Mobile learning in developing countries in 2011: What's new, what's next?


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After finding out that I had visited the recent BETT show in London (billed as the world's largest educational technology trade show -- previous post here), a number of people who also attended asked me versions of the same query:

Where was all of the mobile (phone) learning?

To be honest, I had the same question.  Smart phones were seemingly everywhere in the hands of visitors to the show (including those of government delegations from developing countries touring the exhibition spaces), and iPads were certainly not-uncommon sights, but if you were looking for tools meant to incorporate mobile phones* into the learning process, you had to look pretty hard. 

[*An aside: For the sake of convenience, I'll call any digital device that you hold in your hand that can be used for learning a 'mobile phone' if it 'looks like a phone'.  I am, for example, typing this on an iPod Touch -- not a 'phone' per se (even if I can call my mother with it using Skype), but for my purposes here, I am considering it one.]

This is not to say that educational 'apps' running on handheld devices were not in evidence at all -- they certainly were, but only in small pockets (the most interesting ones I saw were for language learning; more on that topic in a later post).  That said, if exposure at the BETT Show is any harbinger of what is coming for 2011, we are still more than a little way off from seeing the mobile phone beginning to realize much of the hype that has been slowly building for a half dozen years or so around its potential as a learning tool. (This is hype that some of us at the World Bank have not been immune to; see, for example, here.) The most interesting demos of the use of mobile phones for learning purposes that I saw at BETT occurred in small clusters of people who were informally surfing on YouTube for demos or showing off what was on their own personal devices.

The location of the event itself may have played a part in this -- despite an increasing (and increasingly visible) presence of foreign vendors and foreign visitors, BETT still feels largely a UK affair.  While there are pockets of very interesting activities, and some UK academics are establishing themselves as leading thinkers and researchers in this area (as evidenced by articles like this [pdf]), many schools in the UK have an uneasy relationship with mobile phones, with the focus of many school administrators often more on the potentially disruptive or 'non-productive' uses of such gadgets than on their potential for learning.  (In this, of course, the hesitancy or skepticism of school administrators in the UK mirrors that of their counterparts in many other parts of the world.)  There are other plausible explanations as well:

  • much of the marketplace for education applications on phones is occupied by small, geographically dispersed developers -- and these folks don't yet see participation at large trade shows BETT as a cost effective use of very limited marketing budgets
  • where mobile apps were shown stands at BETT, they may have had difficulty competing for attention; applications running on small screens have difficulty standing out in such environments
  • the successful introduction of the iPad, and the impending proliferation of Andriod-based alternatives, has led many developers who would have written apps exclusively for phones to develop educational applications for the tablet form factor
  • the use and potential impact of mobile phones for learning is most likely to be realized in informal learning activities that take place outside of formal school settings, but vendors at BETT are more geared toward the formal schooling sector
  • given the many other technology options available to them, perhaps there simply isn't a lot of interest or demand from teachers to explore the use of mobile phones*
  • it is still too soon -- we have to wait for smartphones to be more prevalent (while it is true that sales of smartphones began to outstrip sales of PCs in the fourth quarter of 2010 and the growth of smartphones within the overall mobile market is quite strong, in absolute terms they still are still only one-quarter of the overall mobile phone market in places like the United States).

*Speaking informally with teachers attending BETT, I found very few who were thinking about exploring the use of phones as part of their teaching.  Now, I certainly don't pretend that the views of 20-odd teachers I spoke with informally at BETT are in any way representative of, well, anything.  That said, I did recall these conversations when when reading a recent report (Deepening Commitment: teachers Increasingly Rely on Media and Technology [pdf]) on what teachers in the United States consider to be the 'portable technologies with the greatest education potential', which placed cell phones at the bottom of the list of devices surveyed, even below things like 'game devices (e.g. Nintendo DS)'.

There is probably some truth in all of these potential explanations (there are numerous other plausible ones as well, but I'll stop now) -- as well as the observation that, whatever the case today, such reasons may not hold come 2012. And of course what is true for the UK (or USA) may not be true for other parts of the world -- especially (potentially?) for developing countries, where teachers do not have access to the wide variety of ICT devices that their professional peers in richer countries like those in Europe and North America do.

If you are looking for insights into where the use of mobile phones in education may be headed, and what some of the related issues might be, and didn't find what you were looking for in this regard at BETT, you may wish to have a look at two very useful reports published at the end of 2010. 

Learning: Is there an app for that? looks at the current use of mobile phones by children for learning purposes in the United States. Published by the Joan Cooney Ganz Center at Sesame Workshop, it examines new trends in smart mobile devices (with particular attention to the so-called 'pass-back effect', when for example a harried mother navigating her car through traffic passes her iPhone to her daughter in the backseat so that both of them can devote their attention in useful directions); investigates the uses of mobile devices for learning by pre-school children; and then discusses what the implications of all of this might be for companies, educators and researchers. 

Some people may ask what relevance findings in this regard from a 'rich' country like the United States to environments where mobile phone use is growing most rapidly -- in developing countries around the world.  While many of the insights in the Cooney Center report would appear to be generally applicable (read the report itself to find out what they are, you'll find much useful stuff), this is a legitimate question to ask.  While it does not speak to this directly, the report does note that

Technologies designed for learning — particularly in informal environments — risk the unintended consequence of widening the digital divide when only a minority of the population has access. However, market trends suggest that smart mobile devices will be available to all socio-economic status (SES) groups in the near future. For this reason, all three studies included a significant low SES sample. Interestingly, no distinct differences were detected regarding lower-income parents’ reports of children’s behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. In the long term, these studies indicate that one key issue for policymakers and industry is not whether lower-income and minority demographics would like to use such devices; it is whether they will have access to their educational potential.

By way of contrast, the GSMA's mLearning: A Platform for Educational Opportunities at the Base of the Pyramid explicitly considers developing country environments and markets -- the places where many of the challenges confronting the education sector are the most acute, and where the growth in the use of mobile phones has been phenomenal.  While noting that "There has been no major, large scale project that has exposed mLearning into the mainstream market" and that "Funding is a major issue here, with much of the backing going behind good projects that are not sustainable", it includes many one-page profiles of most of the well-known 'm-learning' initiatives in developing country environments (one intersting project not included -- probably for reasons of space, as this is a pretty comprehensive survey -- is m4girls).  Usefully, the report explicitly considers things from a mobile operator perspective, as part of a larger 'mobile ecosystem'.

Taken together, both reports mine the territory originally meant to be covered in a planned report from the World Bank that has been on hold for awhile for a variety of reasons.  We are, it should be noted, doing a great deal of analytical work looking at mobile applications in areas like access to finance, agriculture and health. Not (yet) in education, however.  When we first proposed some mobile education-related work two years ago, there was a general feeling that wasn't a lot of policy-relevant research work being done of relevance to educational decisionmakers in developing countries.  We were able to justify funding research into this area by citing the example of the early work done by infoDev on m-banking, which was some of the first analytical work on a topic that has since exploded.  Reading these two excellent papers, and knowing of lots of other work that is on-going, I am left wondering:

What else can we at the World Bank add to the discussion at this point?  Given that this topic is now being considered to be 'part of the conversation' by other development organizations, what useful role might a donor agency like the World Bank play by sponsoring analytical work related to the use of mobile phones in education in early 2011, as this research topic now appears to have good traction in many quarters and the need for 'catalytic' research (as was the case with the m-banking work) may have passed? Or has it? After all, this topic does not yet appear to be 'mainstream enough' to (for example) compete successfully against other pressing research priorities within the World Bank's 'normal' funding envelopes in the the education sector. 

Since Mohamed Ally's useful general survey on Mobile Learning was published in early 2009, what has been happening 'on-the-ground' in developing countries -- to the extent that anything substantial is happening -- has been increasingly well documented.  In addition to the GSMA paper, the work of researchers in South Africa  has been particularly notable, as has knowledge sharing by groups like MobileActive; the annual mLearn conference gains in stature each year; and academic interest is demonstrated thorugh the establishment of new journals like the International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning.  (For what it's worth, this is a topic we will continue to cover semi-regularly on this blog too.) 

So: Where do things stand in early 2011?  While there have been some high profile early initiatives, some interesting research work has been done, and lots of people are poised to try to learn from any new initiatives that do emerge, few would argue that we are starting to realize the 'revolutionary potential' that many have been predicting for mobile phones in education.  Many developers with whom I have spoken are reluctant to devote their energies (for example) to create and pilot educational applications that run on low end phones, or even on so-called 'feature phones', for they feel such products and services will have a limited shelf life, as 'eventually everyone will have a smart phone anyway'.  (I hear the same sentiment from many potential funders of activities in this area, both within development agencies and in philanthropies.) Indeed, 'eventually' this may we be true (and by that time, many target populations may have access to low cost tablets, iPad alternatives for consumers in emerging markets running on Armdroid).  But for hundreds of millions of people around the world, 'eventually' may be a long time coming.

So perhaps it is indeed simply too soon to be talking about the use of mobile phones in education at any significant scale, for a variety of very understandable reasons.  That said, even as these barriers to adoption fade, and as more entrepeneurs and entrepreneurial organizations explore innovative approaches and applications over time, a more intractable one may need to be confronted.  After all, unlike the technology sector, which seems in a state of almost constant change, the field of formal education moves sloooowly ....


Michael Trucano

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

Michael Trucano
February 22, 2011

Thanks for the literally dozens of companies who have sent in comments saying variations of 'you just don't get it, mobile learning is already here'. Most of these straddle the line between useful comments and commercial spam and so we haven't published them, as this isn't meant to be a venue for firms to advertise their products and services. (There are many other places for that!)

My point in the above blog post is not that there is no interest in this topic, nor that there are no companies and academics doing interesting work in this area. And I don't mean to imply that there are not compelling arguments for the use of mobiles for learning purposes -- in fact, I think exactly the opposite. (See, for example, -->…)

Rather, I also wanted to use the post to point people to the two very useful papers from the Joan Cooney Ganz Center and the GSMA while making the general observation that we apparently still are waiting for the 'killer app' in this area. Compared with three years ago, it seems to me that most everyone I talk to in the ICT/education space has an emerging 'mobile (phone) strategy' of some sort, but we are still waiting to see these actually be realized at any large scale in developing country learning environments, beyond the few examples cited in the GSMA paper (and elsewhere on this blog).

Will 2011 be the break-out year for widespread use mobile learning applications on handheld devices outside of the developed markets of North America, Europe and Asia? USAID's m4Ed4Dev initiative, which Tony mentions in the comment above, will be helping to monitor and document -- and possibly catalyze -- interesting developments in this area going forward.

Isabelle Duston
February 18, 2011

Great article Mike,

I just want to share an alternative approach that I am taking with our non profit ( Since I am a great believer in the power of digital learning for young children and also concerned by the importance of enabling children to learn in their native tongue, I am developing an application teaching children how to read with interactive games which can be adapted to almost any language.

Because I did not feel like relying on external founding, our non-profit has a social entrepreneur business model, where the main strain languages revenues should finance the languages which would other wise non be sustainable, like Papiamento.

And if you want to see my dreams in colors check this:


Anthony Bloome
February 17, 2011


Thanks for the useful posting. As we've previously discussed, this is indeed an area that other development agenices are also exploring. Several months ago USAID began conducting research on current initiatives in the space of mobiles for education for development (m4Ed4Dev) and convening wide-ranging stakeholder consultations. We'll be making our monthly m4Ed4Dev seminar series (previous seminars focused on mobiles for literacy and classroom assessments; this month's will be on e-readers) available by webinar soon. We anticipate collaboratively organizing workshops and roundtables in this arena in the coming months and hope to announce these on the blog when we're solicting submissions.

Tony Bloome
Education Technology Specialist

John Traxler
March 05, 2011

In the past five or six years we have seen a rapid apparent growth of mobile learning across Africa. Sometimes this replicates the experiences and challenges elsewhere, sometimes it responds to challenges of local infrastructure or the specifics of local culture; sometimes it represents the 'localized' version of global and corporate training accessing the international knowledge economy, other times it represents the work of social entrepreneurs, not-for-profits and m4d activists supporting indigenous languages, traditional pedagogy and informal knowledge. All of this work has been sadly under-documented and under-reported and deserves a wider global audience.

Recognition, and indeed promotion and funding, for academics and researchers everywhere, including Africa, depends on publication, specifically publication of research papers in recognized peer-reviewed journals. There is considerable research activity in mobile learning in Africa and this deserves greater visibility and recognition. The International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning is devoting a special edition to mobile learning in Africa and contributions are warmly invited that report, explore, discuss and analyze the theory, practice and context of mobile learning in Africa, of learning with mobile devices on the African continent. The International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning is the recognized academic peer-reviewed journal of the world's mobile learning research community and works closely with the International Association of Mobile Learning.
The guest editors encourage the publication of high-quality mobile learning research papers from or about Africa in a respected academic journal with a global readership. Authors considering attending or presenting at the coming eLearning Africa conference in Dar-es-Salaam in May 2011 will be interested to know that there will be a half-day workshop with individual sessions to support and mentor would-be authors and that one of the guest editors will be available to give guidance and feedback.

Topics to be discussed in this special issue include (but are not limited to) the following:
• African mobile learning context
• Building a greater understanding of ‘African-ness’ and how this relates to accounts of mobile learning
• Characteristics and challenges of infrastructure and culture
• Collaborative and cooperative mobile learning
• Cost-effectiveness of mobile learning in Africa
• Emerging mobile literacies in an African context
• Impact of mobile technologies on teaching and learning in Africa
• Local interpretations of mobile learning
• Mobile communities
• Practical experiences of mobile learning in Africa
• Relevance of the African experience to other challenging environments and societies
• Role of traditional pedagogy and informal knowledge
• Social media in a mobile environment
• Supporting indigenous languages and local cultures
• Theories of mobile learning in Africa
• Understanding mobile learning in an African context
• Web 2.0 tools for mobile learners in Africa

Researchers and practitioners are invited to submit papers for this special theme issue on Mobile Learning in Africa on or before July 1, 2011. All submissions must be original and may not be under review by another publication.

The International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning (IJMBL) provides a forum for researchers in this field to share their knowledge and experience of combining e-learning and m-learning with other educational resources. Providing researchers, practitioners, and academicians with insight into a wide range of topics such as knowledge sharing, mobile games for learning, collaborative learning, and e-learning, this journal contains useful articles for those seeking to learn, analyze, improve, and apply technologies in mobile and blended learning.

All submissions should be should be directed to:

Dr. Dick Ng'ambi, Associate Professor, Centre for Educational Technology, University of Cape Town, South Africa E-mail: [email protected]

John Traxler, Professor of Mobile Learning and Director Learning Lab, University of Wolverhampton, UK E-mail: [email protected]

John Traxler
January 19, 2012

The afore-mentioned is now heading to the printers, hopefully published by May and as a special concession available for free-download the publishers tell us.

Christine Capota
February 01, 2012

This wonderfully captures how fragmented yet overlapping the field(s) of m- learning / e- learning / learning with tech really is. Maybe the essence of it all is simple: learning from screens, and sometimes, interacting with screens.

Diana Dwamena
December 11, 2012

Mobile is central to the communications infrastructure in Africa and in the same way it is being adopted for commerce so is the growing deployment for education. It is however not an either/or situation and all aspects of connectivity to, wireless and LAN are relevant and should be explored in the context of Africa. What is important is whether the approach adopted facilitates the processes required for effective online, mobile or virtual learning.