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Mobile opportunity for learning in Africa

Gustav Praekelt

Mobile devices are at the centre of a revolution delivering platforms to achieve knowledge transfer and behaviour change in Africa. With the accelerating growth of mobile devices in Africa the past few years, unique solutions have been developed to address barriers to large-scale adoption of learning platforms. In particular, the specific challenges and unique problems faced in Africa have had a marked impact on the innovation in developing novel channels for providing information in a cost-effective manner.

A key barrier to successful adoption of learning platforms is mobile penetration. It is necessary to achieve at least a minimum percentage penetration amongst a community of users to exploit network effects and viral strategies which facilitate the building of vibrant communities. Africa’s recent rapid rise of mobile phones has seen mobile penetration grow in some markets to over 100% (South Africa) and to close to 500 million connections for the continent as a whole.

When evaluating markets for feasibility the following key measures of the penetration should be considered: absolute mobile phone penetration, mobile internet penetration, desktop internet penetration and Social Networking penetration.

Absolute phone penetration provides us with with a baseline measure of the lowest common denominator technologies that can be used to deliver basic information, such as Voice, SMS, USSD and Please Call MEs. Each of these channels has characteristics that make them usable for very large scale information delivery platforms, particularly the cost of usage. As is to be expected, mobile internet penetration far outstrips desktop internet penetration in African markets and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Social network penetration on mobile and desktop can be a particularly good proxy for pinpointing markets that have vibrant communities with high levels of interconnectedness. Facebook and MXit are currently the largest social networks in Africa, both of which are showing explosive growth on the continent. The launch of Facebook zero, Facebook has developed a particularly compelling offering that allows users to access a low-bandwidth version of the social network at no cost from their mobile phone. The rapid growth of Facebook in markets where it was able to negotiate a zero cost deal with network operators, proves how important cost of access is in developing markets.

Developing effective mobile learning platforms requires a deep understanding of the multiple modalities of interaction presented by mobile phones. Novel channels are viable alternatives to voice for delivering information, building communities and driving behaviour change. As part of our work in the Praekelt Foundation we explore the channels that can lower the cost of access whilst still providing enough information to enable learning experiences.

On of the least expensive, yet effective, means of large scale messaging for the base of the pyramid is Please Call Me Messages – an approach to free messaging developed in South Africa and utilised in Project Masiluleke. Most mobile users in developing countries are on pre-paid mobile packages. Pre-paid users often ran out of airtime, which can prevent them from making a call. Please Call MEs allow them to send a free message requesting a call back. Currently over 40million Please Call MEs are sent per day in South Africa alone. In Project Masiluleke, we have tagged critical information about health services and HIV/AIDS to over 1 billion messages over the last 2 years.

USSD – or unstructured supplementary data – provides a more interactive means to deliver information and learning services to low-end text-only phones. USSD was originally developed for use by mobile operators to communicate directly with subcribers and provide access to operator functionality, such as airtime updates, service status and requests. Most pre-paid subscribers access on USSD multiple times a day to obtain their account balances and to top-up airtime. USSD allows for the creation of decision trees which a user traverses to find relevant information. Typically, interaction over USSD is either free or extremely low in cost, making it possible for 3rd party developers to build rich applications that are highly interactive, yet can function on the most basic of phone. A further benefit is that the most of the interface is already well known to the many mobile network subscribers across developing markets.

Group messaging platforms like MXit and Blackberry Messenger, allow users to chat via text for very low cost or a flat rate per month (in the case of Blackberry messenger). It has enabled the development of number of mLearning innovations like Yoza, developed by Steve Vosloo with the support of the Shuttleworth Foundation in 2010. The project was launched for “book-poor, mobile phone-rich” teenagers in South Africa to see if they would read stories on their cell phones. Says Steve Vosloo of the project:

“Yoza stories aim to captivate teens and inspire them to enjoy well-written stories by good authors. The m-novels are written in conventional language, with txtspeak only used when a character is writing or reading SMSes or instant message chats. Also included is prescribed school reading that is in the public domain, for example, Macbeth. There is no charge for the actual stories, but users do pay their mobile network operator for mobile data traffic. Images have been kept to a minimum to keep the mobile data charges low.”

One of the benefits is promoting behaviour change through social networks is the power of having members of a peer group providing help and advice on important topics, such as health or education. Recognising this opportunity, the Praekelt Foundation launched YoungAfricaLive, a groundbreaking mobile platform where young people learn and talk about life issues, including love, sex, relationships and HIV/AIDS.

The portal features daily blogs by young South Africans sharing their journeys through the difficult terrain of love, sex and relationships in the time of HIV. Along with relationship advice, facts on HIV, STDs, Safe Sex and more, these stories have created a safe sex-savvy community that logs on daily to give and receive support and advice. Since it launch in December 2009, the network has signed up over 400,000 users. One of the reasons for its rapid growth and success has been the stickiness of the platform, over a 1,000,000 comments have been posted and an extremely lively community has spontaneously coalesced around the topics that are important to them.

Social platforms allow granular tracking of connections between users and identifying the most influential people in a network. Since all stories can be commented on, and users can “like” each others comments, it is possible to build a very detailed map of the connections between users and thereby identifying which users have the greatest impact on opinion in the network. We can then target influencers in the network with information that we wish to deliver and track the traversal of the message through the network.

Mobile penetration and cost of data and messaging remain the largest obstacles to large scale usage of mobile platforms to improve learning in Africa. Through the use of novel low-cost channels such as SMS, USSD, and Mobile Social Networks it is possible to build compelling platforms that are available to every user of a mobile phone in Africa, and that can have meaningful impact on our users lives.

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