Bad practices in mobile learning

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something doesn't seem quite right with this particular implementation ...
something doesn't seem quite right
with this particular implementation ...

The World Bank's EduTech blog explores issues related to the use of information and communication technologies (computers, laptops, tablets, the Internet, ...) to benefit education in middle and low income countries around the world. While I tend to view, with a fair degree of skepticism, many of the statistics which purport to document just how many people have visited a particular web site, it seems that the EduTech blog was recently visited by its one millionth reader. When viewing the mass of blog posts in their entirety, together with our visitor logs and other relevant data, it is quite clear that BY FAR the single most popular post remains one I did over four years ago on 'worst practice in ICT use in education'. What was relevant back in 2010 appears still to be quite relevant today.

(This isn't always the case: If memory serves, I quickly drafted and published that particular blog post because I was having trouble completing one 'Exploring the Use of Second Life in Education' -- I'm guessing that the half-life for *that* one, had it even been finalized and published, would have been pretty short!)

Recent news articles -- whether reporting that the one tablet per child project in Thailand 'has been scrapped' or the decision of the school district in Hoboken, New Jersey (USA) to 'throw away all its laptops' -- suggest that debris continues to pile up on the landscape of 'failed' attempts to use new technologies effectively in education in various ways. The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera has a short story called "Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead". Sometimes I feel like this title could be adapted for use in an introductory essay to a book documenting many of the unfortunate 'educational technology deployments' that have been irresistible fodder for politicians and headline writers alike (and clickbait for folks on Twitter) over the past decade.

And yet .... just because we continue to hear variations on a sadly familiar theme, I don't know that the best response is to admit defeat, throw up our hands, throw everything away and go back to the 'good old days'. Learners would not be terribly well served if educational planners in 2014 simply decided to emulate the impulses and actions of Silesian weavers back in 1844 and smash all the machines in reaction to the spread of new technologies. Attempting to stuff this particular genie back in the bottle isn't only impractical: I would hazard a guess that it is well-nigh impossible.

The recent article on the Hoboken experience labels it a 'failed experiment'. Personally, I am not sure that this label fits in this particular case. In an experiment, it seems to me that you are usually trying to learn something. This rather large purchase of technology seems to me like yet another solution in search of a problem that no one bothered to actually tried to define in any meaningful way. I suspect that, at a fundamental level, the problem wasn't (really) with the technology. In other words: It seems more like human failure to me.


Side note: As a sort of experiment itself -- or maybe this is better characterized as 'part experiment, part prank' -- I used to circulate an excerpt from Wilbur Shramm's classic Bold Experiment: The Story of Educational Technology in American Samoa, which examined lessons from a project that began in the mid-1960s, but I would replace certain key words (the place, the particular technology, the project name) with those of a high profile 'edtech project du jour' somewhere in the world and share it with colleagues and see if they suspected any foul play. I once actually, and rather embarrassingly, fooled myself with this, as I almost forwarded on one of these doctored excerpts to someone, thinking that it was actually a resource document about a particular project under discussion.


I was recently asked to adapt/update the EduTech list of worst practices in ICT use in education so that it would be 'relevant for the new age of mobile learning'. For those not familiar with the term, or  who are confused by it, 'mobile learning' usually refers to the use of small(er), hand(s)held technology devices that learners can take with them -- think mobile phones, for example, or small tablets. To be honest, I suspect the person making this request hadn't really fully internalized lessons from that earlier list of worst practices, which were meant to reflect many things that had been learned from educational technology initiatives of all sorts. With that said, however, and in the spirit of giving people what they want, here is a list of 'bad' practices in mobile learning, based on my familiarity with many projects which fit into this category that have emerged in the past few years.

In the interest of trying to keep things new and fresh, I have tried to avoid simply re-casting the more general list of worst practices related to technology use in education (all of which I would maintain are still valid, as well as many of the insightful examples and perspectives offered in the comments section to the original blog post) with a small 'mobile twist'. Given the paucity of reliable data about actual mobile learning practices in middle and low income countries, to say nothing of evidence of impact, this list is a sort of first draft based on observing lots of people and groups doing, and trying to do, things in this area; talking with people who have advised, supported, criticized, evaluated or funded them; and with learners and teachers who have benefited from (or suffered as a result of using) related products and services.

I concede that what doesn't work today, and so might constitute a 'bad practice' now, might not be so in the future. (The Apple Newton flopped in its time, the iPad has been a runaway success since it was released.) Acknowledging the tentative or draft nature of this list, I have labelled these 'bad', not 'worst', practices. As with the previous list of 'worst practices', the criteria for inclusion in this somewhat idiosyncratic, non-comprehensive list aimed at educational policymakers and planners were that these practices have been observed in multiple initiatives and in multiple places, and seem to repeat over time with only slight variations. Specific names and places have been omitted (feel free to add them in yourself). 

In no particular order, then, and with specific reference to common realities in middle and low income countries, here are some:

Bad practices in mobile learning

1. Simply port over content or applications already developed for PCs
The impulse behind this common course of action is quite understandable. “We have already paid a lot to develop this stuff, and we think what we already have is pretty good.” Just because something is understandable doesn’t mean it is advisable, however. One still hears similar sentiments from certain educational publishers who consider the fact that they have made their materials available as PDFs means that their content has now been (magically?) transformed into ‘digital textbooks’, but the results of such ‘porting’ are usually quite underwhelming. This is not to recommend that all previous content simply be discarded or ignored. However, a mobile first approach to developing mobile learning products and services which approaches design and development afresh and aims to capitalize on the particular affordances offered by mobile devices may yield better results.

2. Introduce a totally new device to facilitate ‘mobile learning’
The allure of a new educational technology device is hard to ignore. That said, history has shown that purpose-built educational technology devices designed for specific educational purposes often fail to gain traction and find users -- and they can be very difficult to build! (There are exceptions to this, of course, with handheld graphing calculators being one prominent example. For the purpose of this discussion, ‘ruggedizing’ an existing tablet for use in schools does not make it ‘new’, it just means that a potentially useful feature or attribute has been added to an existing device.) It is worth asking: Is it more likely that a totally brand new device aimed at the education market will succeed, or might a more prudent course of action be to take advantage of the fact that there is already a base level of technology available to your users upon which you can build? In other words: Is there really a need to develop a new, ideal educational technology device in order for mobile learning to take place, or can you build off what is already available in the market and in widespread use? A better principle to follow, especially when seeking to impact learners and teachers in low income communities, might be to develop for devices that your potential users already have, know how to use, and can afford.

3. Don't spend time with your target user groups – assume you already understand their needs
What may well be considered a ‘good practice’ or an ‘appropriate solution’ for learners in schools in Silicon Valley or Helsinki, Cambridge or Seoul may not be so good or appropriate when transferred to educational contexts in (e.g.) rural Africa. Thinking you understand the needs of user groups unlike those with which you currently work can have some rather unfortunate consequences once your mobile learning product or service is actually available ‘on the ground’. It is just possible that many of the real usability challenges inhibiting the adoption of 'mobile learning' at scale in developing countries won’t be overcome by people or groups from other places -- no matter how brilliant or well-intentioned or successful they may have already been proven to be -- but rather by people living and working in such environments themselves, or at least who come from such places (and whose families may still live there), and/or who are themselves users of the mobile devices they help design or the learning applications that run on them. Adopting user-centered design techniques or approaches can be quite helpful here.

related to this, two additional ‘bad’ practices come to mind ...

4. Consider that all 'mobile learners' are 'digital natives'
As the ‘digital native’ hypothesis (that all young people are somehow different than their elders because they instinctively ‘get’ technology) enters its second decade, this widely used term continues to exert a strong influence over many educational policymakers, educators and vendors alike. Quickly learning and demonstrating a mastery of the mechanics of a particular process or application on a mobile device (posting to Facebook, for example, or playing a video game one has never seen before) shouldn't be confused with a mastery of how to successfully use such a device for learning. Design exclusively for the ‘digital native’ and you may well ignore the needs of many of learners, potentially needlessly confusing and complicating their efforts as they engage in ‘mobile learning’.

and …

5. Discount the notion that a device will be used by more than one person
Around the world, mobile devices are often personal devices, owned and used by a single person. This is largely true … except when it isn’t.  While the notion that "regardless of social class, almost everyone [in Africa] has a mobile phone, or two or three", is conventional wisdom in some circles, data don’t support this contention. The phenomenon of shared use of mobile phones in developing countries has been long remarked upon and studied. Especially in school settings in developing countries, and within families, device sharing can be the norm, not the exception. Mobile learning initiatives that don’t consider this scenario may stumble upon complications, small and large, as a result.

6. Target in-school ‘mobile learning’ exclusively
“We have a fantastic educational app that would be really valuable for use in schools in developing countries – how can we get this into schools in such places?” This is, in some communities, a common question (there are *lots* of makers of educational apps out there!).  Even if the app itself would be quite useful it may be worth considering: Are schools really the best place for the app to be used, especially in cases where the app is meant to run on a mobile phone? After all, many education systems ban the use, or even possession, of mobile phones by students when in school altogether. Teachers may struggle with trying to control a class where each student’s attention is directed not at them, but rather at a small screen (on which a student may be texting or engaged in some other ‘undesirable activity’). Even where the mechanics of such supervision or oversight is possible, attempting to figure out how using a specific app corresponds to the particular curricular objective to be explored during a given class period can be quite difficult. Targeting learners outside of school hours, and off school property, might well be more practical.

7. Make it all about smart phones
When technology seers predict that, “in the future everyone will have a smart phone”, they may well be correct. However, most of today’s learners and teachers don’t live in the future. Develop content and applications exclusively for smart phones and you’ll miss the majority of potential users in developing countries who still have so-called ‘feature’ phones, simple ‘dumb’ phones … or who have no phones at all. It is too difficult to develop for lower end phones, companies may say, as they don’t allow us to do everything we want to do. Fair enough, that’s probably true. But if you want to reach a large market and hope to achieve broad scale and wide impact, developing for devices that people don’t have may not be the optimal course of action.

8. Plan for digital distribution of content to ‘connected’ mobile devices to be easy
Many groups believe that targeting mobile phones as a potentially relevant device to enable and facilitate various types of mobile learning activities in developing countries is compelling for many reasons. No argument there! That said, assuming that it will be easy to get content onto such devices because they can be connected (to mobile networks, to local wireless networks) can be complicated by the messy reality that what is true in the abstract might in fact be much more difficult once you get ‘on the ground’. Connectivity in general can be spotty. Data connections can be expensive – and, in an educational context who should pay for these costs, and how? Physical distribution of educational content onto mobile devices – as well as updating existing content and applications -- can certainly be done instead, but the logistics of planning for this can be nontrivial, and related costs can be considerable.

9. Assume that you need to do 'mobile learning'
Many groups planning for mobile learning initiatives are driven by a compulsion to “do something in the mobile learning space”. A recognition that ‘mobile learning is the future’, however, needn’t inexorably lead to the development of anything that is, in end effect, terribly useful. If your criterion for success is to ‘to something’, it’s is probably not too difficult to ‘succeed’. If the goal, on the other hand, is to do something to benefit teaching and learning practices, proposing a ‘mobile solution’ without understanding the problem that needs solving is a recipe for disappointment.  It may well be, after all, that the ‘problem’ identified can be addressed through other, ‘non-mobile’ means.

10. ___
[#10 is left deliberately blank here, as an acknowledgement that there is still much we have to learn in this regard.]

There are no doubt lots more, but I'll end there. Please feel free to add you your own worst practices, or disagree with me, in the comments sections below, or send them on to me via email (form at right side of the page) or using Twitter (@trucano or @WBedutech).


If you're interested in trying to get a handle on who is doing what in the area of 'mobile learning in developing countries', a recent paper sponsored by USAID and the mEducation Alliance, Mobiles for Reading: A Landscape Research Review, might be worth checking out. Topics related to 'mobile learning' feature regularly on the EduTech blog. Here are some others that might be of additional interest:

Note: The image at the top of this blog post of a comically large phone in the city of Itu, Brazil's "capital of large things" ("something doesn't seem quite right with this particular implementation ...") is adapted from a photograph from the Wikipedian JetsonJones and comes via Wikimedia Commons. It is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Michael Trucano

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

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