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

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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