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Book-Poor, but Mobile Phone-Rich? Look to M-Novels

Steve Vosloo

In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, author Nick Carr asserts that human memory works best when it encounters ideas in a linear way, such as when a concept is explained in a way that logically builds out an idea, with each new layer of explanation resting on the layers before it and adding to the whole, coherent idea. And further, that focus — free of distractions — is essential for the mind to deep learn in this encounter with a developing idea. This kind of focused, linear idea-building often happens when engaging an educational book. The reader starts on page one and ends at page whatever; a clear path from start to finish — no distractions, no hyperlinks taking the mind off the matter at hand.

Carr points out that networked media, especially those connected to the internet, are inherently non-linear and are given to distraction because of the web of links criss-crossing the content. Further, given their networked nature, the devices are used for talking, chatting, posting, viewing and listening very easily. With these devices the temptation to keep linear, undivided attention on a particular train of thought is very high; the chance of deep learning is thus low.

Carr is much more knowledgeable about the possible effects of the internet on cognition than I am — although I also acknowledge that his arguments are not without contestation. But I do have two key points to respond to his core argument in The Shallows — both from the perspective of someone working in education in a developing country.

1. What happens when there are no books?

In his blog post, Carr references a recent study, published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, that revealed a very strong connection between the number of books in a student’s home and the number of years of education the student completes. “Books Matter. A lot,” reported the Chronicle of Higher Education on the research.

But what happens when there are no books? The low level of literacy amongst South African youth is a recognised problem. While it is a very complex problem, one contributing factor is that books are unaffordable, and therefore unavailable, to many students. The lack of books extends to homes – in 2006, 51% of South African households owned no leisure books (TNS Research Surveys, 2006) – and to schools – only 7% of public schools in South Africa have functional libraries of any kind (Equal Education, 2009).

While South Africa is “book-poor” it is “mobile phone-rich”: there is estimated to be nine million people who access the mobile internet — this is about 20% of the population and about double the number of people who access the internet with computers. In terms of access, cellphones are a pervasive consumer technology. In some urban communities, 100% of teens have access to a cellphone and around 70% of those can access the internet.

The m4Lit project, which I lead, uses this reality as a point of departure. We are using the technology that is in the hands of young people for educational goals. We published two short stories on mobile phones and in seven months these were read over 34,000 times. Thousands of comments and competition entries were received from readers – all via their phones. Yesterday we launched www.yoza.mobi, a new platform to publish a wider selection of m-novels.

Did deep learning happen when the teens read the m-novels entitled Kontax 1 and 2 on their mobile phones? I don’t know. Did they read each story, comprehend it, formulate a response and express that as a comment? Yes. Could they have done this if Kontax was only found in print? The answer is simply: no. So through the Kontax m-novels the readers could engage in certain educational activities, and only because of the medium that is highly accessible to them, which is a non-print medium.

While I don’t know if deep learning occurred through the reading of Kontax, I know that at least it provided an opportunity for deep learning. In developing countries the pixels versus paper debate is often an irrelevant luxury. Limited resources demand that all avenues for information dissemination be exploited.

I totally agree that we desperately need well-trained teachers and libraries, but also concede that we probably won’t see teachers trained, or libraries built and stocked for some time (if ever). Given this harsh reality, we must exploit the existing technologies that are in the hands of people. In answer to the question: Is a mobile phone in the hands of an impoverished student better or worse than no book at all? – my answer is absolutely yes.

2. Distraction has its place.

A key feature – not a bug – of a mobile phone, which a book doesn’t have, is connectivity. With chapter comments left by our readers for all to see, reading moves from a solitary exercise to a more social one. While reading a book on one’s own is a very enjoyable pastime, a more social experience has huge potential for those who need help with texts through annotations (remember how useful it was when you got your hands on a school or university textbook that a previous learner had embellished with notes). This sort of marginalia can now be useful to a much wider audience, not only to one lucky student each year. What’s more, in a publicly visible way there can be questions and answers as one reader leaves a comment wondering what is going on in the story, and another reader comments with the answer.

The very connectedness that can be so distracting when trying to focus on learning, is the same quality than can support learning, that can enable tutoring or advice from others, that can present different ways of thinking, which can be privately discussed between people, or discussed in the public eye, often on fora that are persistent and thus make the conversations accessible to future students grappling with the same issues. Here it is not a case of the computer or mobile phone becoming an instrument of distraction that interrupts study rather than deepen it, but rather of the distraction leading to a more informed and potentially deeper understanding of something.

The great danger of The Shallows is that the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. Let us use the technology for what it is good for, and be aware of its risks. Let us not take binary views that are either for or against. The notion of what constitutes an “essentially educational tool” is increasingly difficult to define. The lines are blurring. In many cases a mobile phone is more of an educational tool than a book. We should not view networked devices as essentially items of distraction.

As a closing point I’d like to share a quote from a Kontax reader. MXit, the popular mobile IM chat client in South Africa on which we publish m4Lit stories, allows multiple chat tabs to be open at the same time so that multiple conversations happen simultaneously. One of those tabs can be for Kontax. Our readers tell us that they are happy because they can chat and read in between, while waiting for a response from their buddies. A great example of fragmented attention!

But a few readers have told me that they find the chapters so absorbing that they focus on reading them instead of chatting. Sheila said that the following: [Kontax] “is realy interesting nd sync it began iv bin glud 2 ma 4ne ma chat mates a evn c0mplainin c0z a dnt chat wth em lyk a usd 2” (Kontax is really interesting and since it began I’ve been glued to my phone. My chat friends are even complaining because I don’t chat with them like I used to). Not all temptations to distraction are headed!

Steve Vosloo is the 21st Century Learning Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation.


Equal Education. (2009). EE rejects DoE’s statement on school libraries. Available at http://www.equaleducation.org.za/press-a-views/press-releases/item/74-statement17dec2009.

TNS Research Surveys. (2006). National Survey into the Reading and Book Reading Behaviour of Adult South Africans. Available at http://www.saccd.org.za/objects/sabdc_reading.pdf.

4 Responses to “Book-Poor, but Mobile Phone-Rich? Look to M-Novels”

  1. Very, very canny observations in re the use of mobile phones for deep-ish learning when books and other trad forms are unaffordable. Thank you. It’s possibly worth re-considering the role of deep learning/deep thinking in relation to human needs at this point in time. Deep learning/thinking have given rise to some really important items: Archimedes’ understanding of volume displacement, and Kekule’s parsing of the benzene ring come to mind, but I’m a naif in terms of history of science. At any rate, all of these deep things–Watt’s steam engine, Edison’s light bulb (OK, so Edison had an army of workers, but still), Oppenheimer et al’s unlocking of the atom (ditto), and presumably Monsanto’s creation of BT-corn (and I’m making no judgment here) have increased productivity and have been “mainstreamed” into the world’s economies. At the moment, it’s unclear to me at least that we need increased deep thinking/learning so much as we need social thinking/learning: understanding of the other, understanding of connectedness, the ability to innovate through and across networks of people. The resources you’re creating and the tools that they are based on _might_ support deep something-or-other, and probably do. (As well as “King Lear”? Perhaps not. But then that play is best understood as a social form of deep learning, a method still practiced 407 years ago. But an idea that faded and faded during the Enlightenment, so called.) The resources and tools and most importantly your audience of readers are perhaps engaging in something that’s more important, that’s more appropriate, than deep whatever. Nice work.

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