UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2013: Scratching the surface

MobileThe recently hosted UNESCO Mobile Learning Week (MLW) 2013 set out to answer three vital questions: how can mobile technologies support literacy development for both children and adults? How can they support teachers and their professional development, to ensure quality education is delivered to all students? And how can mobile technologies contribute to gender equality and extend opportunities to women and girls? A series of webinars ran alongside the main conference in Paris in February to shed light on global developments in the field of mobile learning and provide some potential answers to these pressing questions. The eLearning Africa news service logged on to find out more.

By Alicia Mitchell

The momentum behind mobile learning is increasing year on year. In his closing remarks to MLW 2013, UNESCO’s Chief of Section for Sector Policy, Advice and ICT Francesc Pedro announced that the event had played host to three times as many participants, hailing from five times as many countries, as 2012’s event. However, Pedro was careful not to overplay this progress, suggesting that currently we are only just “scratching the surface of mobile learning”: the potential for mobile technologies to help millions of people access quality education, he said, “still needs to be realised”.

Offering some ideas on how this potential might be successfully harnessed, Niall Winters shared his team’s new report called The Future of Mobile Learning: Implications for policy makers and planners. In his webinar, Winters explained that there were four challenges that mobile learning practitioners and researchers must address over the next fifteen years: Teacher training and support, multi-sector partnerships, learning analytics and mobile learning for marginalised groups.

Winters described teacher support as “absolutely key” to any progress: ensuring teachers are equipped with strong pedagogical design skills for ICT was probably the “strongest take-home” from the report. Strong, multi-sector partnerships between researchers, developers, programmers, teachers, policy makers and other practitioners would, he said, avoid the potential scenario of mobile learning emerging in parallel to, rather than fully integrated in, current education systems.

On learning analytics, Winters said that the link between them and learning theory is very important: technical innovation would be required to better understand how, when and what students learn using mobile technologies. Finally, he emphasised the need to promote mobile learning for all: the potential for mobile to support learning for marginalised groups, including women and girls as well as disabled learners, must not be neglected.

Whereas currently mobile learning is held back by reticence and lack of uptake, Winters predicts that, with focus on these four areas, we could see the term ‘mobile learning’ disappear within the next 15 years, as it becomes holistically and willingly subsumed into the wider eLearning landscape.

The benefits brought by low-tech devices, supported by innovative, user-focused thinking, to mobile learning projects in developing countries were highlighted by both Diane Boulay and Leila Dal Santo in their webinar sessions, who shared their research on grassroots projects across the world.

Diane Boulay leads the UNESCO project ‘Developing Literacy through Mobile Phones – Empowering Women and Girls’, which has been collecting data from case studies from across the developing world that explore the empowerment of women and girls through literacy, learning and life skills development. Along with sustainability issues, Boulay explained, high-spec options like smartphones can add too much complexity where simplicity might yield better results.

Boulay cited a project in Cambodia in which Oxfam has given female community leaders mobile phones to enable them to stay connected and access vital information. In response to fears that the phones could be forcefully appropriated by men in their households or communities, Oxfam worked with the phone provider to produce bright pink handsets. In the patriarchal society of Cambodia, explained Boulay, this was an incredibly simple and non-confrontational way to affirm the women’s ownership of the phones.

In the findings that Boulay reported, it was clear that, although mobile phones naturally played a central part to all projects, success depended on a far wider approach that addressed vital stages of pre-implementation research and preparations as well as careful consideration of sustainability, such as literacy programmes for teachers before devices are delivered (Literacy by Mobile Phone Programme, Pakistan) and committees put together to ensure that programmes continue after the initial pilot has ended (Jokko Inititiative, Senegal).

In her webinar on the Dab Iyo Dahab Initiative (DIDI), Leila Dal Santo of Souktel, shared the details of a low-tech solution to youth education in the Somali regions. Using pre-recorded audio lessons delivered via a free touch-tone menu service, the DIDI was able to provide financial literacy skills to low-literacy Somali youths. The system developed by Souktel enabled learners to interact with content, answer quizzes through the touch-tone system and provide data on learner numbers to the central control centre.

The DIDI, Dal Santo explained, required absolutely minimal infrastructure. All that was required were the basic mobile phones, which were shared between classes of up to twenty young people. The content was provided by EDC, who then handed over licensing rights to local NGOs after the pilot finished. The mobile phones were also passed on to siblings and friends, extending the impact far beyond the initial 500 learners who completed the pilot programme.

Like Niall Winters, Dal Santo finished by emphasising the need for cooperation. Cooperation between mobile networks, policy makers and the private and public sectors is essential for the growth of similar successful projects in the future.

So it seems the issue holding back mobile learning is not technology. Projects like the DIDI or Pink Phone initiative are using the same options that have been around for years: simple phones that can call and text. The change is in the thinking, in the imagination and in the enthusiasm of people like Winters, Boulay and Dal Santo to see positive change come about as a result of sensitive and effective mobile learning programmes.

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  1. Grace Muwanga

    Somehow I missed the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2013. I have read the article “UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2013: Scratching the surface” with a lot of interest. I have noted that there were several webinars presented by different people.

    My request is: is possible to access these recorded webinars?

    Thank you

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