A recent event at the World Bank  focused on "Mobile Innovations for Social and Economic Transformation: From Pilots to Scaled-up Implementation" included an interesting session on the use of mobile phones in development. Following on an opening talk by Dr. Mohamed Ally of Canada's Athabasca University (you can download a free copy of his book on mobile learning ), Kate Place of the International Youth Foundation provided an update on activities and emerging lessons learned from the BridgeIT project in Tanzania  (“Elimu kwa Teknolojia” in Kiswahili), which provides access to digital video content in classrooms ‘on demand’ via mobile phone technology.
The Tanzania project, which has been running for over a year, is an extension and adaption of the “text2teach ” project in the Philippines, which began in 2003 and is currently in its third iteration. A key difference between the two projects is that text2teach initially utilized a hybrid mobile/satellite solution that allowed teachers to request video content via SMS; this request was then relayed to a satellite, which delivered education content to a DVR to be displayed on a television at the front of the classroom. The Tanzania project eliminates the satellite portion of the delivery system, allowing for request and delivery of video content entirely over local 2.5G/3G mobile networks, for display on a television in the classroom.
Some observers have criticized the original technical set-up in the Philippines as too expensive and complicated, and there is merit in such comments. That said, when the Philippines project (which is moving to the Tanzania model of content delivery over existing mobile networks -- something possible in 2009 that was not possible in 2003), is seen as 'proof-of-concept' of a model for the potential use of mobile phones to support teachers at scale in the classroom, things get a bit more interesting. Yes, the high-end Nokia smart phones used by teachers here are too expensive to consider for mass purchase in most places, and satellite connections are not cheap. That said, if the past is any guide, the costs of handsets with this sort of functionality will fall precipitously in the coming years, and the availability of reliable broadband mobile networks will so also increase. So, if inevitable technology advances move us to place where the hardware and airtime become affordable, what else can BridgeIT tell us about the potential use of mobile phones to support classroom teaching?
Interestingly, Kate said that most of the project's efforts went to teacher professional development and on-going pedagogical support, and that this focus has been key to the project's success, as has the attention to the development of learner-centered lesson plans and teacher’s guides. In other words: While the technology gathers the headlines, it is attention to the particular needs and circumstances of classroom teachers that has been key to the program.
Programs like BridgeIT point to intriguing emerging practices in how ICTs of various sorts can be utilized to help overcome specific challenges. Despite the overheated rhetoric of some proponents of ICT use in education in developing countries, it is clear that there is no 'silver bullet', or 'one-size-fits-all' technology solution to the myriad challenges that students face as they endeavor to get a quality education in often challenging circumstances. As the program ownership increasingly is transferred to local partners and activities move to scale in both Tanzania (currently in 150 schools) and the Philippines (290 schools) using a model, it will be interesting to see what programs like BridgeIT can show us about how combinations of various information and communication technologies might provide alternative options to existing educational practices. As mobile technologies become increasingly affordable for teachers, what might initiatives like BridgeIT tell us about the potential to provide support for things like in-service teacher training, a key challenge in many countries whose exploding school populations have stressed the capacity of many education systems to hire, train, retain and support quality teachers?
Leigh Jaschke from MobileActive  led off the session's discussion by wondering if the current state of "mobile education and mobile learning" is about where mHealth was about five years ago. As huge numbers of people in rural communities -- who previously had no possibility to access the Internet -- continue to acquire mobile phones connected to high-speed networks, the opportunities for phones and other affordable handheld devices to serve as a basic platform for literacy will no doubt increase, especially in the informal sector. It is clear that, at this stage of developments, we have more questions than answers, but the profusion of pilot projects in this area hopefully will help to provide answers to these questions. And if the past developments tell us anything, it is that the answers may not always be what we expect.
For more information on BridgeIT and text2teach:
- archived video of the BridgeIT presentation, including Kate's PowerPoint files, can be accessed through the event web site 
- background information on BridgeIT and text2teach from the International Youth Foundation web site  (note: there are actually a large number of pages on this site devoted to these two projects, but they are for the msot part not linked to each other; search Google using the phrase site:iyfnet.org "text2teach" or "bridgeit" to find them)
Please note: The image used in this blog post comes courtesy of the International Youth Foundation. It is used with their permission.