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Learning with Mobile Devices Somewhere Near the Bottom of the Pyramid

Professor John Traxler

I am grateful for the chance to contribute to the current debate on the potential for Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in education in Africa. It is clearly a debate about important issues.

Mobile phones hold out enormous promise as the single ICT most likely to deliver education in Africa, and to do so on a sustainable, equitable and scalable basis. I think however that so far, we have not often seen much progress beyond fixed-term, small-scale and subsidised pilots and it is worth exploring whether mobile phones can really deliver their promise.

Delivering education in Africa using mobile phones probably strikes governments, institutions and practitioners as easy and obvious because mobile phones and mobile networks are almost universally accessible and reliable in places where environment, economics, infrastructure and security might variously militate against any other ICTs and where the demographics of mobile phone ownership, access and competence, unlike most other ICTs, takes us near to the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ – the actual ‘bottom of the pyramid’ is of course populated by people who can’t even afford mobile phones! Furthermore, mobile phones are an individual ICT not an institutional or corporate ICT and are not predicated on access to colleges, business centres, cyber-cafes or maybe even cities. Therefore, learning on mobile phones should work.

The current World Bank Group and the African Development Bank study is intended “to raise awareness and stimulate action, especially among African governments and development practitioners”. These are indeed vital prerequisites but perhaps ‘critical awareness’ and ‘rigorously evidence-based action’ are even more vital. This is important debate is often characterised by simplifications, misplaced optimism and untested assertions. Hopefully this piece will strike a better balance.

My contention is that whilst many good projects using mobile devices to support learning, by definition, do good work and thus deserve to be praised and celebrated, our problems start when we try to understand these projects, when we try to reason and infer about these projects, when we try to explain and disseminate them in the hope that we can reproduce and replicate them. This is all the more worrying as we overlook the far larger number of less successful projects or when we group, organise and cluster projects in order to find common generalisable themes, forces, causes and mechanisms. Therein lies our problem with scale, sustainability and equity.

Something is wrong and we need to dig beneath the surface. What are my reasons for advocating such caution?

Firstly, of course, failure often goes unreported, unpublished, and unacknowledged, and common impression is that careers and reputations are not built on failures however interesting or thought-provoking. Furthermore, many projects are doomed to success and are reported accordingly. Funders, agencies, ministries, officials, researchers and others will have all invested much prestige and resource giving projects the necessary momentum and visibility, and failure becomes unthinkable or inconceivable.

A common saying maintains that, “if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Watching evaluations in South Africa and Kenya made me think this is true of the mind-sets we bring to our analysis and evaluation of projects. An educationalist will see educational explanations, a technologist will see technological ones, a policy-maker will see policy ones and so on. Our inferences about success are conditioned by our backgrounds.

Sometimes these predispositions are built in projects from the outset. In looking at siting or sampling, people from different backgrounds and organisations bring their own ideas about where to site their cluster of project interventions in the hope of getting maximum generality from limited resource but in doing so they bring to the fore, those variables they think significant (and thereby make them significant) and push others to the background. So class size, network coverage or educational content will appear important because they were built in that they would be!

Furthermore, the dream of successful large-scale sustainable learning with mobile devices has been haunted by high-profile successes like mPesa and Grameen. These successes create the expectation and the pressure that learning with mobile devices should be a worldwide runaway success.

On top of that, some years ago, I and Agnes Kukulska-Hulme looked back at reports of mobile learning research projects from around the world and concluded that the researchers were not always very competent and trained in project evaluation. Their evaluations were often fairly informal, disconnected from project objectives, bolted on as late extras, unfocussed and not informed by the relevant literature or expertise. Also, funders and donors are not necessarily trained or critical readers of monitoring and evaluation reports. Below the executive summary and the headlines might be many caveats and nuances that get in the way of simple prescriptions and these get lost.

Of course, in saying this, I am caught between funders who want results, policy makers who want simple robust bases for policy, the development community talking about predictable unexpected consequences, social scientists telling us reality and experience are contingent and postmodernists telling us that the grand narratives of the Western European mind, of which development is undoubtedly one, are all broken and dead.

So our first conclusion must be that our inferences about success and about critical success factors in learning with mobile devices are fairly shaky.

If we look at the mechanics of mobile learning projects in particular and ask about sustainability, things do not get better.

Firstly, funders fund projects, and understandably they try to fund good projects, and as soon as their funding finishes so does most of their influence. This makes moving projects towards sustainability problematic in practical terms. It might however be starting from the wrong perspective all along. Perhaps instead of funding good projects in the hope that they will become sustainable, funders should fund sustainable projects in the hope that they will become good.

Meaning that funders should pay more attention to the host, the target, the destination, to the culture, values and expectations of the people who will inherit and support the project and less to the concrete specifics of the projects and its innovations. Perhaps funders should actually avoid known innovators and early adopters on the basis that these people have least in common with the rank-and-file staff who will institutionalise, embed and appropriate educational change and have least in common with the ethos of their institution.

Most mobile learning projects, especially research projects, have been based on providing learners with the necessary devices, especially first generation projects when devices were rare, expensive and complex. This was sensible in producing more rigorous evidence in coming from a uniform technology platform but not in producing evidence that was transferable into the world where funds did not exist to continue to provide learners with devices.

Those mobile learning project funded by corporates, especially from within their corporate social responsibility budgets, suffered from similar problems, compounded by the shorter time-scales that characterised the corporate and commercial world. Fixed-term projects, either funded as research or as corporate social responsibility, taught us little about sustainability. By definition, they were not intended to teach us about sustainability. The fact that projects run more smoothly and produce cleaner less noisy data with provided devices rather than learner devices, that they often use the enthusiasm of project staff and the novelty of innovation, has instead created very false and contrived environments and evidence that does not transfer.

If we could produce evidence that was convincing and relevant, we then have the problem of what to do with it!

In countries of big government, where society expects government support from cradle to grave, the role of evidence is at least in theory straightforward, namely researchers take evidence to government, this impacts on policy and then releases or diverts public resources. In fact, informing policy and changing practice are much more complex than this, involving various ways of exploiting expertise as well as evidence but it is still being basically a political process underpinned by a particular set of ideals about the responsibilities of government.

In countries of small government, however, the role of evidence, expertise and experts is more complex and problematic. The players in any possible mobile learning space might include network operators, publishers, handset manufacturers, maybe government, maybe not, and possibly social entrepreneurs and various kinds of community activists. We must work towards models of learning with mobile devices that make money since this ensures that they are sustainable, big money in the case of scenarios that include corporates and small money in the case of scenarios that include social entrepreneurs.

Corporates, of course, each have a specific focus, be it handsets, content or connectivity, and so the challenge for advocates of learning with mobiles devices is moving the argument forward and fostering collaborations, with evidence and whatever else works, with these players. We must recognise however that even if a commercial operation can take learning to the mythic next billion subscribers of the global South, there will still be parts of the curriculum or parts of the population left uncovered, where governments must still recognise some responsibility and recognise the potential to build human capital and potential for the greater good, if only we knew the language, the issues and the arguments that would change their course.

The alternative is working with social entrepreneurs, those individuals embedded within their own communities, prepared to blend making a profit and delivering a social service, perhaps analogous to community teachers in rural schools in Kenya or bare-foot doctors in China. The challenge for advocates of learning with mobile devices is finding out how to design or adapt those devices or applications that hit the spot where market and education might just overlap.

A colleague recently remarked that every technology embodies an ideology; I realised that the implication was that every educational technology embodied a pedagogy, embodies a specific set of ideas about teaching and learning. This ideology or pedagogy may be that of the designers or the manufacturers; the technology may however be appropriated by users and learners and the ideology or pedagogy embodied within the technology becomes theirs not the original or intended one. This issue represents one of the challenges to transferring strategies for educational technology from one culture to another, even from one community or sub-culture to another, especially when we recognise how many slightly different communities and sub-cultures inhabit phonespace and cyberspace.

Finally, one obvious way to enhance sustainability and scale is to consciously exploit learners’ own devices, to base national or institutional strategy around the phones that individuals choose, own and carry everywhere. Of course, institutional culture and regulations may actually prohibit phones on the premises and much needs to be done in order to address issues of standards, infrastructure and performance, of access and equity, of content and training but the main hurdle is teachers’ and officials’ perceptions about loss of control and agency in the class-room, about suddenly letting the animals run the zoo. Fortunately some countries, South Africa, for example, are starting to explore these issues and make progress on a major prerequisite to sustainable learning with mobile devices.

There’s a lot going on in this blog and some prevailing assumptions and generalisations may have been addressed with just a different set of assumptions and generalisations; the aim was however not to convince but to unsettle, and perhaps to encourage more caution and scepticism. Learning with mobile devices somewhere near the bottom of the pyramid is still our best bet.

4 Responses to “Learning with Mobile Devices Somewhere Near the Bottom of the Pyramid”

  1. rqjournal


    This post is so rich that you've certainly provided lots of areas for us to mine…. Thanks for that. Your comments about embodied ideologies and pedagogies rang true for me. However, the leaning toward the learner-centred perspective, while I certainly understand it, also made me think about this from the other end of the "conversation"…..

    The motivation of individual lecturers/ teachers is critical. Ultimately in practice, the lecturer decides what, where, when, who and how teaching & learning will take place. It is very rare that this is truly negotiated with students. The belief that the needs of the learners are sufficient to motivate educators doesn't always translate in reality.

    In contexts where we are dealing with increasing student numbers, and greater controls being placed over academics and their spaces the competing demands are carefully weighed. I think the hearts and minds of "teachers" are where the war is waged: Why should we? what's in it for me? Why should I care? Don't misunderstand me- I am not referring to uncaring, unprofessional, disenchanted or unreasonable academics- I am talking about the people who live and work in the trenches and DO CARE but who pragmatically have careers to build, a living to earn etc.

    How often do we interrogate how & why we do what we do, with specific technologies, in our teaching? (..and what do we find?) This is the part of the system that interests me 🙂

    Rose Quilling
    UKZN – South Africa

  2. WillKuria

    Excellent article and it does give one plenty of food for thought. Personally, I think that developing nations have to come up with their own solutions based on well grounded research that clearly stipulates the needs of learners and teachers alike. Only then can we identify suitable technologies to address these needs and solutions may vary from one place/region to the next.

    When well-meaning companies come to the table with standardised solutions, a one size fits all approach e.g. a specific mobile phone to be deployed for the project, that's when we loose touch with what it is we are trying to achieve. A lecturer of mine often said "we should view technology through pedagogical eyes" Let us not make the technology our focus, let us rather take stock of our issues and identify what technology is available to assist us.

    If for example all students or majority of the students in a classroom have mobile phones with MP3 capabilities, then the lecturer could for instance record her lesson (live) during her class, on her phone, and transmit it via Bluetooth or USB to her students. This allows the students a chance to listen to and replay the lesson at a time and place that's convenient for them.

    This is just an example, however, if we look at the mobile phone as a communication device, one of many by the way, we should try and capitalise on it's communication ability irregardless of the make and model of the phone in question. Let us use what we have and work with it to enhance education.

    Introducing advanced phones and mobile learning software that's not compatible with all makes of phones just complicates matters. In the simple example above, there is no money exchanging hands, there is no extra effort on the part of the teacher and students need not have any credit to participate. It could be this simple if we just applied ourselves more.

    Once again, an excellent and thought provoking article!

  3. Pamela McLean

    I appreciated this article, and wrote a response that grew too long for a comments box – so it's posted in full at http://dadamac.posterous.com/learning-with-mobile

    It began with reference to the paragraph " Of course, in saying this, I am caught between funders who want results, policy makers who want simple robust bases for policy, the development community talking about predictable unexpected consequences, social scientists telling us reality and experience are contingent and postmodernists telling us that the grand narratives of the Western European mind, of which development is undoubtedly one, are all broken and dead."

    I notice there is no mention of the learners in this list and wonder what would happen if we started with the needs of people who want to learn.

    Why not find some adults who want to learn and who now have (or could have) access to the Internet via mobile phones. I suggest a focus on adults with non-formal learning objectives (where the learners are following their own interests and needs, and judging for themselves when those needs have been met). At this point I would avoid a traditional formal learning situation (with set courses and accreditation). Similar investigations could be done in a more formal learning context, but I would argue the case for starting off such research in a non-formal situation that was completely fluid and guided by learner interests. That way we could see what would emerge without the limitations of set approaches and pre-web institutional approaches to learning and teaching.

  4. John Traxler

    Thanks, those are three complex and thoughtful comments, and I'm reluctant to react without a bit more thought, especially as they've taken me a bit further in my thinking. Pamela's remark about the absence of learners in my account has caught me slightly off-guard and I realise I don't want to create a category, namely learners, merely in a sense to fulfil the needs of teachers and their ministries and institutions.

    I am very conscious that every culture, sub-culture and counter-culture, anywhere in the world, has its own epistemology and thus pedagogy, its own practices, priorities and expectations about what to know and how to know, about what to learn and how to learn it, who to learn it from and how to establish that you've learnt it, and that from that perspective everyone is a learner. This is in a sense a defence or a position in favour of indigenous, informal and community cultures and languages, some of which are precarious and marginal, and perhaps threatened by the mobile information super highway and the global knowledge economy. So I guess my response to the earlier absence of learners is to assert that everyone is a learner but to advocate caution when we use mobile technologies to deliver learning, 'our' learning, to them.

    Pamela's later phrase 'people who want to learn' is something feel happier with, perhaps in the way that nowadays I generally say 'learning with mobile devices' rather than 'mobile learning'. The idea of working informally from within communities seems very attractive and much more aligned to mobile technologies, which transform the nature of knowing and learning, and the ownership and control of knowing and learning, than working with formal organisations and institutions, which might be much more resistant to change and flexibility.

    In a sense perhaps I'd like to look at collaborative or participative design or user-centred design (of learning experiences or learning systems or learning technologies) with a wider focus. Perhaps in this context, Richard Heeks ideas of ICT4D2.0, specifically the per-poor dimension, would be helpful here, as another way of addressing involvement and empowerment.

    To put it another way, we assume that using mobile phones to take learning, our learning, to different and distant communities is always a good thing. Many of languages in the developing world are at risk of extinction, and with these languages come different cultures of knowing and coming to know; of learning and teaching; of what to learn, who to learn it from and how to use what you've learned.

    Is it right to connect these cultures to the might of the global knowledge economy on the mobile information superhighway, will they end up as exotic road-kill? Are our learning and our technologies, like whiskey and guns, likely to be harmful to the natives? Can we reconcile informed consent with blissful ignorance? Is this a liberal Western conceit, inconsequential compared to Millennium Development Goals or a serious question of cultural ecology?

    I would certainly agree that infrastructure and coverage are important but have found that the subtleties of tariffs and plans can also make an enormous difference. What also makes an enormous difference can be something as simple as getting networks to agree on common short codes and similar working arrangements. The feasibility of mobile learning will certainly depend on the sophistication of users but rural users might get left behind in initiatives that exploit sophisticated technologies.

    The example of Project Masiluleke is great and a wonderful example of how mobile technologies get appropriated and re-appropriated by different agents and groups. It's also yet one more example of the imagination and energy in South Africa. Steve Vosloo continues to do great things and his work will be featured in the forthcoming USAID symposium.


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