I had the pleasure of participating in the Planet Earth Institute‘s discussion on mobile technology for education in Africa, held on 5th June at the House of Lords. It’s interesting how such occasions, where one has to speak on the spur of the moment about important issues, provide a spur for innovative and creative thinking. The mix of the people, and the sharing of ideas really can generate new thoughts.
The main point that I tried to convey throughout the event was that it is the learning that matters. Far too many initiatives are technology-led, rather than needs driven. Hence, mobile devices are absolutely not the solution for African education, although they can indeed help to deliver certain new kinds of learning opportunity. After all, as I mentioned, many years ago I engaged in mobile learning when I read books on long car journeys!
At one point, we were asked to think about the barriers preventing the spread of m-learning in Africa, and I want here to expand a little on the five ‘Cs’ that I came up with. To be sure, they are a little contrived, but I do think that if these barriers can be overcome, then some real progress can be made:
- Connectivity. To me, this is one of the biggest challenges for any ‘mobile-‘ initiative. Certainly people have developed simple SMS based learning solutions, and games that can function on basic phones and devices, but the difference between these and what can be done on smart-phones is huge. Smart-phones enable engagement with the wealth of resources on the web, and offer a completely different learning experience for people of all ages and backgrounds – if they can afford them (Cost!). So, providing mobile broadband solutions that everyone can access seems to me to be the most important challenge facing those who want to deliver high quality learning experiences through mobile devices. Hence, initiatives such as the work of the Broadband Commission and the Alliance for the Affordable Internet are of particular importance – but we must turn the rhetoric into reality! That’s one reason why the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation has placed such emphasis on the importance of mobile broadband in its current strategic plan.
- Charging (electricity). By this, I mean the importance of ensuring that it is easy and cheap to charge mobile devices everywhere. Electricity is absolutely essential for all digital technologies, and is all too often insufficiently considered when developing such initiatives. For those off the main grid, it is essential that simple, cheap and accessible means of recharging devices are developed and shared widely across the continent. Likewise, developing batteries that last much longer than at present is also an important consideration. My experiences in 2011 in rural China have given me lots of ideas about how this can be achieved – and where there are supplies of running water I have been very impressed with some of the micro-hydro initiatives that have been developed in south-east Asia.
- Communication rather than content. I have often written about this, but it seems to me that the really innovative thing about mobile-phones is that they enable entirely new ways of communication. Yet, far too often they are seen primarily as devices to supply/enable content consumption. I believe passionately that learning should not simply be about learning and regurgitating – yet our education systems seem to focus more and more on encouraging people to take on board accepted ‘truths’. Learning, should be about thinking for oneself, and coming up with new solutions to old problems! This is often best achieved through communication and interaction – the debating of ideas – and not just through digesting existing knowledge. Far too often, digital technologies associated with learning have reinforced regurgitation, rather than encouraging new ways of thinking. Hence, I want to shift the balance towards using devices for communication – they are, after all, mobile phones – rather than just for content consumption.
- Calculating (effective monitoring and evaluation). This is a bit contrived, but I could not think of a better ‘C’ for ‘monitoring and evaluation’! By ‘calculating’, I mean that we need to calculate the impact of our initiatives on learning achievements. Although many people talk about the importance of monitoring and evaluation, there is far too little good and effective work in this area. If we do not understand the real effects, including the unintended consequences, of the use of mobile devices in learning, then we cannot really determine how best to implement initiatives at scale. We must also be much more open about our failures so that others can learn from our experiences. Hence, the lack of quality monitoring and evaluation is a real barrier.
- Commitment. This is hugely important. There must be real commitment to using mobile devices effectively for learning, rather than simply using content provision as a means of selling more mobile devices! I fear that all too often, ‘m-‘ initiatives are driven too much by commercial interests, often in alliance with those who see ICTs as some kind of silver bullet that will transform society for the better, rather than by the real health, learning or governance needs and aspirations of people.
At the end, I was asked by Lord Boateng to sum up my thoughts about barriers, and simply said that the biggest barrier of all was our imagination! If we really focus on the learning, and develop innovative solutions whereby everyone can use mobile devices to enhance their lives, wherever they are living, then, and only then, can we talk about real m-development.