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June 2009

Mobile Phones and Computers

Mobile Phones: Better Learning Tools than Computers?

Numerous initiatives, most prominently the One Laptop Per Child program, seek to introduce computers to students around the globe. Yet, are computers the right technology for ICT in education? Perhaps mobile phones, of which the ITU estimates there are 4.1 billion subscriptions, would provide a better technology for students? For teachers and policy-makers seeking to increase educational outcomes with inexpensive digital devices, do computers or mobile phones offer a better ICT investment?

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Computers are More Capable than Mobile Phones

Computers have a powerful set of capabilities, relative to mobile phones, at least those less than smart phones. They have a multimedia capabilities that allow not only for the presentation of verbal information but information in a variety of visual forms, such as charts, graphs, dynamic graphics and animations, video, and 3D virtual spaces. With the appropriate programming, they provide for interactivity that allows students to respond to questions, an important consideration when it comes to learning.

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Phones Are a Real Alternative to Computers

Wayan’s question here is provocatively phrased. Of course this is not a binary issue: The question is not either/or, as both technologies will be increasingly integral to the delivery of educational services going forward. That said, the almost single-minded focus of most educational policymakers on the ‘computer’ as the preeminent ICT device to be used in schools going forward is short-sighted. The momentum behind the proliferation of mobile devices appears inexorable for the near future.

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Mobile Phones Need to Converge into Computers

Smart phones should have the features that are needed to support education – a pretty powerful set of capabilities that sound a lot like a computer. It’s a lot to ask of a phone. But this is what is required of technology if it is to contribute to educational improvement. Are we going to see these on an inexpensive handset in the near future? Beyond the “$100 laptop”, are we going to have a “$20 iPhone”?

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Inevitable: Mobile Phone Inspired Educational Change

Are there currently abundant, compelling uses of mobile information devices, something that I will label a ‘mobile phone’, for lack of a better term, in widespread use today in the education sector? Aside from uses of PDAs and calculators, all of whose functions will presumably be subsumed within the functionalities of the ‘phone’ at some point, the answer today is largely no. This answer, I would like to submit, will change.

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Computers Are Better than Mobile Phones, For Now

The mobile phone is gaining momentum in the lives of developing world children. Already classrooms in major cities and elite schools have a chorus of ring tones throughout the day. Soon, this sound may be ubiquitous even in rural and poor schools, like it already is in the developed world. A change almost inconceivable just a few short years ago.

But is this change beneficial to the educational objectives of school systems, especially when compared with the capabilities of computers, a technology only just recently embraced? We had Mike Trucano argue that mobile phones are a real alternative to computers and they’ll Inspire inevitable educational change, but most commenters disagreed. They were more aligned with Bob Kozma’s assertion that computers are more capable than mobile phones and to be useful, phones need to converge into computers.

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