Posted by: lidcblog | November 13, 2012

Why mobile learning on its own won’t solve the access problem

Zambian school children, Photo credit: mLearning Africa

Photo credit: mLearning Africa

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.

Further information

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.



  1. You’ve hit upon some very real issues there and I find myself very much in agreement with what you’re saying. Sometimes it seems that people have a tendency of proposing simplistic educational solutions without first taking the time to really scope out the whole situation. It’s been my experience that successful change-related activities depend on real involvement from all those concerned so just passing along some cute bits of technology can’t really be expected to contribute much. Real change will only occur when those affected get a chance to mold the implementation to suit the social realities and that will take more time.

  2. Thank you both for your comments. Absolutely correct to warn against over-enthusiasm each time some ‘new’ ICT hits the headlines. Before even considering the medium (internet, phone, printed book) we need to ensure the content is relevant to the end-users and genuinely serves to support learning that offers a long-term sustainable benefit.
    But one key issue about mobile phone technology in (for example) Africa is ‘access’ – an opportunity that was never sustainably secured by investment in computer terminals, internet connections, even libraries of books. Access links to practice and (potentially) to research. I suggest that the ultimate beneficiaries of learning delivered by mobile phone networks are currently more interested in access linked to learning practice than with access linked to learning research.
    We can see already how mobile phones sold in Sub-Saharan Africa as elsewhere are designed to be multifunctional: e.g. as a communication means where phone lines either don’t exist, are damaged, or where access to such networks are prohibitively expensive for poor people. Mobile phones provide light (cf. built-in torches) and thus some sense of security where street lighting is lacking or non-existent. Mobile phones allow people to schedule their lives (if necessary) against clock time without having to buy a watch. Mobile phones can provide access to learning content in written and audible modes: a technology that might be used by individuals and shared by groups simultaneously (access). Which brings us back to all-important question of learning content.

  3. […] The London International Development Centre puts it this way in Why mobile learning on its own won’t solve the access problem: […]

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