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Mobile Phones

Reflections on the last five years of 'mobile learning'

Michael Trucano's picture
papyrus: the original mobile technology for learning?
papyrus: the original
mobile technology for learning?

Mobile Learning Week 2016 begins on Monday, March 7 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The fifth such annual international gathering, #MLW2016 will feature a great lineup of speakers who will share information and perspectives on the use of 'mobile technologies' in education around the world, with specific attention to contexts, initiatives, perspectives and innovations in middle- and low-income countries. The program of the event itself looks to be great, with a mixture of workshops, a policy forum (together with the ITU) and a two-day symposium, all kicked off by a special online 'debate' at 6pm Paris time organized by the folks at Education Fast Forward ("Innovation & Quality: Two sides of the same coin?"). I expect the real attraction of the event for many won't be found on the official program itself. Rather, it will be the opportunities to meet like-minded folks from around the world who are asking lots of useful questions and doing cool stuff 'on-the-ground'. A lot of this stuff is largely under the radar of the press and blogosphere, which directs most of its attention to what's happening in the 'developed' countries of Europe and North America and so is often not clued into some of the fascinating 'innovations at the edges' that are emerging.

Mobile Learning Week is in many ways a companion event to the annual meeting of the mEducation Alliance, the USAID-led initiative which includes many of the same international institutions as sponsors and participants. The mEducation Alliance has also been bringing together people to talk about what is happening in the 'mobile learning' space in so-called 'developing countries' for five years. As someone who has worked in this area for some time, it is clear that we all really live in 'developing countries' when it comes to 'the use of small mobile devices in education', but there have been some notable changes in the nature of related discussions over the past half-decade. In case anyone might care to listen, here are a few of them that I've observed:


Video games, screen time and early childhood development

Michael Trucano's picture
there must be a screen here somewhere, where could it be?
there must be a screen here somewhere,
where could it be?

At 9:00 am this past Monday morning, almost 30 people crammed into a small conference room at the World Bank in DC to talk about ... videogames. (A good number more were queued up online to join in, but unfortunately technical snafus prevented them from participating -- our continued apologies if you count yourself among that group.) The featured presenter at this discussion, my colleague Mariam Adil ("Meet the Woman Who's Shaking Up Pakistan's Social Gaming Industry"), the founder of GRID (Gaming Revolution for International Development), shared some of the interesting and innovative things she has been doing to help create and roll out a number of educational mobile apps, as a contribution to broader discussions on topics related to 'early childhood development' (ECD).

Providing children and their caregivers with access to quality pre-school education opportunities is a primary activity of the World Bank's work related to early childhood development. No one who participated in Monday's discussion expressed the view that 'technology is the answer to the challenges of ECD'. That said:

Are there approaches and activities related to early childhood development worth pursuing that can be complemented, and in some cases helpfully enabled by, new technologies?

As the related World Bank strategy states, "Investing in young children through ECD programs—ensuring they have the right stimulation, nurturing and nutrition—is one of the smartest investments a country can make to address inequality, break the cycle of poverty, and improve outcomes later in life."

Given the proliferation of mobile phones in communities around the world, there can be no denying that such things are increasingly in the hands of parents and caregivers (and, for better or worse in the hands of children as well, both briefly and for extended periods of time).

What are we learning about what is possible, and what is useful, to do with these devices that can complement and extend many ECD activities and programs?


Banning and unbanning phones in schools

Michael Trucano's picture
forbidden ... or encouraged?
forbidden ... or encouraged?
When planning for new initiatives that will introduce and/or utilize information and communications technologies (ICTs) in some way, a simple general rule of thumb is worth considering:

The best technology is often the one you already have, know how to (and do) use, and can afford. In many places around the world, this technology is the mobile phone.

This is not to contend that 'new' technology devices should not be considered -- far from it! Rather, this general guidance is meant to serve as a reminder for planners and decisionmakers to consider how it might be possible to take advantage of and leverage *existing* technologies, and the activities and processes these technologies enable, before committing to introduce totally new (or foreign) technology tools into a given environment. Just because something is new doesn't mean that it is automatically better. Of course: It doesn't mean that it is worse, either.

At a conceptual level, when considering what technology devices are to be utilized as part of a given project or activity, mobile phones may often be the 'best' technology. But: Does that make the mobile phone an appropriate or practical technology choice for use in schools, and/or by students and teachers?

It depends.

When it comes to mobile phones and the education sector, things aren't so simple, and answers vary considerably by place -- and are changing. In some countries and schools, mobile phones are not allowed at all for students (and in some cases for teachers as well) and/or their use is limited to certain circumstances inside (and in some instances even outside) of school. In other places, phones are allowed with few restrictions. In yet other places, long time bans on phones are being reversed. Even where bans are in place, phones are still to be found in schools, for better and for worse, and they are used for a variety of purposes (again, for better and for worse).
What are some current perspectives and practices related to
the use of mobile phones in schools and education systems around the world?

What we are learning about reading on mobile phones and devices in developing countries

Michael Trucano's picture
they tell me my generation is supposed to be able to 'leap frog'
they tell me my generation is
supposed to be able to 'leap frog'

Each year on 8 September, groups around the world gather together to celebrate "International Literacy Day", which is meant to highlight the importance of reading, and of being able to read. In the words of UNESCO, the UN organization which sponsors International Literacy Day, "Literacy is one of the key elements needed to promote sustainable development, as it empowers people so that they can make the right decisions in the areas of economic growth, social development and environmental integration." As contentious as issues around education around the world can be at times, there is little debate about the fundamental importance of literacy to most human endeavors.

New technologies can play important roles in helping to enable efforts and activities to teach people to learn how to read -- and to provide people with access to reading materials. As part of its communications outreach on International Literacy Day this year, for example, UNESCO highlighted recent experiences in Senegal targeting illiterate girls and women, where it has found that "mobile phones, computers, internet and TV make literacy courses much more attractive for illiterate women."

The potential for mobile phones and other mobile devices like e-readers to aid in literacy efforts has been a recurrent theme explored on the EduTech blog. In so-called 'developing countries', books may be scarce and/or expensive in many communities -- and reading materials that *are* locally available may not be of great interest or relevance to many potential readers. The fact that increasing numbers of people in such communities are carrying small portable electronic devices with them at all times capable of displaying text, and which indeed can hold tens, even thousands of digital 'books', has not gone unnoticed by organizations seeking to increase literacy and promote reading.

Two recent publications -- Reading in the Mobile Era and Mobiles for Reading: A Landscape Review -- attempt to take stock of and learn from many of the leading efforts around the world in this regard.

Bad practices in mobile learning

Michael Trucano's picture
something doesn't seem quite right with this particular implementation ...
something doesn't seem quite right
with this particular implementation ...

The World Bank's EduTech blog explores issues related to the use of information and communication technologies (computers, laptops, tablets, the Internet, ...) to benefit education in middle and low income countries around the world. While I tend to view, with a fair degree of skepticism, many of the statistics which purport to document just how many people have visited a particular web site, it seems that the EduTech blog was recently visited by its one millionth reader. When viewing the mass of blog posts in their entirety, together with our visitor logs and other relevant data, it is quite clear that BY FAR the single most popular post remains one I did over four years ago on 'worst practice in ICT use in education'. What was relevant back in 2010 appears still to be quite relevant today.

(This isn't always the case: If memory serves, I quickly drafted and published that particular blog post because I was having trouble completing one 'Exploring the Use of Second Life in Education' -- I'm guessing that the half-life for *that* one, had it even been finalized and published, would have been pretty short!)

Recent news articles -- whether reporting that the one tablet per child project in Thailand 'has been scrapped' or the decision of the school district in Hoboken, New Jersey (USA) to 'throw away all its laptops' -- suggest that debris continues to pile up on the landscape of 'failed' attempts to use new technologies effectively in education in various ways. The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera has a short story called "Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead". Sometimes I feel like this title could be adapted for use in an introductory essay to a book documenting many of the unfortunate 'educational technology deployments' that have been irresistible fodder for politicians and headline writers alike (and clickbait for folks on Twitter) over the past decade.

And yet .... just because we continue to hear variations on a sadly familiar theme, I don't know that the best response is to admit defeat, throw up our hands, throw everything away and go back to the 'good old days'. Learners would not be terribly well served if educational planners in 2014 simply decided to emulate the impulses and actions of Silesian weavers back in 1844 and smash all the machines in reaction to the spread of new technologies. Attempting to stuff this particular genie back in the bottle isn't only impractical: I would hazard a guess that it is well-nigh impossible.

The recent article on the Hoboken experience labels it a 'failed experiment'. Personally, I am not sure that this label fits in this particular case. In an experiment, it seems to me that you are usually trying to learn something. This rather large purchase of technology seems to me like yet another solution in search of a problem that no one bothered to actually tried to define in any meaningful way. I suspect that, at a fundamental level, the problem wasn't (really) with the technology. In other words: It seems more like human failure to me.

Promising uses of technology in education in poor, rural and isolated communities around the world

Michael Trucano's picture
don’t worry: your solutions -- and possibly your salvation – have finally arrived!
don’t worry: your solution (salvation?)
has finally arrived!

One persistent challenge for educational policymakers and planners related to the potential use of informational and communication technologies (ICTs) in remote, low income communities around the world is that most products, services, usage models, expertise, and research related to ICT use in education come from high-income contexts and environments.

One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and 'made to fit' into what are often much more challenging environments. When they don't work, or where they are too expensive to be replicated at any scale, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant -- and possibly irresponsible.

That said, lessons are being learned as a result of emerging practices, both good and bad, in the use of ICTs in education in low resource, poor, rural and isolated communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of educational technology initiatives in such environments. (It may even turn out that the technological innovations that emerge from such places many have a wider relevance …. but that is a topic for another discussion.)

Products like the BRCK (a connectivity device designed and prototyped in Nairobi, Kenya by many of the people behind Ushahidi to better address user needs in places where electricity and internet connections are, for lack of a better word, ‘problematic’) and MobiStation (a solar-powered 'classroom in a suitcase' which features a projector and lots of off-line educational content developed by UNICEF Uganda) remain notable exceptions to the lamentable reality that, for the most part, ‘solutions’ touted for use in schools in e.g. rural Africa, or in isolated communities in the Andes, are designed elsewhere, with little understanding of the practical day-to-day realities and contexts in which such technologies are to be used. Many people who have lived and worked in such environments are quite familiar with well-meaning but comparatively high cost efforts often informed more by the marketing imperatives embedded in many corporate social responsibility efforts than by notions of cost-effectiveness and sustainability over time or the results of user-centered design exercises.

Using mobile phones in data collection: Some questions to consider

Michael Trucano's picture
as you move through the data, new questions might present themselves
as you move through the data,
new questions might present themselves

Recent posts on the EduTech blog have explored some of the general opportunities, issues and challenges that are common to many efforts to use mobile phones as part of data collection efforts and have identified some of the key lessons as a result of projects which have used mobile phones to collect data in the education sector in Uganda.

Even where there is common agreement on the potential utility of deploying mobile phones as part of a particular data collection effort, as well as a consensus understanding about relevant challenges that may complicate such an effort, decision makers may still be unsure about how to start their related planning efforts – or how best to change course once such efforts are underway.

In many instances, an intriguing proposal by a vendor of a particular product or service may help instigate initial considerations to use mobile phones as part of data collection efforts; news reports and information sharing between key practitioner groups may as well. Whatever catalyzes consideration of the use of mobile phones as aids in data collection efforts – in some cases it may simply be a general dissatisfaction with the status quo – here are some general questions that may be worth asking:

Using mobile phones to collect data in the education sector in Uganda

Michael Trucano's picture
one way to collect data of a certain sort while mobile
one way to collect data of a certain sort while mobile
Much has been made of the potential use of mobile phones to help collect, verify and disseminate information quickly, widely and cheaply in support of activities in the education sector.
What do we know about how such use looks in practice,
and what are we learning from emerging efforts in this area?

At an event last month at the World Bank, my colleagues Sukhdeep Brar and Gaurav Relhan shared some lessons from a few recent and on-going education activities in Uganda, providing some potentially quite useful insights for those seeking answers this question. The full video for this event, as well as the PowerPoint file presented, is available online. For those of you who are pressed for time, or are just not sure if clicking those links is worth the effort, here is a quick synopsis of what was shared and discussed.

Using mobile phones in data collection: Opportunities, issues and challenges

Michael Trucano's picture
there are lots to ways to collect data while mobile
there are lots of ways to collect data while mobile
The explosive growth in the availability of mobile phones in societies around the world – even in some of the poorest, most remote communities – is increasingly leading many groups to explore how these devices might be used effectively as part of large scale data collection efforts in many sectors, including education. Utilizing small, portable electronic computing devices to help collect data is not new, of course. For over two decades, laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) have featured in initiatives to (e.g.) collect census information, interview consumers of various goods and services and poll potential voters. That said, such efforts often faced constraints related to, among other things: costs; the relative novelty of such devices among key segments of the population; the need to provide device-specific user training; and difficulties in exchanging data between these devices and other components of a larger system for data collection. If, as it has been argued, the best technology is often the one you already have, know how to use, can maintain and can afford, for most of the world, the mobile phone fits these criteria quite well. As of late 2013, rates of mobile phone penetration stood at 96% globally (128% in developed countries and 89% in developing countries). According to the International Telecommunications Union, “today there are almost as many almost as many mobile-cellular subscriptions as there are people in the world.” 
Given their ubiquity, increasing functionalities, and decreasing related acquisition and operating costs, it is not surprising that mobile phones have been employed in a variety of ways to aid data collection efforts around the world. While many people may believe that such efforts require the use of a high-end (and expensive) smart phones, phones of all sorts have been deployed successful to different ends in different contexts.

Very simple, low-end ‘dumb phones’, for example, can utilize simple text messaging (or SMS) or voice to (e.g.) send out short queries by phone to a bank of phone numbers, prompting users to reply with a short response, which can be either predefined (‘text 1 for yes, 2 for no’)  or open-ended. Smartphones can be used in much more sophisticated ways by presenting rich media survey questions directly to respondents or to help guide the actions of an ‘enumerator’ (someone who administers a survey in person) by presenting a user-friendly interface to help an enumerator input and transmit data in structured ways. Such phones may also contain help files and training aids for the enumerators. In between the high and low end, ‘feature phones’ (a catch-all category of sorts for phones which can do more than make basic voice calls and send and received text messages, but do not have the advanced functionality of smart phones) can make use of simple graphical forms (e.g) on screen as prompts for questions, and can store/transmit structured data as a result of responses.

Data input or captured into phones may be transmitted or shared in many ways (including SMS, MMS, USSD, Bluetooth, wireless Internet, or the exchange of physical memory cards). Where mobile connectivity is not available, data can be stored on the phone and transmitted later once a phone is within sufficient range of a cell tower.
How and why might mobile phones
be useful in large-scale data collection efforts,
and what comparative advantages might their use have when compared to other options?
A number of attributes and characteristics of mobile phone use in such activities (as well as the use of other small, low-cost portable devices such as tablets, especially where such devices can be connected to mobile and wireless networks) may lead them to be considered, especially when compared with the use of more traditional, paper-based survey instruments:

Promoting literacy with mobile phones in rural Papua New Guinea

Michael Trucano's picture
hey, my ears are ringing -- might that be the Ministry of Education calling with today's lesson?
hey, my ears are ringing --
might that be the Ministry of Education
calling with today's lesson?

Last year I spent some time in Papua New Guinea (or PNG, as it is often called), where the World Bank is supporting a number of development projects, and has activities in both the ICT and education sectors. For reasons historical (PNG became an independent nation only in 1975, breaking off from Australia), economic (Australia's is by far PNG's largest export market) and geographical (the PNG capital, Port Moresby, lies about 500 miles from Cairns, across the Coral Sea), Australia provides a large amount of support to the education sector in Papua New Guinea, and I was particularly interested in learning lessons from the experiences of AusAid, the (now former) Australian donor agency.

For those who haven't been there: PNG is a truly fascinating place. It is technically a middle income country because of its great mineral wealth but, according to the Australian government, "Despite positive economic growth rates in recent years, PNG’s social indicators are among the worst in the Asia Pacific. Approximately 85 per cent of PNG’s mainly rural population is poor and an estimated 18 per cent of people are extremely poor. Many lack access to basic services or transport. Poverty, unemployment and poor governance contribute to serious law and order problems."

Among other things, PNG faces vexing (and in some instances, rather unique) circumstances related to remoteness (overland travel is often difficult and communities can be very isolated from each other as a result; air travel is often the only way to get form one place to another: with a landmass approximately that of California, PNG has 562 airports -- more, for example, than China, India or the Philippines!) and language (PNG is considered the most linguistically diverse country in the world, with over 800 (!) languages spoken). The PNG education system faces a wide range of challenges as a result. PNG ranks only 156th on the Human Development Index and has a literacy rate of less than 60%.  As an overview from the Australian government notes,

"These include poor access to schools, low student retention rates and issues in the quality of education. It is often hard for children to go to school, particularly in the rural areas, because of distance from villages to schools, lack of transport, and cost of school fees. There are not enough schools or classrooms to take in all school-aged children, and often the standard of school buildings is very poor. For those children who do go to school, retention rates are low. Teacher quality and lack of required teaching and educational materials are ongoing issues."

[For those who are interested, here is some general background on PNG from the World Bank, and from the part of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that used to be known as AusAid, a short report about World Bank activities to support education in PNG from last year and an overview of the World Bank education project called READ PNG.]

If you believe that innovation often comes about in response to tackling great challenges, sometimes in response to scarcities of various sorts, Papua New Guinea is perhaps one place to put that belief to the test.

Given the many great challenges facing PNG's education sector,
its low current capacity to meet these challenges,
and the fact that 'business as usual' is not working,
while at the same time mobile phone use has been growing rapidly across society,
might ICTs, and specifically mobile phones,
offer new opportunities to help meet many long-standing, 'conventional' needs
in perhaps 'unconventional' ways?

A small research project called SMS Story has been exploring answers to this question.