Tag Archives: m-learning

Thoughts on mobile learning for the EFA GMR 2015


GMRI was delighted to have been asked by UNESCO to write an overview of the evolution of mobile devices and their uses in learning (m-learning), focusing especially on the fifteen-year period of the first Millennium Development Goals, as a background paper for the 2015 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, and it is great that this has now been published.

I thought it might be useful to summarise some of the key points here. The paper highlights eight emerging good practices, and six significant policy implications. The emerging good practices are:

  • Focusing on learning outcomes not technology
  • Involving teachers and users at all stages from design to implementation and review
  • Involve participatory approaches in design so as to ensure that adoption of technology is user-centric
  • Consider sustainability, maintenance and financing right at the beginning
  • Think holistically and systemically
  • Ensure that all relevant government departments are involved
  • Ensure equality of access to all learners, especially those who are marginalised
  • Appropriate and rigorous monitoring and evaluation must be in place

The policy implications identified are closely linked to these and can be summarised as:

  • Joined up approaches across Governments
  • Sharing of effective and rigorous monitoring and evaluation findings
  • Ensuring affordability
  • Providing connectivity
  • Effective multi-stakeholder partnerships
  • Development of relevant content

Four case studies drawn from different parts of the world and at different scales were used to illustrate the considerable success that can be achieved through m-learning. These were:

  • BBC Janala in Bangladesh;
  • Red UnX: a mobile learning community for entrepreneurship in Latin America;
  • Learning on the Move in Singapore; and
  • Worldreader: making books available to primary school children in low-income countries

However, the paper also illustrates clearly that unless very considerable efforts are made to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised people and communities have access to appropriate devices, connectivity and electricity, any increased attention on digital technologies is likely to increase inequalities rather than reduce them.

It concludes that to date, great strides have been made in using the very rapid expansion of mobile devices for the benefit of education, and for those companies involved in exploiting this. However, as a review of delivery on the past EFA goals and MDGs, it is apparent that much remains to be done in using such devices to help achieve universal primary education and gender equality in education.  Looking to the future, as more and more people gain possession of, or access to, mobile devices, they will have the opportunity to use the Internet to access an ever more innovative array of learning tools and content. The challenge, particularly for governments, is how to pay for and use this potential to enable universal access, and thus equality of opportunity within the education sector. Given the central role of teachers and administrators within education, an important concluding recommendation is that much more attention should be paid to providing training, resources and support to them in the use of mobile devices. A well-equipped, knowledgeable and inspired cadre of teachers, capable of using mobile ‘phones effectively in their classes, is a crucial first-step towards delivering m-learning for all. Sadly, all too often, even in the richest countries of the world, children are told to switch off their mobile ‘phones before entering the classroom. M-learning has much potential, but we are still a long way from using it to benefit the world’s poorest and most marginalised.

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Education Fast Forward’s Eleventh Debate: Mobile Learning for the Masses


LogoEducation Fast Forward (EFF) was co-founded by Jim Wynn, formerly at Promethean and now EFF’s Chief Executive Officer, to bring together some of the world’s leading figures in the word of education to debate key issues facing governments, educators and employers. Its aim is not only just to debate these issues, but more importantly to come up with practical solutions that people can adopt, particularly in ensuring that technology is used appropriately to deliver effective solutions that will make a step change in learning experiences. EFF also ensures that it puts its body where its mouth is, so participants can engage in the debates through a variety of different modalities, including the use of Cisco’s Telepresence and WebEx environments, and also through live webstreaming, Twitter and other social media.

The Eleventh debate on 17th September, chaired by the irrepressible Gavin Dykes, was on the theme of Mobile Learning for the Masses? Realistic Expectations and Success Criteria. It began with two tone-setting presentations by Professor Miguel Nussbaum (Professor at the Computer Science Department of the School of Engineering of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) and David Atchoarena (Director of the Division for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO).

Miguel-Nussbaum-100Miguel Nussbaum began with a summary of his long career in using technology for learning, ranging from his early experience of using netbooks and tablets in Chile, to more recent work with multiple mice and mobile devices. His main presentation focused on how technology is used in the classroom, addressing three main issues: the way we teach; how we use technology, and how we can integrate technology in the classroom so that teachers make good use of it, and that students can really learn. At the heart of his presentation were the arguments that it is not the technology that matters, but rather we should focus on how technology can be used to deliver on curriculum needs.

Daivd_Profile-100David Atchoarena then followed, emphasising once again that technology must be a means rather than an end. It has to be used to solve specific challenges and needs. Recognising that in 2014 we are nearly at the end of the period set for achieving the Education for All Goals and the Dakar Framework, he noted that whilst progress has been achieved, very real challenges still remain in three areas: literacy, gender equality and teacher shortages. In all of these areas, he argued that mobile technologies can indeed make a significant difference.

The subsequent conversation, bringing together people from across the world explored a wide range of issues related to the implications of these arguments in the context of mobile learning. For me, six main themes emerged:

  1. Relevance for the poorest people in the poorest countries. Without electricity and connectivity, the most marginalised people and communities are not going to benefit from the potential of ICTs, be they mobile or otherwise! While many argued that it is merely a matter of time before everyone everywhere is connected, Adrian Godfrey from the GSMA noted that, although there are more SIM card registrations than there are people in the world, only just under half of the world’s population have their own access to mobile devices. Against this background, David Coltart, the former Minister of Education in Zimbabwe, emphasised the critical financial and infrastructure constraints facing educationalists in many of the world’s poorest countries, especially in Africa.
  2. The need to work closely with teachers. Teachers are central to the learning process and the general consensus was that they have to be involved at the heart of initiatives designed to introduce technology into education. Whilst it was recognised that people can indeed learn using the Internet on their mobile devices without any teacher involvement, it was also argued most strongly that we have to focus on pedagogy and the role of teachers in using technology in the classroom. This is not just to do with the way we teach, but also with what we teach. As Miguel Nussbaum commented, we have to ensure that teachers are trained to be collaborative, interdependent and seeking common goals. The pedagogy has to come before the technology!
  3. The power of assessment and the curriculum. Closely linked to the discussion of the role of teachers and pedagogy were comments about the power of assessment. For some, we need to change the ways in which learning is assessed if we are truly to benefit from the opportunities offered by mobile technologies; as long as we ‘test’ in traditional ways, pupils will not be able to take advantage of all the opportunities for collaboration and interaction offered by mobiles. For others, it was the curriculum that matters most, on the grounds that assessment usually follows the requirements of the curriculum.
  4. The interests underlying the introduction of mobile technologies in the classroom. My main contribution fell largely on deaf ears, but I do believe that in understanding these processes we have to understand the interests underlying the introduction of such technologies into the classroom. This is primarily driven by the interests of capital, and the need for companies to generate the maximum profits from their investments in digital technologies. Operators need to draw traffic through their networks, and if people can be encouraged to use these to gain useful learning resources, and network better with their peers, then this has to be a good thing. For content providers, mobiles offer a huge opportunity for generating additional revenue. Until we understand these interests, and realise that they are not driven primarily by pedagogy and the learning needs of pupils, then we will continue to be bemused by the failure of ICTs to transform the learning outcomes of formal educational systems
  5. Mobile devices can transform the learning experiences of some of the world’s most marginalised people and communities. Despite all of the challenges, it was great to see a small group of participants arguing that mobile devices can have a huge impact on the learning experiences of those living in refugee camps (Eliane Metni from Lebanon) and people with disabilities. We need to do much more to ensure that this work is supported, because otherwise these communities and individuals will become even further distanced from the rich who have access to the latest digital technologies.
  6. A call for action. There is far too much talking, and not enough action! Michelle Selinger, in particular, argued that you will only get effective action through dialogue between teachers policy makers, industry and academics. She also emphasised that, while content is important, it is crucial to remember the potential of mobile devices for crafting new types of collaboration through voice, video and text.

Education Fast Forward does not just finish with the live debate itself, and the EFF website, as well as their Twitter account (see #EFF11) provide ready means through which to continue the discussion. Thanks Jim, Gavin and all of the contributors for a thought-provoking discussion.

Postscript:

There is a huge amount of ongoing work on the use of mobiles for learning, and the International Telecommunication Union’s m-Powering Development initiative has recently produced a useful report on m-learning that is highly pertinent to this debate. This highlights the following eight main conclusions about things that are essential for the success of any m-learning initiative:

  • It is essential to focus on learning outcomes not just the technology;
  • Teachers and users should be involved at all stages in the development and implementation of m-learning initiatives;
  • Sustainability, maintenance and financing should be considered right at the beginning of any initiative;
  • It is important to think holistically and systemically;
  • All relevant government departments must be involved in any m-learning initiative;
  • Equality of access to all learners must be ensured, otherwise m-learning initiatives will lead t greater inequality;
  • Appropriate and rigorous monitoring and evaluation must be in place; and
  • Participatory approaches must be utilised in design.

Some, but not all of these issues were captured in the debate!

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If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?


I was very privileged that Adrian Godfrey asked me to say a few words to introduce the session on m-education that the GSMA convened earlier today at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.  It was good to be with a fun group of panelists, and I hope that we gave them some food for thought.

So, this is what I said.  It was designed to be provocative, but its intent was to emphasise that there are many different interests in the use of mobile devices for learning, and that if we are going to take advantage of the enormous potential that they can offer for the poorest and most marginalised then we need to recognise these interests, and work together in carefully crafted partnerships to deliver effective learning opportunities.

“If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
MaasaiLess than two weeks ago, I was in northern Tanzania.  Walking across the dry savannah, I entered the thorned enclosure of a boma, or small village. I was welcomed by the Maasai chief’s son, who engaged me in conversation.  I remembered seeing striking images in the international media around 2007 of Maasai warriors, resplendent in their red, “lion proof” robes, holding mobile ‘phones to their ears, and knowing that I was due to speak a world away, here in Barcelona today, I slowly began to explore the question of mobile telephony.  I should not have done so.  The conversation left me embarrassed and humbled.

As my friends used their smart-phones to take photos, I asked “Does anyone in the village have a mobile phone?”

“No” he said, in his excellent English.

One of my friends asked “Would a mobile ‘phone not be useful to call your friends in other villages?”

“Why?” he responded, “I can walk two or three hours to see them”.

And I admired his life.

Earlier, he had shown me the small hut where young children were learning the alphabet and counting in English. So I gently sought to explore the benefits of mobile learning: “But if you had a smart-phone, could you not use it to get learning resources for your children?”.

He looked bemused. My question meant little to him.  He had asked for chalk and books.

I changed the subject.

Of course, many Maasai – and indeed poor people in rural areas across Africa – do indeed use mobile ‘phones, for a wide range of purposes.  But this brief conversation re-emphasised many of the challenges of mobile-learning, and highlights the importance of the question: “if m-learning is the answer, what is the question”.

Let me therefore tease out just four of these questions here in my opening comments:

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
How do we increase our data traffic?”  To me, this is one of the most important questions –  all too often asked behind the closed doors of the luxurious offices of mobile operators – that is answered by the term “m-learning”.  It is nothing to do with education or learning. There is far more data capacity in the world than is currently used.  The arrival of the submarine cables across Africa in recent years has transformed connectivity, and much remains unused.  Mobile networks are expanding rapidly, but again there is insufficient demand for their use. Hence, it is crucial for operators to encourage the development of more services if they are to generate the profits that they seek.  Mobile banking has been one such successful service emanating from Africa; now mobile health services, and mobile-learning are seen as important means of moving beyond the simple data requirements of social media apps.

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
“How can we gain external funding from governments and donors so that we can extend our networks?”
The costs of putting networks into low-density rural areas, far from the fibre backbones of most countries, greatly outweigh the likely returns, at least in the short term. It is “uneconomic”.  In many poorer countries of the world, operators have been able to gain lucrative revenue opportunities from those living in the relatively small dense urban areas, and have been able to circumvent requirements to provide universal coverage, that would benefit all citizens. Hence, operators are always seeking to find sources of co-financing that can help them extend their networks into “marginal” areas.  Where they have to pay taxes into Universal Service (or Access) Funds, they naturally want a share back in extending networks.  They need a handle to persuade governments, and indeed donor agencies, to provide resources to enable them to extend their infrastructure. How better than to persuade them that by so doing they will enable all of their citizens to benefit from the opportunities that m-learning has to offer.  “If you will help fund the networks, you can then use them to ensure that every citizen has access to m-learning, alongside m-health and m-gov”.  This makes real sense.  With the drive to deliver the Millennium Development Goals, the thirst by the international donor community to ensure that “their” targets are reached, and the aspirations of “enlightened” governments really to deliver valuable services to their citizens, m-learning really is the answer.

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
“What is the best market opportunity for our company?”
  Education is no longer of value largely for its own sake; it is a commodity to be bought and sold; it has become a vibrant market.  Hence, there are considerable profits to be made by everyone in the education industry.  The company could be an app-developer, eager to find the “killer” education-app.  It could be a publisher, eager to extend its sales.  It could be a teaching company (often known as schools), eager to grow the market for the services offered by its teachers.  Academics in research companies (sometimes still known as universities) are eager to compete to gain prestigious research grants to study, or perhaps more usually to “prove”, the potential of m-learning, and fuel this thriving industry. The explosion of mobile telephony, and the expectation that it will soon become ubiquitous opens up vast new possibilities for companies to extend the reach of their educational “solutions”.  We truly can achieve education for all, if only we can ensure that the poorest people can still afford a cheap smartphone, and that we can have universal network coverage.   And that is the point, it is education for all. Unlike “health”, which is mainly for those who are ill, learning is something that everyone “must” do.  It is institutionalised in our education systems, and now we are all encouraged to partake in lifelong learning.  Education is 24 x 7 x 365 x 80 or so, depending on how long we live – the magic multiplier number is 6,384,000 times the number of people in the world! This is a market indeed.

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
“How can we reach the most marginalised in our societies, and give them the highest possible quality of learning opportunity?”
  I guess this is the question that most people would have expected me to begin with. Of course m-learning provides a wealth of opportunity for the enlightened, the altruists, those who care about reducing the inequalities that digital technologies otherwise enhance, and hopefully some governments and civil society organisations, who are committed to providing quality learning opportunities for the poorest and most marginalised in our societies – those living in isolated rural areas, street children, people with disabilities.  The ubiquity of networks and devices, their mobility – anywhere, anytime – and their simplicity of use, all make mobile devices – be they phones, tablets or laptops, wonderful platforms for learning.

But we still need to work harder to find what works best. We still need high-quality, locally produced content, and above all we still need teachers trained in ways of using these technologies in the best interests of pupils.  Perhaps mobile devices may even one day free us completely from what many people see as being the shackles of an outmoded school system…”

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Contributions to GSMA MWC Ministerial discussion on mobile-learning


It was great to be on Monday’s panel on “Why put ‘mobile’ in education?” hosted by Adrian Godfrey during the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress Ministerial Programme in Barcelona.  Mike Trucano set the panel underway by giving an important keynote on “Education, jobs and national productivity – why mobile education matters”, which was as usual full of down-to-earth sensible suggestions.  I suggested that governments should try cloning him, and each then have one clone to help them implement effective ICT and education initiatives.

Rebecca Walton (British Council) then hosted a panel discussion that also included Carolina Jeux (Telefónica), Chris Penrose (AT&T), and Tarek Shawki (American University, Cairo), asking us each a pre-set question to get the ball rolling.  Mine was “What are the three things that policy makers should know about mobile technologies in education, and what are the three things that governments should do?”.  This is actually much tougher than it might appear – keeping the list down to only three things each!

Here was my response:

Three things policy makers should know about mobile technologies in education:

  • The focus should be on the learning and not on the technology
  • Never ignore the content – far too many initiatives focus on putting equipment into schools or into learners’ hands – but often there is insufficient relevant content – and pupils do not always know how to access this themselves
  • It is essential to provide high quality training for teachers in how to use technologies in the classroom – and particularly mobile devices of all kinds. Keep mobile switched on in classrooms (and beyond)!

Top three things governments should do:

  • Approach mobile learning in a holistic and integrated way – bringing together all relevant ministries – ICTs, energy, education…
  • Focus on the most marginalised.  The market will take care of the majority, and it is the responsibility of states to deliver services for their poorest citizens. Hence, governments must implement programmes to support those living in isolated rural areas, and that will enable people with disabilities to gain the benefits of mobile learning
  • Begin by ensuring that the basic infrastructure is in place – electricity and connectivity (preferably mobile broadband) as far as possible making this universal.

I wonder what your three answers to these questions might be?

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Barriers to learning through mobile devices in Africa


Screen-Shot-2013-06-07-at-17.36.39-300x159I 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!

Screen-Shot-2013-06-07-at-17.31.05At 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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