With the high penetration rate of mobile phones and the coming availability of cheap tablet computers across Africa, it is no surprise that there is strong interest in the use of mobile devices for education and learning from the academic and commercial sectors. One of the key drivers of this interest is the perceived geographical reach of connected, low-cost mobile devices (such as phones and tablets). Supporters excitedly talk about bringing “educational opportunities” to marginalised communities neglected by weak formal education systems ridden with poor teachers. Why not bypass this system altogether and “deliver education” to those most in need?
As a researcher who has a particular interest in mobile learning in the majority world, this proposition is certainly interesting. However, I contend that it is ultimately unsustainable at best and at worst paradoxically risks increasing marginalisation.
Let’s step back for a moment and work through the proposition. It is true that some of the education systems in the majority world are weak, with almost 60m children between the ages of 6-12 not even enrolled in school. The idea that we can provide access to education through mobile technologies then is understandable. This takes the form of providing information on phones and can include simple forms of assessment, such as multiple-choice quizzes. However, access is about much more than the provision of content. Access is about long-term and regular educational opportunities, the right to a basic education that is equitable for everyone. Achieving this means engaging with – not standing apart from – formal education opportunities. Those with an interest in mobile learning should not underestimate the depth of this challenge. As a recent UNESCO review pointed out, there is little evidence to support the proposition that mobile phones increase access to formal primary schooling.
A key issue related to the use of mobile learning in the majority world is the everyday lives of learners. The idea of bringing educational content to marginalised communities means that the complexities of their lives must be taken into account. This is particular true for girls. Recent work at the Institute of Education by Jenny Parkes and Jo Heslop for Action Aid has evidenced how “[p]overty intersects with gendered inequalities in creating barriers to schooling for girls, with girls missing out on schooling because of household chores and childcare, farm work, inability to pay school fees, early pregnancy and marriage.” In this context, the idea that access can be addressed through content delivery alone seems somewhat idealistic.
Although not focused on mobile learning, an early pointer to informal learning in the majority world was Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall”, a kiosk where children could supposedly become computer literate by themselves. In actuality, research undertaken by Payal Arora has shown that a small number of boys usually dominate kiosk use and were very selective with whom they would engage with for peer learning. Thus, even within communities, the members of which are all supposed to benefit, marginalisation occurred. Moreover, without proper embedding into the social context, the kiosks went unused after project funding ended. The risk is that if a similar stand-alone approach is followed with mobile learning projects, similar undesirable outcomes may emerge.
What is to be done? We need to move away from the notion that simply because mobile phones are the most available technology to those in the majority world that somehow they will in and of themselves lead to developmental learning. A more sustainable approach is to work within the formal education system, in particular to build the capacity of teachers and practitioners to design and develop mobile learning interventions in country. Only then will they be useful to those whose capability development they aim to support.
The issues raised in this blog post are explored in more detail in:
Winters, N. (2013) Mobile learning in the majority word: A critique of the GSMA position, In S. Price, C. Jewitt and B. Brown (Eds) The SAGE Handbook of Digital Technology Research. A preprint is available.
Contributed by Niall Winters, Senior Lecturer in Learning Technologies for Development at the London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education. He is PI of the ESRC/DFID project: The design and evaluation of a mobile learning intervention for the training and supervision of community health workers, a collaboration between the LKL and AMREF.