Mobile learning in developing countries in 2012: What's Happening?


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might mobility enable new approaches?In recent chats with officials from [an un-named country], I learned of the desire of educational policymakers there to leap frog e-learning through m-learning.  This made an impression on me -- and not only because it succinctly was able to encapsulate four educational technology buzzwords within a five-word "vision statement". In many ways, this encounter helped confirm my belief that a long-anticipated new era of hype is now upon us, taking firm root in the place where the educational technology and international donor communities meet, with "m-" replacing "e-" at the start of discussions of the use of educational technologies.

My 'evidence' in support of this observation is admittedly anecdotal (and personal), and, contrary to standard operating procedure here at the World Bank, not gathered in any sort of rigorous way.  Here it is, in brief: More often than not, the unsolicited project proposals that clutter my in-box here at the World Bank now seek in some way, or at some level, to explore how 'the use of new mobile computing devices like tablets and phones can be used to transform education'. Requests for me (as part of my duties at the World Bank) to provide comments on or input into 'm-learning strategies' sponsored by various groups have risen considerably, and I am now seeing plans for widescale (i.e. country-wide) m-learning initiatives, where I used to see only pilots.  If speaking requests and event announcements that we receive here are any indication (some would argue that this is at best a proxy for hot air), the theme of 'm-learning' appears to have 'gone mainstream' on the international conference and workshop circuit, an increasingly default topic on the agenda of high level meetings meant to inform the thinking of key decisionmakers in the educational, technology and international development sectors.

Cynics (including those with long memories of the cycle of hope and hype that accompanies the announcement of each new 'paradigm shift' in the educational technology space) may contend that rhetoric around this topic is (take your pick) rather hollow; or brazenly opportunistic; or just naively optimistic.  No doubt all of these things are true in some cases.  

Yet few of those who question the appropriateness of many large scale 'm-learning' initiatives currently under preparation in developing countries (and there appear to be a lot of them!) or who are skeptical of the intentions of the groups behind some of these initiatives (whether vendors pitching their own products or politicians pitching their own 'visions') would deny the potential relevance of new types of mobile devices -- from phones to laptops to tablets -- to many of the challenges faced by education sytems around the world.  Just because there is a lot of hype doesn't mean that some of the things that are happening aren't worth serious attention and study.

So the topic is generating increasing heat in many quarters ... is there any accompanying illumination to help guide us in our related decisions?  A few high profile initiatives in the international donor community intend to help us find out.

Last month UNESCO convened its first Mobile Learning Week (more are planned), which invited "officials from Ministries of Education, international experts and practitioners in mobile learning, as well as representatives from major partners in the field ... to share innovative ways of learning with, and through, mobile technologies, and of using them to achieve the Education for All goals and improve the quality of education." The results from the public portion of this exercise have now been posted online.  The 'closed' expert meetings included an internal review of drafts from regional surveys of mobile learning activities underway in various regions of the world -- it is expected that the final reports will be released online by April, together with a global overview of trends, and an attempt to make sense of the potential implications of all of this for policymakers.

The event featured a 'walking gallery' of mobile learning projects, including a number sponsored by Nokia (Nokia Mobile Mathematics, Nokia Education Delivery, Nokia Data Gathering and FlashCard application for literacy); LIVES from the Commonwealth of Learning; Intuition Mobile learning; M4Read from iLearn4free; openEyA from ICTP; T Smart Learning from SK Telekom; and a number of other initiatives and applications.  (I have listed these here to enable interested parties to get a sense of what is out there, so that they can search for more information on the web about them; inclusion here does not imply anything about the worthiness of individual projects or programs.) Presentations from the event are now available on the event web site, as is a report of the proceedings [pdf]. People organizing similar events may be interested in mining the list of speakers and experts posted on the site, which includes some very knowledgeable people working on and researching m-learning initiatives. UNESCO intends to use what it learned during the week to inform upcoming m-learning pilot projects it will sponsor in Mexico, Pakistan, Nigeria and Senegal.

UNESCO participates (as does the World Bank, The British Council, ISTE, the IDB, UNICEF, World Vision and many other groups) as part of the mEducation Alliance, which was soft-launched in August by USAID under the provisional name of m4ed4dev, bringing together groups of various sorts interested in exploring the use of mobile technologies.  It doesn't appear that presentations from the August event are available yet online (presentations from a related earlier roundtable at Stanford are), but a number of the initatives featured at the August event have been profiled on the EdTech blog in the past.  A few that haven't include Project ABC (Alphabetisation de Base par Cellulaire) in Niger (here's a related CGD working paper about the impact of the project) and two projects from South Africa that I often reference when people ask me for interesting ongoing mlearning initatives, Yoza (formerly m4Lit) and Dr. Math.

Many of the groups that participate in the mEducation Alliance are also part of the USAID-led Mobiles for Reading Working Group (including the World Bank), which is linked to the recently announced Grand Challenge for Development: All Children Reading initiative that USAID is sponsoring with other partners.  As part of All Children Reading, USAID solicited proposals to fund innovative projects tackling childhood literacy challenges, and it is expected that a number of these proposals may involve the use of mobile technologies.  Organizations with winning submissions will be eligible for as much as $300,000 in funding; we will profile some of the winning entries in upcoming months here on this blog.

In addition to the upcoming regional surveys from UNESCO,  m-learning projects funded under All Children Reading, and analytical work and events from groups participating in the mEducation Alliance (and no doubt lots of industry-sponsored and academic conferences like this and this), people interested in the topic should look for an upcoming edition of the International Journal of Mobile & Blended Learning that will focus on Africa, guest edited by Dick Ng'ambi and John Traxler. (Hopefully portions of this will emerge from behind the paywall that typically sequesters many international journals from interested audiences in developing countries.)

Some final comments:

At many of the sorts of events mentioned above, I often sit through animated discussions about where to draw the line between 'e-learning' and 'm-learning'. Do we include laptops?  Or are we only talking about handheld devices? And what about tablets? As fascinating as such distinctions might be to insiders and academics, I find that most practitioners and policymakers don't care too much about the nuances at the heart of such hair-splitting, especially as the borders between many of these devices continue to blur.

I often hear and read pronouncements about individual m-learning projects that could have been cut-and-pasted from reports on computer-based e-learning initiatives (e.g. "student motivation increases", "teachers report expecting improved outcomes"), with little attention or insight into what the particular affordances and trade-offs and costs and impact of a devices mobility might be.  I have also had numerous discussions with educational publishers who are porting over their 'e-content' for use on mobile devices (in some cases, one suspects that this material may have been  previously ported over from a printed textbook).  Should we expect this to work?  Well, maybe, perhaps ....

I do often feel that many of the discussions around 'm-learning' end up sounding a lot like general discussions of ICT use in education.  At one level there is nothing wrong with this, of course, as in the end we are still talking about sets of tools and their relevance to help meet specific needs of educators or learners. In addition, many of the groups new to discussions around 'm-learning' are also new to  educational technology discussions in general (and often 'newcomers to the education world from the technology world' -- this is often especially true for the 'mobile phone people'), and so recitations of commonly-held good practices around technology use in education can be useful reminders to help keep these sorts of initiatives pointed in the right direction. That said, I do think there is something fundamentally different about the potential for mobile devices.  My hope is that, given all of the groups now considering this an increasingly important priority area for action of some sort, in 2012 practical insights into what this mobility might mean for both educators and learners based on real life experiences will emerge in greater volume and depth, so that policymakers and planners can make more informed decisions about how to direct increasingly scarce resources in ways that are cost-effective and impactful.

OK, that's all for now.  For those of you have have found this quick round-up interesting in some way, here is our blog post from last January 2011 on this same topic, and here are links to numerous related posts we have made over the past few years here on the blog.

note: The image used at the top of this blog post ('might mobility enable new approaches?') comes from Flickr user Ana Cotto via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Michael Trucano

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

James BonTempo
February 08, 2012

Hello, Michael. I'm not sure if these are the sorts of "practical insights" you're hoping to find, but you might be interested in taking a look at the lessons learned and recommendations from the USAID technical report my colleague, Pam Riley (Abt Associates), and I wrote on our Mobiles for Quality Improvement (m4QI) project in Uganda. Our focus was on learning and performance for healthcare workers but I expect others will find that the ideas, approaches and results will translate to many continuing professional development contexts. The document can be found at….

Michael Trucano
February 01, 2012

fyi I meant to reference this upcoming event as well (was mistakenly edited out of the post above):

2012 UNESCO & CoSN International Symposium
mLearning: Exploring the Power of Mobility to Transform Learning
Washington, DC
5 March 2012

more info under -->

Michael Trucano
February 07, 2012

For those unfamiliar with the acronyms in Jose's comment:
BYOD = bring your own device
BYOT = bring your own technology

Steve Vosloo
February 03, 2012

Thanks, Mike, for a great post! You've captured exactly how I feel about being in the mlearning space right now: 1) yes, there is hype, but that doesn't mean there aren't real and impressive initiatives underway, and 2) while mobile is very much just the next chapter in the ICT for education story, it IS also different. It is up to us to dispell the hype by providing clear guidance and evidence on what mobile can and can't do, and exactly how it is different and how best to leverage that for supporting Education for All.

Two quick comments on the piece:
1) The UNESCO Mobile Learning Week was sponsored entirely by NOKIA as part of the 3-year UNESCO Nokia Partnership.

2) When I talk about projects in South Africa, I mention the two you do (Yoza and Dr Math on MXit) and also Momaths (, which provides maths exercises and support for grade 10 learners.

February 03, 2012

This is, as ever, a hugely informative and insightful account Mike. It does really weary one hearing the same old "transformational" visions and myths being promulgated by people who really should know better...they are often paid to!

For me, the mobile learning no-brainer is phones and content... for kids who don't have schools.

February 05, 2012

Thank you so much for this helpful post. I'm one of those people who is learning both tactical applications and strategic concepts at the same time--from a completely different policy field altogether (National Security) and so I truly appreciate overview articles like this one. More, please!

Jose Popoff
February 07, 2012

Hello. I am a teacher from a developing country in Central America: Honduras. As an innovative teacher I am, or hope to being, I use m-learning in my school as much as possibilities allow. I have to take hand of BYOD or BYOT for this since my school does not have any m-learning program and I don´t think there is any initiative like the one you mentioned here in my country.

Fortunately, my school is a private one and as an institution, we are moving into responsibly technifiying our school, and of course that includes m-learning. But I can only dream of such process to happen any time soon in all our school system.

Jim Teicher
February 16, 2012

What actually is mobile communications? I think that we need to boil Mike's wonderful article (and all those great links and comments) down to a conversation of three very basic elements:

1) Is mobile defined by fast broadband connectivity?

Nothing works without some kind of connectivity. Right now, voice and SMS are dominant -- and can be used quite effectively in a variety of ways. For example, CyberSmart uses SMS regularly for teacher professional development. Why? Because this is the only inexpensive and practical way to deliver and receive textual content over the mobile phone. Still, most of the conversations revolve around graphic-intensive applications which require fast (and expensive) connectivity. What are the realistic forecasts for faster broadband connectivity? When will it become affordable? If it won't happen until 2015 (for example) shouldn't our discussions focus more on voice and SMS? I don't think we have a good take on time-frames, so that we may be spinning wheels and not serving as many people as we can with the reality of today's mobile connectivity. Sorry, but I think we need to be more practical in this conversation. We haven't nearly exploited the capabilities of SMS.

2) Is mobile defined by smartphones or "super" smartphones and tablets?

What about simply plugging a USB mobile broadband adapter into a netbook? Is this equipment part of the conversation? I notice that many of the traditional computer providers are conspicuously absent from this conversation.

3) Is mobile defined by the content it delivers?

Are there specific limitations regarding the authoring of mobile content? This, again, is a fuzzy area because so much depends on 1 and 2 above.

So, part of our challenge as mobile innovators is to truly come to grips with exactly what "mobile" means, e-x-p-a-n-d the conversation, and deliver accordingly. More mobile phone users will benefit as a result. Isn't this what really matters?

Michael Trucano
February 21, 2012

Thanks for your comments, Adele.

While it might be appropriate to label certain individual projects as such, I must confess I chuckle a little when I hear sweeping general statements about the 'failure' of m-learning. We are still in the very early days in this stuff, in my opinion, and the field is really still in its infancy. Maybe such pronouncements will prove accurate (and prescient) in the end, but for now I tend to consign them to a folder labelled 'premature'.

Your comment on the "need to bring the practitioner experience, academic interpretations and policy makers much close to one another" is spot on. I think, generally speaking, all sides have a way to go here:

[-] Practitioner experience is not well documented, and many practitioners would do well to share their insights and practices more widely

[-] 'Academic interpretations' are too often caught behind publisher pay walls and/or presented in language or formats that aren't always terribly useful to policymakers

[-] Policymakers, who are to this area, often seek counsel from traditional sources they already know well, or who are loudest, and in some cases may not be terribly interested in what domain researchers and practitioners have to say when they champion projects for reasons not related to student learning (e.g. out of political expediency, or the desire to support the development of certain industries).

There are notable exceptions to be found in each of these groups, of course, and hopefully events like the one Steve has mentioned above can work to help demonstrate how to bring them closer together.

Side note: Readers unfamiliar with the initiatives Adele mentions may wish to devote some time investigating them with their favorite search engine -- and might do well to add Adele's name as a search query as well!

Adele Botha
February 17, 2012

Thank you Michael for summing up some big movement in this domain.
Steve, well done on the Summit.
It is interesting for me to contrast the apparent hype to recent academic comments that Mobile Learning has failed Africa. Yet there are many sustained and large scale initiatives that have moved past the pilot phase. Dr Math, Yoza, Momath and Quiz Max to name but a few. The last statistics from MXit was that there was in excess of 3,4 million registered learners using some 43 mobile learning services.
There seems to be a very big divide between practice and academia. The challenge is going to be not to reinvent the wheel and to apply the learning that has been done to guide future implementations!
I had the disturbing feeling that these large scale initiatives disregarded the field and research done.
Short of anecdotal references to projects, very little acknowledgement has been given to the domain researchers and practitioners.

I believe that we need to bring the practitioner experience, academic interpretations and policy makers much close to one another.