In 2001, about 25 million people in Africa had a mobile phone subscription; by 2013, that number had ballooned to 780 million – an increase of 3,120%. There are now more mobile phones in Botswana, Gabon and Namibia than there are citizens.
by Steven Blum
With statistics like these, it’s not surprising that many educational strategists are dreaming of a future where mobile phones can distribute educational material, offer peer-to-peer guidance and provide remote tutoring through social networking services.
The need for creative solutions to educational challenges is particularly acute in Africa because of the widespread shortage of teachers. For every child to have a quality education by 2015, it’s estimated countries in sub-Saharan Africa will need to hire 350,000 new teachers every year.
In a 2012 report, UNESCO predicted that general education will shift away from classroom-centred learning towards the kind of informal education that can happen throughout the day: on the bus to school, after football practice, and basically anywhere else where there’s a signal. Mobile phones already aid in the development of skills for a wide range of fields, including agriculture and health care, even providing job opportunities via mobile-based micro-work.
UNESCO calls mobile technology a “personal, portable, collaborative, interactive and contextual” solution to the challenges facing education around the world.
From February 14th – 21st, UNESCO’s 3rd Mobile Learning Week explored how teachers can create mobile pedagogies and use technology to advance their own professional development. The organisation calls mobile technology a “personal, portable, collaborative, interactive and contextual” solution to the challenges facing education around the world.
Alongside calls to empower teachers and institutions with the freedom and training to make effective use of mobile devices in their practice, it was also stressed during the week that mobile devices are content creation tools themselves and not just app-platforms – students on a trip, for example, can document what they see and do using their phones, and interact with a global network of other learners via social media.
Experts caution that for mobile learning to work, it must exist within educational systems rather than seeking to replace them. “The idea that technocentrism or even solely content-based solutions can address important educational challenges by themselves must be dropped,” writes Niall Winters in the Guardian. “The risks of increasing the marginalisation of teachers – and by extension students – can only be ameliorated by understanding teachers’ practice, co-designing interventions with them and providing them with training,” he says.
However, as BBC mobile learning specialist Steve Vosloo writes, “In many countries, mobiles are the only channel for effectively distributing reading material, given the high cost of books and their distribution, especially to rural areas.”
To thrive, initiatives must not only cater to local demand but also regional mobile infrastructure. Initiatives like South African T-Mobile’s Edunex learning platform enable communication between teachers and students through e-mail, chat rooms, forums and virtual classrooms. So far, the project has connected 30,000 students across 100 schools.
Other projects have seen great success by catering to specific needs. Dr. Maths, a service that connects pupils to math tutors, costs less than the price of an SMS and offers ‘round the clock tutoring support. Meanwhile, Yoza Cellphone Stories, which offers downloads of stories and novels, has seen 470,000 reads of its stories and poems and tens of thousands of user comments since the project began.
However, it seems clear that using technology that’s already on the ground is often a more realistic strategy than developing programmes that make use of expensive technology such as tablets. The challenge will be to continue to engage teachers in the creation of these programs while providing them with the necessary training to put these ideas into action.
There’s no one-size-fits-all education in Africa. To make the greatest impact, initiatives must cater to many different cellular infrastructures and local needs. However, it seems clear that mobile learning holds great potential to supplement traditional education across the continent.