second and much enlarged iteration of mobiMOOC, the free global MOOC, massive open online course devoted to mobile learning. We hope these two linked initiatives will take us forward from the first decade of pilots and trials by enlarging the community and providing some fixed foundations. At the same time, attention is turning to sustainability. This will be some combination of developing business models that involve MNOs, publishers, handset manufacturers and learners, and of government policy based on developing an evidence base that will convince ministries, colleges and schools that mobiles are the optimal and obvious choice in building national educational capacity.

There are however two further challenges on the horizon. The first is the drive to scale up, to take a mobile programme or pilot perceived to be a success and make it bigger. This is an understandable priority in terms of economies of scale, in terms of the globalisation of many forms of education, particularly higher education, technical training and educational content, and in terms of the capacity of the infrastructure and technology to scale up effortlessly. It does potentially overlook the place of the community, of informal learning, mother tongues and indigenous knowledge, and potentially overlook the fact that culture and pedagogy emphatically do not scale up, and it misses the opportunity to move from the mass production of education to its mass customisation, that exploits the technologies of Google and Amazon to give individuals and communities in Africa mobile learning adapted to their preferences.

The second challenge is the un-noticed and un-resolved tension between the conception of mobiles as the instruments of reform and improvement, as technologies for ministries, schools and colleges to enhance the management, content and delivery of their curriculum, and the conception of mobiles as the instruments of dramatic social, economic and political change, of some educational Arab Spring in Africa that sweeps away the ministries, institutions and officials of education rather than reforming and improving them.