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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:

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From the potential to the practical

Back in 2011, gatherings of people interested the use of small mobile technologies (like phones) in education in developing countries spent a lot of time talking about 'the potential'. Given the rather checkered history of attempts to introduce computers and laptops in schools in much of the world, wouldn't it make sense to explore the use of the fastest growing consumer technology of all time, the mobile phone, instead of focusing most efforts on buying new computers and laptops and putting them in schools? (According to the 10 principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments that featured on an earlier EduTech blog post, "The best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford" -- and often this technology is the mobile phone.)

By 2016, however, discussions previously often led (and even dominated) by academics about the 'potential' of the use of e.g. mobile phones in education had been overtaken by conversations with people actually leading such efforts, who were able to share lessons and experiences based on real life experience, and not theoretical musings of what might be possible.

 
From pilots in small pockets to (more) mainstream activities at (some level of) scale

Almost a decade ago, I secured funding from a trust fund at the World Bank almost a decade ago for a survey of mobile phone use in education, but I ended up abandoning it and giving back the money just as the large international 'mobile learning events' were starting. The reason? Beyond a handful of notable high profile pilots, there really wasn't all that much else going on (and I figured, perhaps immodestly but certainly more cost-effectively) that I could use the EduTech blog to point people to most of them). A little bit later, UNESCO was able to find enough substantive activities to document in a series of useful working papers on mobile learning, and other groups followed to expand on and fill in the cracks of things documented in the UNESCO reports. Try to do reports like this today, however, and more attention would be spent on what to exclude than in trying to unearth some project that no one had yet heard about in order to add additional heft to a slim volume.

Back in 2011 having a 'mobile first' approach to educational technology meant you were a decided outlier in your planning and activities; by 2016 such an approach seems to be hardly questioned.

 
From feature phones to smart phones

In Q1 of 2015, some industry analysts noted that more new smart phones were shipped to Africa to enter distribution channels than feature phones for the first time. (Others have questioned this assertion, but the trend line is pretty clear: smart phones are ascendant, feature phones are receding. Given the vibrant market in second hand phones across the continent, it is still assumed that more feature phones were sold across Africa than smart phones, but it is clear we are now at a related inflection point. Mxit, the popular messaging service in South Africa which provided the platform for many of the early innovative uses of mobile phones in education on the continent, shut down its commercial operations in 2015 and donated its assets to a nonprofit group which will continue to serve its still substantial but declining existing user base. With previous barriers to individual mobile phone ownership gone, Myanmar has 'leapfrogged' (to use an old ICT4D cliche) to become in the eyes of some the first "smartphone first" country in the world. Five years ago application developers who bragged that they were developing applications for smartphone users across Africa were in large part dismissed as out of touch with local realities. Today, notwithstanding that fact that there are still innovative folks developing applications for the hundreds of millions of feature phones in low income communities around the world, it is clear that the smart phone future is arriving quickly.

For those not familiar with the term: A feature phone is something that can approximate some of what a smart phone offers (you can use some basic applications, there are colors onscreen, you can access the Internet and play music, etc.) but the experience is decidedly inferior to what is possible with smart phone. Viewed historically, the feature phone is a transitional device betwween the first 'dumb mobile phones' which offered voice calls and texting (e.g. the Nokia 1100, the best selling mobile phone of all time) and the iPhones and Samsung Galaxies (and the whole universe of smart phones offered by Xiaomi and Huawei and lots of other companies) of today.


The open vs. closed debate has moved on at a practical level in some important ways (for now)

A standard question which animated many debates at 'mobile learning' events back in 2011 related to the use of 'open' versus 'closed' technologies. The important issues at the heart of such debates remain today, of course, but from the vantage point of 'mobile learning' in 2016, as practical matter much of the related conversation has moved on. Today's reality is a world where both open and closed technologies are abundant (and function both as complements and competitors). This may change in the future, of course, and one is right to stay wary and vigilant about which way the pendulum may swing. Perspectives related to 'openness' embedded in things like the 'principles for digital development' are quite useful in this regard, and the international development community has without a doubt made important steps towards more openness in the way it views the use of technology. That said, whereas in 2011 conversations at mobile learning events often broke down over questions about whether or not to use open or close technologies, by 2016 those often acrimonious debates had been overtaken by louder conversations about how to best operate in a world that features both.

Side note: A standard directive which preceded pretty much every session at an event about 'm-learning' five years ago -- "please turn off your ringer or mute your phone" -- seems to have be consigned to the dustbin of history. Given how little most folks at such events use their 'phones' in the old-fashioned way to make voice calls, the rare sound of a ringtone is almost jarring. (What's that?) And a standard question which seemed to be posed in discussion after discussion with newcomers to the field -- we have a great new mobile education application that utilizes text messages, can you advise as to who will donate SMS packages and mobile minutes to us? -- has largely disappeared as well.

 
Blurring lines between 'mobiles' and 'ICTs'

What do we mean by mobile technology in education? This was a regular theme of discussion back in 2011. Are we just talking about phones? What about tablets, or even laptops? And isn't there a body of evidence related to the use of personal digital assistants in the 1990s (and before that, graphing calculators) that is relevant? (Just to be difficult, some people would chime in and ask questions about the relevance of small interactive voting devices, such as the 'clickers' utilized with interactive whiteboards. While conceding that these were indeed small mobile devices and that they could certain be useful tools in certain circumstances, the majority opinion seemed to be to acknowledge the cleverness of such folks and then simply move on with other conversations.) In 2016, most people seemed to have moved on from spending too much time worrying about exact definitions, settling on any small handheld connected digital device like a phone or a tablet (and what's a tablet these days, really, but a larger version of a smart phone that people don't use to 'call' people in the traditional way?) as something that supports 'mobile learning'. Lines are clearly blurry here, of course, and the rise of things like wearables (e.g. fitness trackers, the scuppered but no-doubt-to-reemerge-in-another-incarnation Google Glass) do complicate such a definition.

More generally, the line between 'educational technology' and 'mobile learning' is blurring as well, given the increased centrality of the use of mobile devices within 'edtech' initiatives. Some clever folks like to observe that most 'mobile learning technologies' are actually used while seated or standing still. (Fair enough, I guess, +1 for your cleverness, but how is that relevant to these discussions?) No doubt attempts to define and segregate various activities by device type or technology choice will be complicated in all sorts of unforeseen ways going forward, given the inevitable march of technological innovations.

Where will things be five years from now? Who knows? As Benedict Evans has proclaimed, currently mobile is the new central ecosystem of tech. The next hot mobile ICT device, as many clever people like to say these days, is the automobile. At some point presumably this will all be more fundamentally about education and learning, given that, while new technologies and technology-enabled applications will continue to emerge, the novelty of the fact that 'ICTs' are present in learning environments will have largely worn off. This will no doubt be a welcome development, as it will help orient related conversations to ones more about teaching and learning than about the devices used to help support, enrich and expand such activities.

For decades, people have said that, when it comes to education, 'technology is only a tool' ... and then many of them have gone on to talk only about the technology. Such conversations can admittedly be fascinating in all sorts of ways, but they can be a distraction from what is really most important -- the needs of learners, and how to help meet them.
 

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Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("papyrus: the original mobile technology for learning?") comes from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

 

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