Are they really using Nintendo in schools in Japan? (and why might developing countries care?)

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*Other* mobile devices in education - thinking beyond netbooks, mobile phones and PDAs

CC licensed image courtesy of diebmx via FlickrLast week's blog entry on 'What do we know about the use of mobile phones in education?' generated a lot of email.  Some correspondents (rightly) noted that a variety of mobile devices in multiple form factors are being tested for use in educational settings outside of the three categories most people commonly think about: PDAs, phones and netbooks. 

A case in point: Last month reports emerged in the Japanese media (English re-cap here) about the 'mandatory' use of Nintendo DS portable video gaming devices in a set of schools in Osaka.  (Please note that the word 'mandatory' does not appear in the Japanese article linked to here; the English re-cap may or may not be based on other sources.)  Reports about use of the DS (and before that the Nintendo GameBoy) in education in Japan appear sporadically in the press.

The DS is not the only consumer ICT device that is showing up for sanctioned use in schools.  Duke University (USA) has received a lot of attention for the widespread, officially-supported use of the iPod by its teachers and students, and lessons learned from this experience are starting to circulate -- and have begun to be submitted (pdf) to academic journals.   

Consumer products like the DS and the iPod have large installed user bases already familiar with their use (and who offer the opportunity for large-scale, on-going usability testing) and libraries of education content (Nintendo has licensed over 200 titles under its 'education' category, and iTunes U consolidates academic lectures from many universities for free download).  Whether things like the DS or iPod find their way into the formal school sector -- or if, as is more likely, their impact in the near term may be more as aids to support informal learning --  some people question the need for purpose-built ICT devices aimed specifically at the education sector when there are already sets of ICT devices in growing use outside the classroom that could potentially be utilized within schools.  'Why reinvent the cart when you can just retrofit the wheel?', such people may ask.

(Of course these aren't the only small mobile ICT devices that pop up in schools.  Probeware (dataloggers) and graphing calculators have been in long use in many places.  Interactive response devices as part of interactive whiteboard solutions are becoming increasingly common in schools in some OECD markets.  The point here is to be illustrative, not comprehensive.)

So just what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with education in developing countries?

First, let's be clear: With rare exceptions, things like iPods and Nintendo portable gaming machines are not viable ICT devices for consideration in school systems in developing countries based on their current price points, no matter what you think about their educational uses.

For many if not most Ministries of Education with which I speak, "ICTs" are synonymous with computer labs and laptops.  Slowly, this is being challenged (rhetorically at least, although not yet in practice) by those who say that it is the mobile phone that we should be thinking about when we are talking about widespread use in of ICTs in schools in developing countries, especially given (1) their increasing ubiquity in many societies (2) lower price point (3) that they are becoming more powerful every year.  It is possible to view this as a sort of race.  Is the question, then, whether we should be about 'dumbing down' (increasingly inexpensive) laptops, or 'smartening up' mobile phones?

These options aren't mutually exclusive, of course.  But there are other options.

We are seeing sets of very interesting pilot projects emerging to explore the uses of inexpensive mobile ICT devices in education systems in Africa. Consciously or not, many of these projects build off the (very successful, in many places) legacy of the use of 'interactive' radio to aid instruction in countries from Nicaragua to Malawi, Sudan to Haiti. Initiatives in this area include the Talking Book Device (video of talk at Google here) from the Literacy Bridge NGO, a very low cost audio player and recorder for children and adults in the developing world to use for literacy learning and knowledge sharing currently being pilot tested in Ghana, and the One Media Player per Teacher project .  Not all of these new pilots feature products specially engineered for a 'developing country context'. The PDA-like TeacherMate, for example, which has been used in Chicago (USA) schools, is now being tested in Africa (have a look at the video here -- it sure reminds me a lot of the Nintendo DS!).

The point I guess I'm trying to make here is that just as talk about the use of mobile phones in education is in many ways challenging the old orthodoxy, we shouldn't be looking to replace it with another.  Many of the lessons learned from creative deployments of handheld devices like the Nintendo DS (and the iPod, the Kindle, etc.) may well be more relevant to many education systems in developing countries than what has been learned from computer-centric ICT deployments in OECD countries.  As the universe of ICT options for schools expands, and as lines blur between them (is an iPod Touch running Skype a 'phone'?), we would do well not to focus too much on form (factor), but rather on function. In the end, of course, we are putting the cart before the horse (to extend the metaphor from the beginning of blog post) by talking about the technology before we talk about it the education objectives that we are trying to address with such technologies.  This is a point made by Eric Kibinkiri in a recent comment on this blog, and, no matter how we might feel individually about certain specific technologies, one with which I think we can all hopefully, collectively, agree.

(Special thanks to Hana Yoshimoto for the article in Japanese!)

(Image at the top of this blog post used according to the terms of its Creative Commons license; image courtesy of diebmx via Flickr.)


Michael Trucano

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

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