A 'mobile first' approach to educational technology

This page in:


mobiles moving about ... but to what end?
mobiles moving about ... but to what end?

'Mobile devices' are increasingly to be found in schools, and utilized for learning purposes, around the world. In most cases, related discussions taking place in ministries of education focus on the use of portable tablets and small laptops as complements to, and extenders of, existing approaches to the use of technology to help meet a whole host of education and learning objectives. At the same time, mobile devices of many other sorts -- most notably the mobile phone -- are proliferating at a much greater rate in larger society. Linkages between the devices being used outside of schools, and the technology to be found within schools, are often quite tenuous, where they exist at all.

Policies and plans related to the use of our current generation of electronic mobile devices are sometimes considered in ways distant or divorced from the way that the previous generation of 'mobile devices' was used in education: books, notebooks, pencils. At other times, they are considered in exactly the same way, as if the new opportunities and affordances appearing as a result of technological advances are best considered as mere adjuncts to, or continuations of, some of the approaches and practices which have marked and defined what has happened in schools over the past one hundred years or so.

Is there really anything different (potentially) going on now,
and if so, what might this be,
and why (and how) might we care about this difference)?

I just returned from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the world's largest exhibition and conference for the mobile industry, in which over 75,000 people representing mobile phone network operators, device manufacturers, technology providers, vendors and content owners from across the world gather to do business, announce new products and services, and discuss What's Next. In addition to walking through the acres of exhibition space, attending briefing sessions and meetings on activities and developments all over the world, and listening to lots of well-rehearsed marketing messages, the specific reason for my attendance at this year's event was to make a speech at the MWC's official ministerial programme, an event for senior government officials featuring debates and knowledge sharing sessions on a variety of topics of related interest. In case it might be of any interest to a wider audience (the ministerial programme itself was a closed event, not open to the public), I present below my speech below. One of the animating impulses behind the EduTech blog is to try, in a decidedly small and modest way, to promote greater transparency and openness by sharing some of the conversations and themes and perspectives that are being discussed 'behind closed doors' in various places in a more public forum. With that in mind ...


A 'mobile first' approach to educational technology

Thank you to the GSMA for including the World Bank, and me, in this important session this morning on the first day of the Mobile World Congress as part of the special 'ministerial programme'. And thank you all in advance for your attention over the next nine minutes or so. I'll apologize in advance that I have no PowerPoint or Keynote or Prezi presentation for you this morning. I'll do this speech the old fashioned way: You'll have to find something more interesting to look at than a set of bullet points projected onto the screen at the front of the room. Whether that means looking up at me, or, more likely, down at your phones, is a choice I leave for you to make yourselves.

Honorable ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: My name is Mike Trucano. I work at the World Bank at the intersection of technology and education, helping education systems and groups in middle and low income countries around the world explore new approaches to old challenges related to education and learning. I talk with education folks about technology and with technology folks about education. I talk with government officials and NGOs and hackers and educators and technologists and academics and companies and software developers -- mostly in the so-called 'Global South', the countries outside the heavily industrialized and 'highly developed' countries of Europe, North America and East Asia. I see a lot of interesting developments and 'innovations' along the way (including some things that are truly innovative, and many other things simply labelled as such). I try to listen much more than I talk. And I try to pay special attention to listen for what I am not hearing.

While researchers and politicians -- and perhaps even a few of my World Bank colleagues and those of you in the room -- may disagree about which related policy levers to pull, when, and about the impact of various specific measures and activities, and about the relative and absolute costs of such things, I expect no one here would deny the centrality of education to success and economic development in today's world, and to tomorrow's.

From the perspective of 2014, the global education community has much to celebrate. As my World Bank colleague (and boss) Elizabeth King noted in her recent speech at the Education World Forum, "the developing world has tripled the average years of schooling of an adult in just two generations, and in the past 15 years the ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary education rose from 84 to 96 percent." That said, there is much left to do less than a year until the target date for achieving the Millennium Development Gals, including Education For All, by 2015. As Beth notes, "We must focus not only on school attendance and average years of schooling but on learning, learning for all. Why? Because people start learning before we enter school and continue to learn after we leave school. And because schooling has not always resulted in learning. Despite significant progress in reducing the number of children not in school—57 million children today as compared with over 105 million at the turn of the millennium—learning levels even for basic skills are alarmingly poor. An estimated 250 million children around the world are unable to read and do math, even after spending three or more years in the classroom. And the greatest learning gaps are among children who live in extreme poverty, in slums and remote areas, in fragile and conflict-affected environments, children from ethnic minorities and lower castes, and children who have disabilities. These are the very children for whom we hope education could pave a way out of poverty and deprivation."

For many if not most of these children and learners, business as usual is still not working -- or not working quickly enough. Business unusual is then perhaps worth considering ... which brings us to the topic of this morning's workshop on mobile learning.


From subsequent speakers and discussants, I expect you'll hear about some exciting new, and perhaps not so new, developments and examples in the field of 'mobile education'. I'll leave it to the folks who follow to talk about such specifics (and, for those of you currently more absorbed by the screens of your own mobile devices than in my speech here, I'll direct you to numerous related posts on the World Bank's EduTech blog).

Instead, I want to begin the morning by asking:

What does 'mobile' mean in the context of education, and why should we care?

First, I would like to note that mobility depends on one's perspective.

From the perspective of the observer, a mobile device appears to move from place to place, carried along by its user.

From the perspective of the user, however, a mobile device is a constant, for better or worse virtually locked into space and place (in one's hand, in one's purse, in one's pocket), while it is the world around her that constantly changes.

Does the device, and the user to which it is (almost seemingly umbilically) attached, move through the world ... or does the world move around it, and them? In asking this question, I don't mean to refer to (or lament) the self-absorption of a gadget obsessed young person, or generation, or society. Like it or not, the phenomenon of a young person intensely considering the small screen of her own device, focused more on the world as mediated through a small LCD screen than on the 'real' world taking place around her, increasingly marks communities all around the world, rich and poor, 'developed' and 'under-developed'. Rather, I simply wish to observe that this device is, increasingly, always with you.

A famous cartoon from The New Yorker magazine is captioned, "On the internet no one knows you're a dog." That may well be true, but your phone knows who you are. Why is this important for the purposes of this discussion? Because learning is about more than just what happens in school. For many kids around the world -- and let's be honest here -- what happens in school isn't all that great, and so being personally connected to learning opportunities outside (in some cases, linked to school) can be especially powerful.

Building off the fact that mobile devices are increasingly ubiquitous, and affordable, and easy to operate (if not to use productively and successfully), 'mobile education' (or 'mobile learning'), is exciting for two primary reasons: it is personal, and it is connected.  The World Bank’s education strategy articulates an important shift from a desire to ensure ‘education for all’ (where all children go to school) to ‘learning for all’ (where people young and old are learning, both inside and outside of formal educational activities). Mobile devices – much more widely available and used outside of schools than inside them – are for many people exciting because they represent the potential for people to be always connects to learning opportunities.


Of course, ‘mobile learning’ isn't *the* answer to the many complex, interrelated challenges we face in the education sector. When it comes to education, technology isn't the answer, despite what many advertisements (and vendors displaying their wares here at the Mobile World Congress) may promise. It has been billed as such for decades, and the graveyard of failed edtech programs is pretty crowded.  More than one clever pundit has acidly noted that, given the paltry or hard to discern or attribute returns on investment to many educational technology initiatives in the past, edtech is the real faith-based initiative in education. That said, faith can be a pretty powerful thing, and a lack of rigorously obtained 'hard' data about the efficacy of educational technology investments has done little to dent enthusiasm and slow many such investments in many education systems around the world.

If previous approaches haven't worked in the past so well,
might there be an approach to technology use in education in the future that might yield better results?

Or has the problem been simply that things have been changing too fast,
or that we haven't had a sufficient level of saturation of affordable technology devices,
and the content and services to which our devices connect us,
to reach a necessary 'tipping point' at which our 'old' approaches will be successful?

Perhaps you have better, more considered answers to these sorts of questions than I do. (You probably have other questions as well -- I certainly do, but those can perhaps be better explored at another time and place!) For the sake of our purposes here, let me propose to you that, when considering large scale investments in technologies to benefit education, many countries may wish to consider a 'mobile first' approach. I say this here in an attempt to be deliberately provocative, while noting that, despite many (many!) large scale investments in laptops and tablets around the world, there is, to my knowledge, no education system in the world that is truly doing so. Many places may say that mobile is a big part of what they do now, and there is no denying that this is true. That said, one may wonder if, for example, simply porting content from traditional printed textbooks is really the result of a 'mobile first' approach, or if it is more along the lines of re-packaging and re-purposing old 'immobile' tools and resources so that you can carry them around with you. 'Mobile first' isn't about lining up a lot of shiny new tablets in neat rows in a dedicated multimedia room, basically substituting touchscreens for keyboards in a variant on the traditional 'school computer lab' model. It isn't about simply tacking on a 'mobile component' to a country's existing educational technology strategy.

My challenge to you this morning is that, when it comes to the promise and practice of 'mobile learning'-- to borrow a well-known marketing slogan -- you might wish to think different.


After touring schools, principals have asked me what I think of their new technology set-up, which features rows of tablets neatly placed on neatly spaced desks, much like the looms and sewing machines one still encounters from time to time when visiting schools in some poor countries. (On more than one occasion, I have been in a room converted from the latter to the former.) Software companies and educational publishers stop by the World Bank to demo their wares and ask, what do you think about how we have porting our textbooks, or our desktop software programs, to become mobile apps?

All of that is (potentially) well and good, but this is in many ways a consequence of looking forward to tomorrow through yesterday's lenses.

Mobile is different -- or at least potentially so. For many people, it is different for what it is not. But focusing on the small screen size, the lack of a full size keyboard -- in other words, what it is not, or does not have -- isn't really terribly interesting. Instead of decrying its limitations, perhaps it might be more productive to build on, and build off, its particular affordances and strengths. It the fact that it is personal and connected.

At the World Bank, we monitor and support lots of worthy initiatives around the world -- mostly small ones, 'pilots', but some much bigger -- that attempt to iteratively improve things. Projects utilizing mobile devices to: Improve access to learning materials. Pay teachers. Provide exam results. Report on student absences collect data -- and make these data more openly and widely available. Do exam prep. Learn a foreign language. Etc. Etc. Etc. Many of these efforts (not all) can be seen as logical extensions of the way things have always been done, just with a new 'mobile component'. These sorts of activities are all certainly important and there can be little doubt that there is scope and need for much iterative improvement in some of the ways that education is practiced and delivered in many parts of the world. That said, there is, it should be noted, a big difference between iteration and true innovation -- especially the sort of discontinuous innovation that is necessary to help overcome many of the long-standing, seemingly intractable challenges facing the education systems in many poor countries (and perhaps those in many 'rich' countries as well). Simply doing what you have done before, but with a shiny new device, does not in and of itself make a practice or approach 'innovative'. A desire for real innovation in education, assisted or catalyzed or enabled in part through the use of new technologies, calls for reimagining not only how we do things, but what we want to do.


A mobile device -- a phone or a laptop or a tablet or a 'phablet' or whatever you chose to call it, or whatever it will be called in the future, and whether you hold it or you wear it -- may be central to some considerations of business unusual. While meaning no offence to a lot of the companies here in force at the Mobile World Congress, I suspect that some of the most 'innovative' applications of technologies for learning won't emerge from the 'developed' countries of the OECD, but rather from the local 'hacking' of technologies originally designed for one context, so as to do something in different circumstances characterized by scarcity and constraint. What might this look like in the education sector? I am not sure. (If I were, I'd be out doing it myself, and not talking to you about it here this morning!) But developments in, for example, mobile banking services, where innovation has occurred not to meet the needs of consumers in the financial capitals of London, Tokyo, Frankfurt or New York, but rather to meet unmet needs of ordinary people in rural Kenya, and across the islands of the Philippines, may suggest that such a thing is possible.


I suspect that there are many officials from ICT ministries and telecom authorities in the room today, as well as many private sector companies. You have important roles to play here, and there are plenty of opportunities for productive investments and partnerships. I note emerging cooperations in many countries, for example, exploring how universal service funds can be utilized to connect schools to broadband, and students to the devices that will enable them to utilize this new connectivity. There is potentially much scope for action, and innovation, here, to enable and catalyze innovative uses of mobile devices in the education sector.

I would caution you, however, not to simply invest in achieving yesterday's vision -- which, in the case of technology use in education, hasn't been all that successful, if we are honest with ourselves. Many countries today -- including those of some of you in the room this morning -- are currently or about to invest lots of money to help realize a traditional model of computer use in schools for the first time, while at the same time there is an installed infrastructure of mobile devices out there upon which you could, alternatively, build. There are undeniable challenges to adopting a ‘mobile first’ like this -- related to technology, related to equity, related to imagination. There is no denying that. (Usually the easy things have already been done!)

However, mobile education, and mobile learning, need not represent a business as usual approach to technology use in education. It is not the same. It's different. It's personal, and connected. And: It's coming, whether you like it or not. (A few years ago I did a quick survey and identified over fifty countries where mobile phones were banned in schools.) In fact, it's actually potentially already here. We are just choosing not to recognize it. No matter where I travel, I hear regular and consistent complaints that school are disconnected from the lives of learners outside of school. Mobile education and mobile learning can (potentially) help here.

So, when it comes to planning for technology use in education in 2014 and beyond, let's not drive by looking in the rear view mirror. Let's consider a 'mobile first' approach to technology in education. This means a personal, connected approach.

It doesn't mean a 'mobile only' approach, and it certainly doesn't mean a 'technology first' approach to education -- something that has disappointed us in the past, and presumably will continue to do so in the future. But it also means that (to slightly modify the metaphor invoked more than any other when discussing the impact of the diffusion of mobile phones across developing economies and societies around the world) that we should take care not to "leap frog" in the wrong direction -- especially if that direction is backwards, towards what we know doesn't work all that well.

Clearly, we’ve seen many positive results as a consequence of the launching of the Education For All movement almost 25 years ago, but much remains to be done. Basic education is the foundation for all long-term development progress and core to the World Bank’s mission of reducing poverty and promoting shared prosperity. We’re all committed to ensuring the world’s children get the quality education they need and deserve. Technology can play important roles in all of this, perhaps even some fundamental ones.

The best technology is the one you have, can afford, and know how to use. And today, in much of the world, that's mobile.

Thank you for your attention.


For what it's worth, I'll note here, by way of illustrating that I occasionally actually try to practice what I preach, that I composed this talk 100% on my mobile phone: writing, researching, editing, rewriting, communicating and connecting to others. I did this in the middle of the night with my phone at my bedside, on the subway, on the plane, at halftime of a futsal match -- everywhere but at my desk in my office, where I am 'traditionally' meant to do this sort of thing. (Perhaps it shows?) Please feel free to add in any comments below, using whatever device is most convenient to you.


You might also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:
 [-] In search of the ideal educational technology device for developing countries
 [-] Educational technology and innovation at the edges
 [-] 10 principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments
 [-] A different approach to scaling up educational technology initiatives
 [-] A model for educational technology development from … Afghanistan?
 [-] … and, more generally, posts on the use mobile phones in education


Note: The photographic image used at the top of this blog post of for different 'mobiles' ("mobiles moving about ... but to what end?") is from Davide Casali and comes via Wikimedia Commons. The picture is of four hanging scuptures (Sculture Inutili, or "useless machines") by the Italian artist Bruno Munari, who also did notable research related to tactile and kinesthetic learning. The image is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The University of Pennsylvania (USA) is hosting a special invitation-only conference on 10-11 April 2014 on

MOOCs for Development:
Potential at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

For more information, including contact information for the organizers, please see the conference web site.

Note that a special prize has just been announced (application deadline: 14 March) to help fund a free trip to the conference.


Michael Trucano

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

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000