Conference sneak preview

The mLearning guru and the eLearning Africa debate


Enabling flexible learning with mobile and wireless technologies is what mLearning advocate John Traxler is passionate about. There is probably no one who has a broader perspective on the issue than the author of widely known textbooks such as “Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers” and “Mobile Learning in Developing Countries”. With an analytical and discursive mind, John Traxler has investigated the African landscape for many years and developed a profound understanding of the role of technology in education. He will be one of the keynote speakers in the eLearning Africa Debate and here he examines some of the key issues surrounding it.

by John Traxler

The eLearning Africa Debate will discuss two alternative propositions; then delegates will be able to express their opinions and vote for the one they prefer.

The propositions are:
(1) “Access to technologies alone will not solve the problems facing African education. The enabling role of technology in education should only be considered as part of a wider, all-encompassing solution.” and
(2) “Widespread access to technologies has such an empowering and catalytic potential that it is a powerful goal in its own right and should be pursued by all African nations.”

These propositions are not necessarily diametrically opposed, and the breadth of their formulations leaves ample space for debate and discussion. The first recognizes that technology is not the only component of improvements to African education, whilst the second lays emphasis on the fact that technology is a major component of wider social change in Africa. Both are arguably true to a greater or lesser extent, but the debate becomes significant, interesting and potentially heated when we ask “access to which technologies?”, “what is access?”, “what education?”, and “what type of social change?”

Two technologies: big and small

In looking at the technology component of the issue, we see two starkly contrasting technologies at work in Africa. On the one hand, millions of Africans choose, buy and use their own personal mobile devices. The mobile phone networks on the Continent are some of the most energetic and entrepreneurial in the world, and the mobile NGOs and not-for-profits are some of the most imaginative and exciting. At the same time, the diversity, power and functionality of these mobile systems and devices continue to increase and in many respects surpass conventional desktop technologies. As platforms for eLearning, they are familiar, agile, sustainable and appropriate technologies, but problematic in terms of equity, stability, access and standards.
The technologies increasingly give individuals opportunities not just to store and consume images, ideas, knowledge and learning but also to generate and transmit them, and to engage and communicate with other individuals and communities beyond centralised organisational and institutional control and supervision.

On the other hand, ministries, institutions and organisations in Africa routinely attempt to deliver eLearning using large-scale static installations: technologies that require or involve networked desktop PCs in clean, secure buildings with reliable mains electricity, software licenses and technician support. These installations require substantial investments and ongoing financial support; they often embody alien pedagogic and cultural assumptions and require specific institutional and organisational settings. And last but certainly not least, they are – for obvious reasons – concentrated largely in those metropolitan areas with adequate infrastructure. The African Virtual University is perhaps the most prominent example of this technology. In terms of sustainability and scalability, this is deeply problematic, but these institutions and organisations are also often seen as the primary agencies for opportunity and participation.

With mobile technologies, people no longer need to engage with information and in discussion at the expense of real life in dedicated or special premises like universities, colleges, schools, business centres and cybercafes. They can use them as part of “real” everyday life, in both town and country, as they move about the world, using their own devices to connect them to the people and ideas of their own choosing. They can even use their own devices to generate and produce content and conversation as well as store and consume them.

This is changing how people relate to technology. It is also changing how they relate to each other and to the content and conversation facilitated by their technologies. Perhaps it means people feel in control of technology rather than controlled by it.

These observations begin to provide answers to the questions about “what education?” and “what social change?” Mobile personal technologies in the control of individuals deliver a rather different vision of education than do static institutional technologies in the control of schools, colleges and universities. Perhaps the debate should look at the question of what constitutes the different types of education that these two technologies have the potential to deliver and enquire about the different types of social change that might ensue from each.

John Traxler is Reader in Mobile Technology for e-Learning and Director of the Learning Lab at the University of Wolverhampton and of the UK Co-Lab of the American ADL network. He is a Director of the International Association for Mobile Learning, Associate Editor of the International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning and was Conference Chair of mLearn2008, the world’s biggest and oldest mobile learning research conference. John has co-written a guide to mobile learning in developing countries and is co-editor of the definitive book on mobile learning: Kukulska-Hulme, A. and Traxler, J. (2005) Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers, Routledge. [more…]

The real questions: sustainability and resources

Finally, if we look at the activity and the actors that have characterised eLearning in Africa over the last three or four years since the first eLearning Africa conference in Addis Ababa, we see two conspicuous and inter-related facts. First, most of the resources, publicity and endorsement has gone into the big, static installations, the technologies that can be produced and procured by large organisations working together on behalf of “the people“: desktop computers, virtual learning environments, computer suites, interactive whiteboards, etc.  Resources, publicity and endorsement have less often gone into small, mobile technologies actually owned by the “the people“. So whilst the two types of technology might be seen as complementary, the preferences and behaviour of policy-makers, vendors, most corporates, and many donors has favoured the big at the expense of the small.

And second, eLearning initiatives and projects based around these large static installations do not have a good record in terms of scaling-up and in terms of sustainability. Small-scale, fixed-term projects may be helpful, but they seldom get bigger, and they seldom last long enough. This may just be a consequence of poor evaluation practices failing to impact on policy and a consequence of the absence of exit strategies and business models. It may, however, also be inherently true that these big technology initiatives and pilots, resource-hungry to start and resource-hungry to sustain, are doomed by their very nature, whereas small technology projects and initiatives, which depend largely on resources that learners already own and value, have an inbuilt sustainability.

eLearning Africa will continue to present inspiring and exciting projects and initiatives, including a slowly growing proportion of those with mobile and personal technologies. The coming debate must look beyond technology and even beyond learning in order to explore the nature of the “wider, all-encompassing solution” and the nature of the “empowering and catalytic potential” being invoked.

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