Mobile phone learning on the move in Africa


As Africa’s mobile telecommunications continue to expand rapidly, the continent’s education systems are seeing major developments in the learning process for school children, students, apprentices and technicians. This year’s eLearning Africa conference in Lusaka identified the main trends.

By Talent Ng’andwe

More and more African nations are embracing full-scale regulatory reforms and market liberalisation in a bid to attract more investment in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector and exploit the potential of low-cost technologies. Their efforts to improve access to the Internet are slowly paying off.

Laptops and desktop computers have been installed in some schools and they can be shared during lessons. However, questions are being asked about the cost and sustainability of the laptops and desktop computers: Are these investments justified when the road network remains poor, energy supply unreliable and there is still no fixed line infrastructure?

Nearly 30% of all Africans subscribe

In the meantime, the African continent has stunned the world by leapfrogging several stages of traditional telecommunications development. The mobile phone has become commonplace even in many of the poorest countries. By 2009, about one third of the African population had a mobile phone subscription – as opposed to only 8.7% using the Internet through desktop computers (Internet World Stats). With approximately 360 million cell phone subscribers, Africa has surpassed the USA (270 million subscribers), according to the UN Information Economy Report 2009. And there is still great potential for further development.

Will future African students, therefore, be learning from the telephones in their pockets rather than from the laptops in their classrooms?

Nine key issues for mLearning in Africa

Masais in rural Zanzibar talking on their mobile phones © Martin Konzett

In his presentation at the eLA conference, Paul Birevu Muyinda from the Makerere University in Uganda said that mobile phone learning (mLearning) was expected to grow rapidly in African institutions of higher education because, in the majority of these institutions, over 90% of the learners owned mobile phones and 100% used at least a mobile phone service.

“These figures augur well for institutions of higher learning in Africa wishing to adopt and implement mLearning,“ he said.

Muyinda and his colleagues from the Makerere University have proposed a mobile learning adoption and implementation model for Africa (MLAIMA). It evolved from answers to the question “What are the key issues for African countries’ adoption and implementation of mLearning?” The answers formed the basis for constructing the model using the Design Research methodology.

Nine aspects were identified as being key to mLearning adoption and implementation, among them mLearning policies, strategies and guidelines, and mLearning resources and sustainability.
The team says that MLAIMA enables the democratisation and permeation of learning in city and non-city locations, but the model is yet to be validated in an educational institution.

Audio files for repeating course content

Paul Birevu Muyinda’s views were echoed by Robert Pucher of the University of Applied Sciences Technikum Wien, Austria, who says that mLearning has become a very valuable method in teaching. Almost all students already own such a device. Using these in their studies could save time and money.

“Learning without remembering is useless, and remembering facts very much depends on repetition. Most people need around three to four repetitions until facts are remembered for a longer period,” said Pucher. This is where audio files could be useful, as they allow students to repeat course content at any location or even while on the move. Such files can be downloaded easily onto most mobile phones or mobile mp3 players.

A mobile phone with a battery charger, enabling nomads in West Africa to stay in touch © Ibrahim Aboubacar Hama

However, Pucher emphasised that simply listening to an audio file in most cases would not enable a listener to memorise the content – audio files should be used as a complement to traditional learning material.

Mobile phones aid health workers in remote areas

Peter Kisare Otieno, a researcher at the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), Kenya, pointed out that mobile devices could also be used by students to create content and not only to access it.

His organisation currently uses mLearning to update nursing students about face-to-face sessions, exam dates and other administrative tasks in the school. But it has also started a programme where health workers in remote areas can post difficult cases on the HIV Anti Retroviral Treatment website, thus starting a forum which is moderated from the AMREF office.
Other initiatives which have recently been piloted enable health workers to download tests and reference material in the form of Java applets.

Richard Niyonkuru, Monitoring and Education Advisor for ICT projects in Rwanda’s Ministry of Education, says the younger African generations need new skills to take advantage of the power of technology.

“The radical transformation we are talking about cannot be brought about by the labs, by mere access to computer terminals for a few hours or the use of application software or animations,” says  Niyonkuru.

In his opinion, the ‘revolution’ will be brought about by ubiquitous access to mobile computing – at home, in education and in the communities.

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