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Opportunities and challenges for use of mobile phones for learning

Bas Hoefman

The Mobile landscape in Africa has rapidly evolved over the past decade with 380 Million mobile subscribers and 1 million added every week. This growth has been fueled in a large part by the liberalization effort resulting in the formation of independent regulatory bodies and increased competition in the market. This has enhanced numerous grassroots efforts to empower the poor and marginalized by providing access to knowledge through technology, more so a platform for communication. SMS and voice is being used in innovative ways to share knowledge and improve learning among students in Africa.

Text to Change: Best practices

Text to Change has over the years proven that SMS and Voice based applications can be used successfully in various interactive mobile health education programs reaching thousands of people across the African continent. Text to Change (TTC) uses text messaging (SMS) to encourage behavioral change and has proved that this approach is a highly effective communication channel for health education, encouraging testing and drug compliance and informing people of the choices available to them concerning their wellbeing.

For example in 2008, TTC in partnership with Zain and Aids Information Centre, Uganda, devised a six-eight week SMS behavioral change campaign which was advertised with the slogan ‘’Don’t guess, learn the truth about AIDS’’ and its aim was to encourage people to know about their HIV status and learn more about the disease. Today, TTC is active in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, the impact of these programs needs to be complimented by other media like Radio and posters to build an awareness platform.

Opportunities and challenges

60% of people in Africa are under the age of 24, a school going age, which is knowledgeable about new technologies (even the use of smart phones) and becoming very demanding. The youth are booming with lots of enthusiasm to explore and learn any technologies at their disposal in schools and communities. They learn fast and are inquisitive. Technology distracts youth- either positively or negatively. The idea is keeping it simple to encourage learning. Also, mobile is still a more affordable technology than a computer for the youth seeing that service providers always have subsidized packages that accommodate them.

Technology role out for learning is still stalled by a number of factors in Africa including:

  • Poor ICT policy implementation especially in the areas of Health and Education. These two areas are complimentary – will you educate an unhealthy nation?
  • Most schools in Africa still do not accept mobile phone possession in classroom or even at school. Aspects of high teacher absenteeism and quality of teachers are still apparent.
  • Limited mobile coverage especially in the rural areas which has also led to poor internet connectivity. Mobile operators are always seeking a win-win market situation– how then should we package these programs to make them interesting to the operators?
  • Africa is characterized by too many ICT pilots of which most have not materialized to ongoing impact generating programs.
  • Technology is powered by Electricity, which is a challenge to most of rural Africa.

The bloggers reflections

The future of ICT/Mobile deployment in mLearning is encouraging, however, this cannot be substituted for a weak education system – a good quality education sector is vital. It should be understood that ICT/Mobile is just a tool or an enabler to development. Success stories and failures aside, we need to be unambiguous about the definition of M-learning which varies from country to country. I believe the biggest opportunities lie in the access to information and knowledge.

In my outlook, many of the mLearning initiatives are designed within a ‘’what if’’ scenario: “What if everyone in rural Africa has access to a smart phone and/ or has access to internet?” The fact of the matter is that, inspite the rapid growth of the mobile industry; we need to use that which is currently available and practical. In most parts of Africa, we are limited to SMS, and Voice; this is the only medium that works on most basic devices. Teaching how to read, write and to do simple arithmetic is the responsibility of the parents, teacher and the government. It is complex to replace that by applications and mobile technology. I encourage that ICT or mobile should always be used as an enabler and could never be successful if it is used in isolation.

Mobile operators could encompass the role of an incubator; where a commercially viable product is introduced that will encourage the deployment and uptake of the other operators. Competition drives innovation. It is undeniable that operators are an enabler of technology with good network coverage and infrastructure their primary role. Text to change has partnerships with most major mobile operators in East Africa from which we get subsidized tariffs. Our short codes run on all networks in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

For example, Orange is providing us with technical support in countries where they have operations; however, the partnership does not demand exclusivity- we are open to work with other existing operators within the region. I then must argue that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is always a short term association. To have a sustainable working relationship with the mobile operators we must ensure a win- win situation since the primary goal / core business of the operator is to provide network services and make profits. This is how it should be. I rather have premium services and pay for it than a CSR project that doesn’t have priority for the service provider because it is not profitable.

Very many pilots in developing countries are currently donor funded and have created vast impact. The question is if they are successful, why then doesn’t the government take them on and scale them up nationwide? It is a pity to say that if the government does not scale them up then we remain in a pilot cycle.

The role of government (education ministries) can never be over emphasized. Development of a strong regulatory framework involving a range of stakeholders with accent on end user involvement will bring us far. For example, in Uganda a technical e-readiness working group is in place with the aim to bring different stakeholders together to accelerate ICT implementations in Uganda. A national ICT policy is in place and an education sector ICT policy is before Cabinet. The Ministry of Education and Sports is taking steps to co-ordinate ICT development and has allocated resources to support implementation of its ICT strategy.

Nationwide deployment of a mLearning application programme could only be successful with the inclusion of government having a dedicated budget. That said, mLearning applications have the potential to improve and strengthen the current Education system if integrated into an existing ‘well functioning’ Education system. It is interesting to ask ‘’If the paper based system works; why replace it by mobile phones? ‘’

The fact that Mobile is the most widely used technology in Africa and more people have access to a phone than a computer or even to good quality educational material offers vast opportunities for mLearning.

Recommendations to policy makers, regulators and other stakeholders

My 2 cents lie in the need to develop a legal regulatory framework, mobilize resources to support development of programmes and applications for mLearning. The Ministry should also directly support the development of mLearning applications and or innovations. In addition, the use and deployment of proved programmes and applications in the Education sector.

Before supporting more pilots, donors should research on what already exists; what has worked and what hasn’t. This will help cub duplication. Since most pilots are funded externally, therefore, we need to be creative in sourcing funds and build new business models to ensure continuity. The role of government and other private sector parties cannot be undermined to ensure continuity or sustainability of the pilot projects after the donor has exited. However, we need to be mindful that the MLearning project objectives should therefore be able to meet the countries’ development goals to attract continual implementation by government.

Public private partnerships in the mobile industry need to be encouraged. Tax on Mobile technology, especially on mobile devices is very high in East Africa. In Uganda the VAT on Mobile products is high at 30%. A recent report on the GSMA shows that mobile subscribers across East Africa are highly taxed the world over. This has to be lowered to encourage mobile deployment in Africa. In order to encourage mLearning, the government needs to be creative with tax incentives that will encourage service providers to engage without incurring losses.

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12 Responses to “Opportunities and challenges for use of mobile phones for learning”

  1. Thanks for the great insights, Bas.

    I think you have a very good point by stating that mLearning can have a huge positive impact – but only if it's accompanied by a vital and strong educational system. I strongly believe that if you combine these two it can be really disruptive. With so many people gaining access to mobile technologies every day the opportunities are obvious (if, as you say, we don't just develop another pilot and instead focus on PPP and user integration).

    • Thank you very much Emanuel. If this system is not in place new technologies could cause a counter effect rather than an improvement. If technology is incorporated before a student has attained a certain degree of tutorial knowledge, I am afraid then it becomes a platform of entertainment. Technology should be viewed as an enabler with basic guidance of its use by a tutor in the classroom. It’s obvious that Computers and phones will not replace teachers and solve illiteracy. mHealth and mLearning can work in parallel gearing to an improvement in the education sector with emphasis on remote and ongoing training of teachers and health workers

  2. You have just put it in the right words. How can you educate unhealthy people ?I agree with you we need a solid health system to build a solid educational platform but i just wonder how can ICT and mLearning policies succeed in politically corrupted countries such as the african ones. For me this is where the shoe pinches , political leaders and dictators do not want their people to have free and easy access to emerging technologies and mobile devices. This means means for them a free uncontrolled access to the information which they can not stand at all. I think there is a political problem before it is an educational one.

    • Hi Med. Thank you for your reaction. This is indeed a huge challenge. mLearning and mHealth initiatives are by large donor driven demanded by NGOs and other organizations and lesser by the African Governments. However, I do believe that political leaders have the will power to adopt new technologies but often are not knowledgeable, lack capacity and resources on how to progress. A shift to full technology adaptation will not happen instantaneously and consequently we are left to ponder; ‘’what role can the government play?’’

      I believe that if that if the governments are mandated to create an enabling environment (e.g. lower taxes, subsidiaries for training teachers on ICTs) and that other sectors , both public and private, to promote mLearning.

  3. The next foreseen application of the mobile phones is in the educational stream. The students can now avoid taking out a powered laptop in a public transport to follow a session on a part of their academics. The mobile phone enables a knowledge gain just beyond the walls of a library or a study room. M-learning as an innovation in the educational organizations will yield more up-to-date results and knowledge to its students fraternity. E-class rooms might target a group on a whole, m-classroom will provide a customized class room for every individual irrespective of their geographical locations.
    iphone application development

    • Dear Rahul, Thanks for your insights. The majority of mobile apps at present are not suitable for classroom based training but quite as a supplementary tool to obtain feedback; basic information and reference materials. Inspite the fact that smart phones, mutually with Chinese Android phones, are hastily gaining popularity in East Africa, mainly due to their affordability, the predominant part of the people in Africa only have access to the most basic phones and thus the possibilities are limited to voice and SMS. In Kenya 80% of the internet usage is mobile based basically because a good number of people do not own laptops and perhaps will never have one. Smart phones offer huge opportunities for the education sector in Africa and are an affordable way to make education and health information accessible. Not everyone will have access to an android phone immediately although it sure is an important leap forward.

      • Andrew J Dupree

        Hello Bas,
        I'm interested in hardware development and have been researching the limitations of current smartphone hardware in the development space. Could you tell me more about the Chinese android phone? Why do the majority of Africans only have access to the most basic phones? Is it cost related? If so, how inexpensive do you think a smartphone would have to be to give the majority of Africans access to one? Do you think this would be a useful/important problem to solve?

  4. Available bandwidth is the biggest problem in our opinion, followed by availability of local content.

    • Dear AVS, thanks for your comment. It is true even if everyone would have the most advanced Smartphone rural internet connectivity remains low in most African countries. Rural areas are often not an attractive business locale for mobile operators especially that the high ICT Infrastructure investment would not recover the targeted profit margins.

      I concur with the remark you make about availability of “quality” Local content. My anxiety lies in ownership or responsibility of the content developed. Text to Change works with local partners and in almost every programme we have learned that the creation of mobile content is a complex and time consuming undertaking. Mobile content needs to be short and to the point and above all consistent. In its simplicity lies a challenge of accurate development. Furthermore, cultural aspects, values and ethics have to be taken into consideration. For this reason we spend plenty of time with our partners holding focus group discussions to perfect the mobile content.

  5. Thank you very much Emanuel. If this system is not in place new technologies could cause a counter effect rather than an improvement. If technology is incorporated before a student has attained a certain degree of tutorial knowledge, I am afraid then it becomes a platform of entertainment. Technology should be viewed as an enabler with basic guidance of its use by a tutor in the classroom. It’s obvious that Computers and phones will not replace teachers and solve illiteracy. mHealth and mLearning can work in parallel gearing to an improvement in the education sector with emphasis on remote and ongoing training of teachers and health workers

  6. Michelle v Velthoven

    Thank you for your interesting article Bas!
    Reflecting on your well made second recommendation, I agree that more research is needed on what works before funding new projects. As well as in heatlth, I believe that an important barrier for scaling up mLearning programmes is competing interests of governments. With limited (financial) means, why should they support mLearning projects? There is a major lack of knowledge on the benefits of programmes wich would help to convince them. These need to be established and clearly communicated to policy makers. I was wondering if you have further thoughts on which mLearning objectives programmes should evaluate?

  7. quite academical discussion. if you dont use the tools available how you know ?
    we have done in rural areas and results are good in ten developing countries. and always high level academic know better. why stop something that works ?


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