Mobile Phones and Literacy in Rural Communities


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mobile learning while sittingGiven their low costs and increasing ubiquity, even in very poor communities, much has been written about the potential for mobile phones to aid in the delivery of 'anytime, anywhere' education. But what might such educational practices look like in practice? The MILLEE project  (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) has been examining this issue for the last six years, beginning with low-income communities in the urban slums and villages in India.

In a recent presentation at the World Bank, Matthew Kam, the founder of MILLEE, shared experiences from ten rounds of iterative small pilot field studies in developing and testing mobile phone gaming applications that enable children to acquire language literacy in immersive, game-like environments. One goal of this work is to investigate how to make localized English language learning resources more accessible to underprivileged children, at times and places that are more convenient than schools. (A short video profile of the project is available here; it is not embedded for direct viewing on this blog because it features a 15-second commercial at the beginning.)

Matt's presentation was very rich, and touched on a wide variety of issues, including (for example) mobile phone usage scenarios and equity issues based on gender and socio-economic and caste status, cultural issues in videogame design, foreign language literacy acquisition and electricity in Indian villages.

The presentation was full of fascinating detailed ethnnographic observational data. Some examples from just one case study

  • Most use was in the home during evening hours, and *not* outside -- although high caste boys would use them when 'working' (in practice, this meant supervising, presumably at times rather absentmindedly) in the fields.
  • Girls would often hide their phones to prevent their brothers from finding them (believing, presumably, that parents would be hesitant to take the phone away from boys to return it to lower status girls).
  • Worries about theft, and electricity surges, meant that phones were not typically left to charge unattended.
  • The use of educational games on the mobile phones facilitated new ties between participants across gender, caste and village boundaries, and the new social relationships that developed transferred to real world, non-gaming settings.

(Note: The PowerPoint file for Professor Kam's full presentation [pdf] is available, as is a video of the talk and subsequent Q&A session; please be aware that there were unfortunately some problems during the recording that makes the audio and video rather dodgy in a number of places, so: caveat utilitor.)

Building on its initial work, MILLEE is now beginning a controlled experiment with 800 rural children in 40 villages in India, with early replication underway in Kenya and China.

Those interested in learning more about this work are directed to the following list of Matthew Kam's related academic publications, which includes new papers on An Exploratory Study of Unsupervised Mobile Learning in Rural India (in which the authors argue that "cellphones are a perfect vehicle for making educational opportunities accessible to rural children in places and times that are more convenient than formal schooling") and Let’s Play Chinese Characters – Mobile Learning Approaches via Culturally Inspired Group Games (both presented at the recent CGI 2010 event).  Practical lessons from initiatives like MILLEE are invaluable as we try to untangle the hope around the potential for the use of mobile phones to aid a variety of educational objectives from much of the general hype around this topic.

Related notes:

We have a bunch of interesting talks in May at the World Bank on ICT education issues:

  • On 5 May a group from EDC will be talking about Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) in Zanzibar.
  • On 13 May Alicia Casas de Barran, the National Archivist of Uruguay, will be be talking about the digitization of her country's national heritage to take advantage of Plan Ceibal, that country's program which has provided a free laptop to all public school students, and how the architecture of schools is being re-imagined as a result of the ubiquitous availability of computers and the Internet.
  • On 20 May the partner groups involved in the Escuela+ initiative will be sharing results from that initiative to bring educational television to students in rural areas in LAtin America.
  • On 24 May Miguel Nussbaum will be speaking on 'One Mouse Per Child', a multi-country investigation of how up to 50 computer mice can be connected to one computer and projector for use cooperatively in a classroom.

Information about these events is being posted on the World Bank's ICT/education events page.  RSVP information for each event will be available soon through that page, and via our Twitter account, @WBedutech.

Please note: The image of a boy participating in the MILLEE project used at the top of this blog post ("mobile learning while sitting") is copyrighted and used with permission.


Michael Trucano

Global Lead for Innovation in Education, Sr. Education & Technology Policy Specialist

Ichiro Miyazawa
May 05, 2010

Thank you, Mike

MILLEE looks great. We are doing something similar for adolescent girls in Pakistan though we do not use games.
[editor's note from Mike: I shorted the URL provided, as it was quite long.]

It would be great if we can exchange ideas and experiences with MILLEE. I will send an email to Mr. Matthew.

Thank you again

May 22, 2010

This we do in Tucuman Argentina. I would like to have more material and share experiences.
Login as a guest.

Tostan Jokko
June 10, 2010

Jokko (or Jokoo) means “communication” or “dialogue” in Wolof, a national language in Senegal, West Africa.

With the launch of the Jokko Initiative, Tostan and UNICEF have formed a partnership that positions them at the forefront of SMS-based innovation and focuses on empowering hundreds of rural African communities to use accessible mobile technology to improve their lives and those of their children. This partnership links UNICEF’s reach, resources and technical expertise with Tostan’s ground-level experience and understanding of local realities.

Under the Jokko Initiative, Tostan added a new component to its CEP to teach the practical uses of standard mobile phone functions and SMS texting. The "Jokko" module uses mobile phones as (1) pedagogical tools to teach and reinforce literacy, organization and management skills and as (2) social mobilization tools that help to build consensus around local development initiatives by providing a platform for exchanging information, broadcasting ideas and organizing advocacy efforts, while amplifying the voice and influence of women and girls in community decision-making processes.

The Center of Evaluation for Global Action at the University of Berkeley conducted an independent evaluation of the pilot phase. The Jokko team is currently expanding its activities to additional villages and identifying new mobile phone applications and mobile technology-based income-generating and social mobilization activities that serve the needs of rural communities.

Interested? Read more about Jokko on our blog: www [dot] jokkoinitiative [dot] org

Desmond Tevé
June 15, 2010

This is a great way to supplement education. Loved that the games were based on real-world village games the children played. [LITSMS]

April 04, 2011

Using mobile phones in rural communities was an innovated process to ensure students had access to an education environment. Including the games as a teaching strategy helped to motive students to learn the contents. This project could have very positive benefits in almost any culture or environment. I am curious to know if the students have major problems keeping up with the mobile phones. How are they held accountable for this item, and do they get to keep it once the program is over?