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UNESCO Working Paper Series on Mobile Learning: Latin America

Mark West

These Working Papers are part of a UNESCO Series, introduced on EduTechDebate here, and examine mobile learning in Latin America.

Mobile Devices and Policies

The first paper, Turning On Mobile Learning in Latin America: Illustrative Initiatives and Policy Implications, describes a range of mobile learning programs and explores how these programs address educational needs in the region. It also surveys national and local policies related to mobile learning and analyzes their impact.

The paper reveals that many Latin American governments have sidelined education initiatives that use or call for mobile phones because they have already made substantial investments in one laptop per child (or 1:1) programs. For example, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela all have national and mature 1:1 laptop programs, and many students in these countries use school purchased laptop computers. By contrast, programs employing mobile devices are nascent at best, particularly at the national level.

The paper alludes to debates unfolding in Latin America regarding the cost of mobile learning programs—which use mobile phones and not computers—versus 1:1 laptop programs—which use laptop computers exclusively. Conventional thinking holds that while mobile learning programs might be cheaper to launch (due to the lower prices of mobile handsets), 1:1 laptop programs might be more cost effective over longer periods of time (mainly because laptops do not require on-going subscription fees and are less easily lost).

The paper states that new ICT in education initiatives, if they are to be implemented successfully, require substantial funding. Governments usually need to improve telecommunications infrastructure, purchase and distribute equipment, develop digital content, train teachers, and provide maintenance and technical support.

Given that major efforts are already underway to advance 1:1 laptop programs in Latin America, the paper concludes that many governments “consider their educational ICT agenda to be saturated, and that mobile learning initiatives will need to wait until there is more ‘room.’” Generally, the feeling in the region is that education systems should more or less ignore programs that utilize large numbers of mobile phones until ambitious 1:1 laptop goals (often articulated years ago) have been achieved.

What do you think?

  • Are programs that use laptop computers and programs that use mobile phones an either/or proposition?
  • Is it redundant or wasteful to have 1:1 laptop programs as well as, for example, a 1:1 mobile phone program?
  • How should countries that have made substantial investments in 1:1 laptop programs proceed when considering learning initiatives that call for mobile phones?

Mobiles and teacher development

The second paper Mobile Learning for Teachers in Latin America: Exploring the Potential of Mobile Technologies to Support Teachers and Improve Practice looks at how mobile devices are being used, or could be used, to support the work of teachers and enhance their professional development.

The paper devotes significant space to contrasting two major initiatives: Bridge IT and EMIA-SMILE. Both seek to improve teaching and learning practices in classrooms. Interestingly though, the initiatives rely on very different approaches. The BridgeIT project focuses heavily on training teachers to plan lessons that employ interactive and student-centred learning activities. Mobile devices—equipped with a library of videos aligned to particular subject curriculums—are provided only to teachers. By contrast, the EMIA-SMILE project gives mobile devices directly to small groups of students in order to direct collaborative and inquiry-based learning. The EMIA-SMILE project is less reliant on teachers and, unlike BridgeIT, does not invest substantial resources training them. Instead, the instructional pedagogy is mostly embedded in the mobile devices themselves.

The paper found that a majority of mobile learning projects ask students to interact directly with handsets and that, generally speaking, this approach is considered effective for promoting experiential learning and building twenty-first century skills. These assumptions, the paper concludes, may explain why the vast majority of mobile learning initiatives in Latin America focus on students rather than teachers as the primary users of mobile technologies.

What do you think?

  • Should students as opposed to teachers be the primary end-users of mobile technologies?
  • To what extent can instructional methodologies be programed into mobile devices?
  • How reliant should mobile learning initiatives be on teachers?
  • Is it possible to design a mobile learning project that is “teacher-proof”?
  • Is this approach advisable or even desirable?

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5 Responses to “UNESCO Working Paper Series on Mobile Learning: Latin America”

  1. mark80west

    Regarding the first questions… I think it probably is redundant to, for example, provide students with school purchased laptops AND mobile phones. For cash strapped schools this is just too much.

    As far as which devices use… that's a question that depends entirely on needs. Too often, I think, educators think about hardware first, software second, and educational needs last. It should be the other way around. Hardware has a certain "sex appeal" so it tends to get undo attention. However, as cloud computing becomes more commonplace hardware will lose a bit of its luster. To me, a Kindle (the eReader made by Amazon) already fits this bill. The hardware isn't the crucial element. What matters is that the software which grabs the the books, newspapers, and magazines from a cloud library works seamlessly. The Kindle system, regardless of what you think about Amazon, works brilliantly, in part, because you hardly notice the hardware. It's just you and your content.

    The pendulum of "what's hot" in technology seems to swing back and forth from hardware to software. In the 1980s personal computers mesmerized people; in 1990s Microsoft software fascinated us; in the 2000s Apple's cleanly designed iPods, iPhones, and iPads dazzled; in the 2010s… perhaps our attention will shift back to software. To my eye, when it comes to education, software and content are everything. The hardware is a decidedly secondary consideration.

  2. mark80west

    Regarding the second question… Right now I think teachers are still absolutely vital to any effort to integrate technology in education. Generally speaking, if they're not on-board, it won't work. People also forget that teachers are experts in what is pedagogically useful and what isn't.

    The fact that schools and universities haven't embraced technology at the same pace or with the same fervor as, say, business is often assumed to signal education's resistance to change, the glacial pace at which it is believed to move. There is an alternative explanation though: perhaps technology–at least as it exists today–may not be as useful to teaching and learning as many assume. Teachers might be leaving the computers switched off not because they are intimidated by them, but because they aren't particularly useful in achieving learning objectives.

    Will it stay this way? Probably not. Technology is improving by the hour. That said, the content out there–the stuff that actually appears on those beautiful devices many people own–is still pretty rudimentary and sometimes downright grim. For technology to really take off I think it needs to better account for and accommodate the expertise of teachers. Teachers should be able to easily tailor technology to make it work for them and their students. Right now, most educational technologies are not nearly this flexible. Mobile devices have tremendous promise in this regard. They are arguably more personal and flexible than technology that has come before.

  3. I haven’t had the opportunity to read thoroughly this paper, but before doing so, I’d like to answer these questions with background knowledge. Coming from a Latin American developing country (The Dominican Republic) I think that programs should take into account a couple of factors when trying to implement laptop programs:
    - What objectives they want to achieve with the devices they provide to students ,
    -Teachers’ technology skills to prepare effective instructional activities with those devices,
    -The socio-economic environment surrounding where those kids who are going to use the devices.

    I base these assumptions on my country’s situation, where:
    -More than half the population does not have a stable provision of electricity,
    -Access to internet is exclusive to some segments since basic data plans are affordable to a few,
    -Having a laptop is more a luxury or symbol of status more than a necessary teaching tools.

    I’m not aware of any laptop program going on in the DR, but I’m a faithful advocate of the use of mobile phones in education, due to the factors presented before. Mobile phones are more affordable to students of low-socioeconomic status, and research on mobile learning in other developing countries (East-Asia, Middle-East, Africa) has shown that cell phones, when used appropriately, can be effective teaching tools.

    Bottom line, educational institutions should consider an analysis of the students’ profiles and their social-economic backgrounds before approving expensive and fancy programs just for the sake of using technology.

  4. I had a chance to skim the second paper. To the questions about this one, I think both teachers and students should collaborate in instructional activities using mobile devices. Teachers as facilitators should design the activities and model them to students, and later students engage in the activities, but having clear objectives on the purpose of those activities.
    Instructional methodologies can be programmed into mobile phones to the extent of the capabilities of these devices. Teachers can’t prepare individual activities based on cell phone videos if not all students’ mobile phones have that feature. Also, some “cool” activities require access to internet from the mobile phones, but not students can’t afford data plans. Therefore, teachers should make these types of activities, as group work or give alternate activities to the students. A common feature is text messaging services, which according to research has been widely used for vocabulary learning and reinforcement.
    The first thing to do though, is to train teachers to develop instructional activities which affordable and feasible. Something that many teachers fail to understand is that technology is not a magic wand to make students learn, and that mobile phones represent a complementary educational tool in the teaching-learning process.

  5. I’ve had the chance to have a good read recently while on a plane traveling to the Learningathand.info conference in Cairns, Australia (we were lucky enough to have Wayan as our keynoter).
    I really found the drivers, enablers and blockers section to be very useful – a simple way to communicate a lot about what the issues are.
    BridgeIT and SMILE sound very interesting – although SMILE seems to be the innovative one in actually going beyond just the ‘substation’ level of the SAMR model.
    Sadly, or perhaps, to be expected, virtually all are still ‘early days’ with no results of the wider impact (apart from user numbers) reported.
    Most seem to have neglected teacher PD therefore are just re-inforcing traditional pedagogy (ie. bridgeIT videos) – I know this must change soon. Look forward to comparing these with the projects in the other reports from Europe and North America.

InfoDev UNESCO

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