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Learning about mLearning: Thoughts from The International Mobiles for Education Symposium

USAID recently hosted the International Mobiles for Education Symposium (M4Ed4Dev for short) in Washington, DC. The conference brought together academics, development professionals, tool developers, educators, and representatives from the private sector to assess the current state of mLearning and consider future developments. Given the varied backgrounds of the event’s participants, it’s understandable that a number of different, often conflicting, viewpoints were expressed. Here are a few.

Content Delivery Systems or Learner-Generated Content?

In general, the mobile tools discussed and demonstrated at the event can be divided into two distinct types: Those that deliver content and those that enable students to generate content and/or interact via mobile phone. Content delivery applications (which make up the majority) are largely designed to provide educational content chosen by educators to students who wouldn’t otherwise have access. Examples range from preloaded e-readers in Ghana to “internet a box” projects such as the eGranary.

Other projects are designed to enable interaction between students and to allow students to create original content and comment on content generated by their peers. In his introduction to the symposium, Paul Kim of Stanford University discussed what he called a “massive pedagogical paradigm shift” in which students could be empowered to create educational content and learn critical thinking skills in the process. Dr. Kim describes these types of curricula as “inquiries as learning projects”. One example involves students creating multimedia quizzes with mobile phones and then sharing these with fellow students, who would both answer the questions and rate the quality of the quizzes as a whole.

Mobiles in School or Informal mLearning?

The mLearning tools discussed at the event also differ in whether they are designed to be used in schools or outside of class. Examples range from video instruction delivered to a teacher’s mobile phone and used in a classroom setting to interactive mathematics games designed for informal use by students through the popular mobile social network, Mxit. As USAID’s Education Strategy includes specific, measurable targets, most attendees were primarily interested in projects that either took place in schools or with active teacher participation.  

However, some promising projects have been designed to reach students directly and to be used in out-of-school settings. Some of the more popular examples include Dr. Math and Yoza, each of which is accessed through MXit. These applications benefit from the popularity of MXit (there are currently more than 36 million MXit users — many of whom are of school age) and, while not teacher directed, both programs use content taken directly from national education curricula. In fact, Dr. Math’s biggest supporter is now the South African Department of Education. 

Integration with existing social networks, such as MXit has shown to have a huge impact on the adoption of these tools. Yoza, a program that allows students to read entire novels, short stories and poems and comment on them has had 300,000 complete reads of its materials and 5,400,000 pageviews. Yoza’s project leader, Steve Vosloo, notes the importance of finding students wherever they are, on whatever platform they are using. The program’s integration with mobile technology seems to raise the “cool” factor in the eyes of students, one of whom explained, “ I don’t like reading, but I do on my phone.”

Time to Scale-Up?

One of primary questions asked by symposium organizers and participants was how to scale-up successful mLearning efforts. This proved to be a contentious issue, as some participants question whether this is an appropriate goal. USAID and other large development institutions are designed to reach large number of beneficiaries, so it is only natural that they seek to increase the scope of efforts that have shown the most success. However, evaluating success in mLearning has been difficult. Few projects have been evaluated by impartial third parties and measures of success vary greatly. While many implementers point to the number of users or downloads as a measure of success, clearly this does not necessarily provide evidence for their educational efficacy. Jacob Korenblum of Souktel noted, “numbers testify to scale, not quality”. 

Matthew Kam, who works on a research project on unsupervised mobile learning in rural India (one of a relatively small number of mLearning studies that has used statistical methods and undergone peer review) attempted to determine the impact of his study’s educational game on exam scores of participants. He found that the gains shown by the strongest participating students correlated not with hours of play, but rather with the number of years these students had attended school. It’s quite possible that the educational effect of some mLearning programs may potentially be overstated. 

Other attendees questioned the concept of scale-up on different grounds. They argue that successful education programs need to be both culturally-specific and location-specific. Barbara Reynolds of UNICEF stresses that learning is part of a system of teachers, administrators, and others. Other attendees pointed out that decisions such as the language of educational content, especially in multilingual areas, can be a very political decision. Additionally, the prevalent technology (and often the price of various technologies) varies greatly from region to region, and the choice of mLearning tools must take this into account. For example, Steve Vosloo explained that, in South Africa, twenty MXit messages of one thousand characters each cost the same price as one SMS message.

John Traxler, Director of the Learning Lab at the University of Wolverhampton, argues against the concept of scale-up on a more fundamental level. He stresses the need to create and share knowledge that is specific to the learner. Traxler notes that most existing mLearning projects are based on a “transmissive model” akin to web 1.0 and points out that that the interactivity of mobile phones enables cultures not only to receive curricula, but also to share local knowledge.

What’s Next?

It is clear that we are a long way from determining best practices in the field of mLearning. However, interest in this area is growing rapidly. As more pilot projects are being rolled out, there are now opportunites to incorporate rigorous evaluation measures from the outset, as has happened in other areas of mobiles-for-development. If participants in the International Mobiles for Education Symposium succeed in the creation of an M4Ed4Dev Alliance (as they intend to do), it will perhaps be an ideal body to share these findings and facilitate partnerships with local departments of education.

photo courtesy of Steve Vosloo

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Sub-Saharan Africa

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