Surveying Mobile Learning Around the World (part one)

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lo que constituye un ?aparato móvil? puede estar algunas veces en el ojo del que lo miraAbout four years ago, the World Bank's infoDev program secured funding to do a 'global survey of the use of mobile phones in education in developing countries', based on the belief that the increasing availability of the small, connected computing devices more commonly known as 'mobile phones' was going to have increasing relevance to school systems around the world.  For a variety of reasons -- including regrettable internal bureaucratic delays and, more fundamentally, the fact that, when we looked around at what was actually happening on the ground in most of the world, not much was actually going on (yet), and so we concluded that a global survey of expert thought of the potential future relevance of the use of mobile phone in education wouldn't yet be terribly useful -- we ended up scrapping this research project, hoping that others would pursue similar work when the time was ripe. (The funds were re-programmed to support EVOKE, the World Bank's online 'serious game', the second version of which is scheduled to launch in September in Portuguese and English, on both PCs and mobile phones, with a special focus on Brazil.) A few of the organizations involved in the mEducation Alliance, an international collaborative effort in which the World Bank participates that is working to explore cutting edge intersections between mobiles, education and development and to promote collective knowledge sharing, have just published some short papers that have accomplished much of what we had hoped to do with this sort of survey.  We'll look at two of these efforts this week on the EduTech blog: the first led by UNESCO, the second (in a follow up post this Friday) by the Mastercard Foundation, working with the GSMA.

This month, our (sort of) sister site, the EduTech Debate, has been focusing on the release of a series of working papers from UNESCO that attempt to provide regional overviews of 'mobile learning' initiatives in various parts of the world, as well thematic papers looking at the use of mobile technologies to support teachers and teacher professional development.  The last two papers, which were published late last week (there are twelve in all), synthesize the key messages and lessons identified in the first ten documents and provide some additional global context and insight.  While the papers don't pretend to be comprehensive, they do nevertheless offer perhaps the most comprehensive overview to date of what is actually happening 'on-the-ground' with initiatives utilizing 'new' mobile technologies like phones and tablets -- a topic commonly explored here on the EduTech blog as well.

UNESCO traces its interest in this topic to "a simple, if profound, observation: today there are a staggering 5.9 billion mobile phone subscriptions on a planet with 7 billion people.... If mobile phones – by far the most ubiquitous interactive information and communications technology (ICT) on Earth – can be used to help deliver and improve education, then they carry a tremendous potential to assist the learning of people everywhere." At the same time, it notes that "just because a particular technology is widespread does not necessarily mean it is suitable for education. To be sure, many parents and even experienced teachers cringe when they hear the words ‘mobile phone’ and ‘education’ used in the same sentence."

The UNESCO working paper series on mobile learning seeks to describe and analyze a number of initiatives from around the world that fall under the general category of 'mobile learning', most of which feature the use of mobile phones to meet a variety of different objectives in the education sector.  Individual papers look at what's happening in different regions of the world, investigating what some of the emerging policy implications from various emerging activities and practices might be, with a particular interest in the potential impact of mobile learning on teachers and teaching practices. Report authors acknowledge that it is still 'early days' when it comes to mobile learning, but hope that, by dipping into the pages of the 12 reports, readers may catch glimpses of what might be coming.

The papers themselves are quite varied in their approaches, formats and content, but, taken together, UNESCO has identified five key trends worth considering (please note that the words are from UNESCO, we have rendered certain of them in bold for added emphasis):

  1. Many parents, teachers and even students tend to view mobile technology as out of place in education and potentially harmful to students, despite the fact that mobile devices are well-situated to improve and extend learning opportunities.
  2. There is currently a dearth of national, regional and local education policies that acknowledge mobile learning, let alone embrace its potential to help students and teachers work more effectively.
  3. Mobile technology can provide rich educational opportunities to students who have traditionally lacked access to high-quality schooling.
  4. As mobile technology continues to make inroads in education it will be necessary for policy-makers to
    ensure that programmes help rectify educational inequities and bridge, rather than widen, the
    digital divide.
  5. For mobile learning to positively impact education in a substantive way, educators and policy-makers will need to forge new partnerships with industries and
    that have not historically been involved in teaching and learning.

For people interested in learning more about the uses of mobile phones and related devices based on what is observable across the world today, this series of papers is highly recommended reading, given its geographic diversity and the breadth (if not depth) of initiatives it considers.


We have now read through all of the papers a few times. In case they might be of any interest to a wider audience,  (especially where they may help generate interest in this topic generally, as well as to help point people to this particular UNESCO initiative), we thought we'd offer the following set of quick comments, based on our quick understanding of what is in the papers:

Despite increasing interest in the potential for 'mobile learning' over the past half-decade around the world, there is still comparatively little actual activity taking place, when compared with the use of other ICT devices like PCs and laptops.  That said, diverse initiatives are emerging beyond the sets of 'usual suspects' that are often featured in related reports and presentations about the topic. We follow the topic of 'mobile learning' quite closely, and were delighted to find many initiatives mentioned that we had not previously known about.

There is tremendous variety in what is happening across regions -- and within the regions themselves. In Asia, much of what is happening appears to be occurring at the tertiary or higher education level. In Europe -- where the European Commission has for many years played an outsized role in funding early mobile learning projects and where the United Kingdom (through projects like MoLeNET) has been a real leader, with a few notable activities also occurring in Denmark and the Netherlands -- some leading programs were actually completed before similar activities even began in earnest in other parts of the world. In North America, only 14 U.S. states and Canadian provinces reported efforts to support mobile learning in various ways. In Latin America, there are a few leading projects in a few countries like Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Paraguay (initiatives from Brazil are notable for their absence), while in Africa and the Middle East most initiatives are quite small, usually text-centric pilot projects, often largely supply-side interventions in urban areas (with the important exception of South Africa, which is home to much leading edge practice and thinking on mobile learning topics).

Despite many common trends identified across countries, some specific topics seemed to be of more importance in specific regionsFor example: In North America, scalability is an apparent real consideration in many places -- as are issues related to a number of potential negative effects of mobile use (e.g. cyberbullying, sexting, cheating). e-Waste issues were only notably mentioned in the Latin American context. In Asia there is specific mention of the dangers of 'over-use' (this focus is consistent with the treatment of educational technology issues across many Asian countries more broadly). The discussion of mobile devices in Europe perhaps went the farthest beyond just mobile phones. Perhaps due to activities related to the 'Arab Spring', the Africa and Middle East report highlighted the potential positive impact of accessing social media via mobile phones to a greater extent than was done with other regions.  (These regional reports were also the only ones to consider issues related to open educational resources.) It is difficult to tell to what extent these areas of focus were related to actual trends, the specific backgrounds and interests of the authors of the individual reports, available information, or simple space limitations, but we did find this variety rather interesting.

Compared with many other, more 'traditional' educational technology initiatives, BYOT (bring your own technology) is an important characteristic of many mobile learning programs. This helps lower costs, but also raises very real equity issues related to access.  We were encouraged to see that equity issues received prominent attention in almost all of the reports.

We would have loved to see a simple list of all of the initiatives included in the surveys. To our knowledge, this would represent the most complete global list of diverse mobile learning projects, and the places where these initiatives are occurring. Such a list would be useful in helping to monitor developments in this area going forward. (Perhaps such a list is coming ... or perhaps someone else -- like an enterprising student, perhaps? --  will do this, in response to this blog post. If not, we'll just put one together ourselves and upload it somewhere.)

Despite the buzz of 'new-ness' around mobile learning in some quarters, a large number of the projects surveyed featured very 'un-sexy', practical uses of devices to enable users to do things like view course syllabi and schedules, notify parents of attendance and grades, etc.

The most memorable factoid all three of us took away from our reading of the 12 papers: "In Africa, the continent facing the most pressing educational needs, the number of mobile phone subscriptions, which totaled 600,000 in 1995, is expected to surpass 735 million before the end of 2012. (It is perhaps worth noting that the last technology to spread this fast in Africa was the AK-47.)" We are not sure if this is true or not, but, now that it's mentioned in a UNESCO publication, we expect we'll now hear this repeated in many news articles and in countless conference presentations.

'Anti-mobile phone sentiments' present significant barriers to the adoption of mobile learning across the world (this observation was particularly strongly made in the Africa and Middle East regional reports).

Those are just a few of our initial reactions to the reports.  We look forward to more papers in this series from UNESCO in the coming months.  As these are working papers, UNESCO and the individual authors certainly welcome comment and feedback -- feel free to use the comments section below or, even better, comment directly in the related sections of the EduTechDebate site itself.

UNESCO Working Paper Series on Mobile Learning
[please note that all links are to PDF documents]


Turning on Mobile Learning: Global Themes
Mobile Learning for Teachers: Global Themes

Africa and the Middle East

Turning On Mobile Learning in Africa and the Middle East: Illustrative Initiatives and Policy Implications
Mobile Learning for Teachers in Africa and the Middle East: Exploring the Potential of Mobile Technologies to Support Teachers and Improve Practice


Turning On Mobile Learning in Asia: Illustrative Initiatives and Policy Implications
• Mobile Learning for Teachers in Asia: Exploring the Potential of Mobile Technologies to Support Teachers and Improve Practice


Turning On Mobile Learning in Europe: Illustrative Initiatives and Policy Implications
Mobile Learning for Teachers in Europe: Exploring the Potential of Mobile Technologies to Support Teachers and Improve Practice

Latin America

Turning On Mobile Learning in Latin America: Illustrative Initiatives and Policy Implications
Mobile Learning for Teachers in Latin America: Exploring the Potential of Mobile Technologies to Support Teachers and Improve Practice

North America

Turning On Mobile Learning in North America: Illustrative Initiatives and Policy Implications
Mobile Learning for Teachers in North America: Exploring the Potential of Mobile Technologies to Support Teachers and Improve Practice 

Note: The image at the top of this blog post of a red and black mobile in the style of Alexander Calder ("what constitutes a 'mobile device' can sometimes be in the eye of the (be)holder") is copyrighted by Andrew Dunn; it comes via Wikimedia Commons and is using according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


Michael Trucano

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

James Liu

Intern, World Bank ICT & Education team

Carla Jimenez Iglesias

ICT and Education Specialist

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