This week we are looking at two sets of new reports that provide insights into the area of 'mobile learning' -- especially the use of handheld devices like mobile phones to help meet a variety of educational objectives. Earlier this week we devoted a post  to twelve new reports from UNESCO that provide a broad overview of what is happening in different regions of the world in this area. Shaping the Future – Realizing the potential of informal learning through mobile  [pdf], which was released at last week's eLearning Africa event in Benin, provides a nice complement to the UNESCO working paper series. Whereas the UNESCO reports  collectively provide some very useful insights on the supply side, surveying notable 'm-learning' programs currently underway around the world, Shaping the Future examines the demand side of the equation:
"In late 2011, researchers went into four very different emerging markets – Ghana, Morocco, India and Uganda – and asked 1,200 people (aged 15-24) about their day-to-day lives, their ambitions, their education, the way they use mobile now and how mobile could help them achieve their aspirations in the future. At the same time, over 250 young people from those countries took part in detailed focus group discussions where, with great generosity, they shared their hopes, worries and beliefs with us."
The report was authored by the GSMA Development Fund, with financial support from the Mastercard Foundation. [Disclosure: One of the authors of this blog post, Mike Trucano, serves on an external advisory group convened by the Mastercard Foundation, representing the World Bank.] The GSM Association, for those who aren't familiar with it, represents the interests of mobile operators (i.e. mobile phone companies) worldwide. The potential biases here, then, should be pretty obvious -- by design, industry associations promote the products and services offered by the industries they represent -- and it will probably surprise few people to find that the report includes statements like "It is GSMA’s belief that mLearning can and will provide another valued source of educational information." Mobile operators themselves are one target audience for this report, which offers many suggestions and recommendations for how such firms might consider offering or supporting a variety of services and practices of potential relevance to young people via handsets related to their professed education needs and individual contexts and aspirations. In a few places, it contains some jargon and abbreviations that may not be familiar to wider audiences (e.g. VAS = value-added service; MNO = mobile network operator, i.e. a company that packages and re-sells airtime from another firm; 'churn' is when users switch from one mobile provider to another). That said, it also explicitly targets the 'international development community' as another key audience. Many donors are exploring potential support for m-learning initiatives of various sorts (indeed, it is a 'hot new topic' within many donor groups and NGOs in the way that, for example, community telecentres were a decade or so ago), but there is little useful guidance to help people and organizations interested in this topic 'get their heads around' the related topics, separating the hope from the hype, while at the same time receiving some very practice insights into potential ways forward. As the report authors say, "Organisations involved in developing and delivering mLearning services need to understand the day-to-day lives of young people if they are to create services that will improve education and employment prospects. Developing that understanding is the primary purpose of this report: Shaping the Future."
Simply put: This is a great report, useful on a number of levels, and should be considered required reading for people and groups interested in the potential uses of mobile phones by young people in developing countries to help meet some of their educational needs. If forced to distill the key points from the report into a single sentence, we'd probably say something like "most young people want to learn, they have phones, they see the potential for using phones to learn, and here are some considerations for groups who wish to help them realize this potential". The report itself  [pdf] is not too long, and is formatted in ways (lots of white space, bullet points, pictures) that make it very easy to read and digest. In the hope doing so may intrigue people enough that they decide to read the full report, here are a few things that caught our particular interest:
For many young people, schools are not the primary source of 'educational information'. "Just one quarter of the young people surveyed named the classroom as their primary source of information and education, reflecting the fact that many young people had left formal education as well as the current limitations of mainstream education in these countries. Friends and family were more important as an information source, named by 41%, while 43% relied on TV."
Even those who don't have phones have relatively easy access to them. "Amongst the young people we surveyed across the four selected countries, 85% had access to a mobile phone or SIMcard.... [J]ust because a young person is able to access a mobile phone doesn’t mean they own one. One thing which became clear in focus group discussions was the variety of creative sharing arrangements in place." SIM swapping (the phenomenon of owning not a phone, but of a SIM card that you could snap into someone else's phone when you needed to use it, so that you, and not your friend, would incur any related charges), for example, was widespread among many groups. Use of smartphones, which are becoming more widely available in general, is still relatively rare among the groups surveyed. While most young people surveyed had regular access to mobile phones, only 44% of those surveyed had ever used the Internet.
Mobile phones are already being used informally in many cases in ad hoc ways to support learning activities. Communication with friends about homework assignments, recording of lectures, discussion of an education nature via SMS -- these types of things are happening already, but not in any systematic way linked to formal educational delivery programs.
A majority of young people surveyed see clear potential in mobile learning. Skill development was cited as the number one education need by students, with language learning a close second. Reading materials were also in relatively high need.
Learner anonymity is an important potential attribute of learning activities that utilize mobile phones. "[Some people surveyed] said they would enjoy the opportunity to learn anonymously (particularly those who lacked confidence in classroom-type environments) while others liked the fact they could repeatedly access the information/lessons, which would be valuable if they didn’t understand first time."
There are a few very important barriers to the use of mobiles. Costs to users -- of the phones themselves, of air time, for access to individual services -- is not surprisingly a key potential barrier to the adoption of m-learning services. The potential disapproval of a spouse or other family members is seen as a key potential barrier as well -- especially for women and girls. The usability of content on the small handset devices was also cited as an important barrier, as was the fact that, in many cases,
'Others know best' (?) One notable finding from the research was that, when it comes to the potential for m-learning by young people, in many cases many older, influential people have already come to some conclusions. The report quotes a representative from one mobile operator who doesn't see that the use of mobile phones for learning has much practical value. As the authors note, "Opinions like this within the mobile industry could result in a lack of commitment to mLearning and an unwillingness to support the development of new services. Our researchers found that young people themselves were generally much more positive."
While specifically meant for industry, a few of the key recommendations that emerge from the report may also be of interest to other groups who are exploring the use of mobile phones as part of various educational initiatives in developing countries. These include:
[-] "Industry will need to target the whole family when marketing mLearning services, so that parental gatekeepers” see their value and are willing to loan their handsets for the purpose."
[-] "Linking mLearning to activities that are currently embedded in the lives of youths will have the strongest “immediate appeal” to young mobile users. One example might be mixing sports information with educational information: in a football game listened to on a mobile, for example, half time breaks could feature short educational lessons."
[-] More controversially, the report recommends that groups that offer m-learning services consider "incorporating advertising in mLearning services to drive down costs."
The report also contains a useful chart on the potential motivations and incentives for key stakeholder groups (e.g. learners, parents, content providers, vendors, mobile operators) and, when discussing an "aspiration gap", makes some useful distinctions between the young people whose educational needs are “underserved” versus those who are “severely underserved”.
Side note: One thing we would like to have seen in the report was a link to the actual survey instruments, focus group protocols, research assumptions and approaches, etc. that were used to support the writing of this report. (The actual data collected would have been welcome, as well.) This would be useful not only because it would have made us more comfortable accepting some of the findings of the report, but because doing so would have enabled other groups to build on and further this sort of research going forward. Perhaps the Mastercard Foundation or GSMA have plans to do this sort of thing at some point on their web sites -- if they do so, this would not only be useful to help readers of this fine report put its findings into greater context, but also because doing so could help put informal pressure on other organizations to mandate more open access to the methodologies and data that inform the writing of reports such as this.
Much of what is laid out in the Shaping The Future report is consistent with things we have observed -- or intuited, but without an evidence base to back up such intuition -- during our work on the edges of various m-learning initiatives of the past half-decade or so. We regularly meet with groups who have 'lots of great educational content' who now would like to simply 'port' this content over to work on small handheld devices. This sort of supply-side approach may work ... in certain cases ... but we have always been, and remain, rather skeptical of it. Many of the potential affordances of a mobile phone as a potential personal learning device are well understood. While most people see the small screens of phones as a decided drawback, this does have its advantages as well, especially where it allows learners to be comfortable to make mistakes, in ways that they may not be when speaking with someone face-to-face, or when having their activities displayed on a large monitor during a visit to an Internet cafe.
Know your users
In discussions at infoDev around the middle of the decade, the emerging hype around mobile phones led some of us to think of the small handheld devices as a sort of 'telecentre in your pocket', given that beliefs about the many potential uses for phones to serve diverse needs among diverse communities mirrored some of the rhetoric supporting the roll-out of so-called community telecentres, where groups could come together to access computing resources and the Internet. Some purpose-built community telecentres, however, offering only one type of service targeted at one specific community, often had trouble attracting large enough audiences to sustain them over time. With that in mind, when we were asked by groups how we would recommend promoting the usage of phones for education purposes, back then we usually advised people to wait until other services had first taken off. (Might we be at such a point in time today? Perhaps -- and if not, we are certainly much closer to it.) If you want people to use their phones for learning purposes, we suggested back then, you might want to consider getting them using their phones first regularly for other purposes of relevance to their daily lives (things like, for example, accessing daily prayers or scripture, or sports scores, or horoscopes, or weather information, or celebrity gossip). Once they were comfortable with the medium, and the technology, you could then think about offering targeted education-related applications and services to groups of potential learners who already know how to use and valued the technology. Now, of course, few development organizations would be bold (or foolhardy) enough to develop information services that enables access to (for example) the latest football scores or musings about the activities of Bollywood starlets as a means to a larger end. But private industry and civil society groups typically have fewer constraints about exploring more 'orthogonal' approaches. Especially where it involves opportunities to offer informal learning activities to young people outside of school (where, let's be honest, phones are often banned as devices of distraction), the GSMA's guidance to "link mLearning services into existing behaviors, priorities and interests of young people, for example, through sport activities, music or informal social settings" may be especially valuable -- and practical.
"Know your users" has always seemed to us to be good advice (if not perhaps practiced often or well enough within certain segments of the international development community), and this report provides some useful insight into a least what some of the types of beneficiary groups often discussed in the abstract by well-intentioned folks sitting in meeting rooms in places like DC and Geneva and Tokyo and Silicon Valley actually want and need and aspire to become, and how the use of mobile phones might be relevant to helping to meet some of these wants, needs and aspirations. Hopefully this is just the first report among many of this sort to receive wide circulation.
Also of potential interest: Surveying Mobile Learning Around the World (part one) . Mobile phone use in education is a common theme explored on the EduTech blog, here's a link to a list of the posts that explore this topic .
Note: The image at the top of this blog post of a modern hanging mobile art sculpture by Julie Frith ("your perspective on mobiles depends on your point of view") comes from Wikipedian Julietchristine via Wikimedia Commons 
and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license .