Mobile Learning is the Only Viable Way to Preserve the Planet

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership October 29, 2015

Since the 1970s, the Earth has not been able to regenerate for itself the resources that humanity uses. Currently it takes a year and a half for the planet to regenerate what we use in a year and if the whole planet lived the lifestyle of the average Western nation, we would need five planets to provide the necessary resources. The number of people living on the planet and the way we develop into the future is critical to our survival. 

As world’s population grows and we strive for ever increasing advancement, we need to consider some of the scenarios that will play out in order that we can take action today. Change is a slow process, and education lies at the heart of it.

The global population today stands at approximately 7.3 billion, twice what it was in 1970, and still growing. The question is not only how quickly will it continue to grow but also what will the makeup be of this future population? Will it comprise a well-balanced society of educated humans with the requisite skills to operate in the 21st century, or perhaps instead, a heavily over-populated world with limited educational standards and wide inequality creating ever increasing political tension?

Interestingly, there is a strong correlation between education and birth rates; as education standards increase the birth rate falls. About half the world’s population live in countries where the birth rate is above the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman and although the general trend has been a decreasing fertility rate, there are areas where the decline has been much slower, such as sub-Saharan Africa. If you take Kenya as an example, the total fertility rate has decreased from over 8 in the 1970s to the current levels of approximately 4.4. Over the same period, the percentage of uneducated people in the country fell from 32% (1970) to 5% (2015) according to figures from the United Nations.

So the tantalising question is: if we can increase the rate of learning, what might the impact be on the world population? Here we turn to some impressive work done by the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital. They have modelled various education scenarios including: a scenario that assumes we maintain global student enrolment rates at current rates (Constant Enrolment Rates “CER”) and, an alternative optimistic scenario where countries expand their school systems at the fastest possible rate, comparable to the best performers in recent history, such as Singapore and South Korea (Fast Track “FT”).

Global Population Scenarios based on Education Investment


As the graph illustrates, the investment in education does bring about a noticeable impact on the world population. By the end of the century the projected difference is over two billion people. However, the level of associated investment will also be significant. If we look at the two scenarios again but from the perspective of the assumed number of students completing post-secondary education, the challenge becomes more evident.

Global Population Scenarios based on Students Completing Secondary School


By the end of the century, the Fast Track scenario assumes 3.9 billion more people completing post-secondary education. In essence, a world where approximately 65% of people have gone through post-secondary education.

Even in the short term the extra investment to achieve this level of increased education would be hard to implement under the current educational systems. Governments already allocate a significant portion of their budgets to education. In OECD countries the average spend on education is approximately 13% of total public expenditure, which increases in emerging markets. So for example, UNESCO data suggest that sub-Saharan countries invest approximately 18% of public resources into the education sector. It is clear that governments have little room to manoeuver under our current educational systems.

The only feasible way to achieve a significant educational change is by deploying new methodologies of education that allow mass access to high quality content at low marginal cost. This is where education technology needs to step in, and quickly.

The good news is that there is already a large infrastructure investment in the key area of distribution: mobile learning. The graph below illustrates the current penetration of active mobile broadband subscriptions (from the United Nations ITU agency) between developing and developed nations, together with a projection from IBIS Capital. What is clear is that we are able to reach a large part of the world’s population through mobile broadband, and that penetration is growing quickly. Within 5 years we expect to be able to reach over 80% of the world’s population.

Penetration of Active Mobile Broadband Subscriptions


The question is not whether we have the content and the technology platforms but instead whether we can develop the business models and educational frameworks to make global mobile learning a reality? To make it happen, we need global initiatives around the pedagogy, curriculum, testing and certification.  We also need to be less precious about global standardisation in certain areas of education. For example a Microsoft Certification to be an Enterprise Administrator on a Windows Server is linked to particular coursework and an exam. The certificate is universal, so should a range of academic qualifications, particularly across STEM subjects.

International curricula and examinations are already growing, where they are available. One of the fastest growing international education programmes is the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is already being taught to approximately 1.25 million students across large parts of the world. 

At the heart of the attractiveness of the Microsoft Certification and the IB is the international recognition of the qualification. To drive effective education to a mobile online environment, we need to create recognised international bodies that can authorise the testing and the issue of appropriate certificates. Once the value of the qualification is recognised the global hunger to learn will ensure that the content reaches all four corners of the globe.

The cost of setting up supra national online and mobile certification for a range of core subjects would be a tiny, tiny, fraction of the cost of trying to build out schools and universities to cater for another 4 billion people.

It is worth stopping a moment and thinking about the consequences of not making this investment in education: 

  • unsustainable growth in the global population;
  • increased inequality; 
  • ever increasing economic migrationary pressure, and 
  • significant skill gaps in the global work force.

At this moment if we take advantage of the technology we have and drive policy to reset education in the 21st century then we will have the opportunity to create a virtuous circle of an improving social, economic and environmental ecosystem. If not, then we will disappear headlong into the despair of an overpopulated world competing for fewer and fewer resources. The choice is ours.