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

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

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