What is ETD?

ETD promotes discussion on low-cost ICT initiatives for educational systems in developing countries. Read More

Join ETD

Become a part of the conversation. Contribute your ideas, strategies and expertise to our discussions. Join Now

Computers Are Better than Mobile Phones, For Now

Wayan Vota

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.

And all parties were smart to take J Tim Denny’s lead with this comment:

[W]e tend to chase the technology, there are all sorts of exciting devices for the geek in us, but what is better for teaching and learning is the crux of the argument

To begin with, many educators are thinking that mobile phone usage in the classroom can be detrimental to educational goals. Why? Let’s have Weziwe Sikaka explain the basic issue:

I agree, mobile phone technology is quite advanced but these are not designed for educational purposes. The distructive nature in the design of a mobile phone makes it nothing more than a communication accessory. The accessibility and affordability of phones has in fact adversely affected the educational environment in schools whereby you find students heavily immersed in conversations through phones during classroom sessions which is quite distructive.

In addition, often the term “mobile phone” is confused with “smart phone”. While mobile phone penetration is soaring, these are basic phones, not high-end iPhones, and Alan argues it will be a long time before we see a switch from one to another:

While mobile phones’ usage may outnumber PCs in terms of ownerships, most are non smart phones like what Shabani said. To have the general population to have smart phones with latest gadgetry would be a long long time or never will. Phones have their main uses mainly for communication. In a way, this is a form of learning. But to equate or even think that using mobile phones to impart knowledge, the way a PC is able to do, is wishful thinking.

Bob Kozma gave thought to the ways in which computers are more capable than mobile phones, and listed a number of learning applications are not adequately supported by mobile phones. While the list was not exhaustive, Shabani highlighted Bob’s basic argument:

The advantage of computers is their complexity. They are complex and use complex applications that allow teachers and students to work on complex projects in science, math, etc. More often this advantage is hurting computers in education as complex applications require complex training. Teachers, both in developed and developing countries are not learning fast how to use these complex applications, student are.

Don’t count smart phones out of the long-term educational mix though. And do not think there is a binary choice between mobile phones or computers. As Mike Trucano points out, we should be more holistic in our technology thoughts than that:

With few exceptions, education ministries have done a poor job of changing to support the kind of learning enabled by PCs today. If and where ‘phones’ are relevant learning tools to students in developing countries, let’s hope that policymakers don’t (belatedly) orient themselves to plan on how to take advantage of just the PC. Learning-centric, device-agnostic – that should be our aim.

Especially when Alex Twinomugisha tells us the major difference between smart phones and computers, this ability to run complex applications, is shrinking fast:

The problem, in my view, is that the (web-based) applications that mobile phones are supposed to access were designed for computers. This is changing quickly with many of the new web applications having mobile versions. In Nairobi ( I know this is a far cry from rural Africa or Asia but nevertheless offers interesting insights), scores of secondary and university students can be found rapidly clicking away on their mobile phones: chatting using Google Talk, exchanging emails via Gmail and constantly interacting on Facebook (which I am told is the latest mobile addiction in this city!). All these applications can be harnessed for education.

Luckily, some teachers are already exploring how they can integrate mobile phones into the classroom, in a positive way. They’ll have help from the likes of Chansa:

Being a teacher myself I have been using my laptop and my mobile phone to do on line research and exchange information with friends in other parts of the country this has helped to alleviate the problem of lack of text books. This facility has benefited my fellow teachers and students. as well.

Better yet, smart phones can empower teachers to move from phones as basic teacher aids to empowering a whole new vision of the classroom, according to Todd Diemer:

As educators, if the Smartphone era is coming, and coming soon (or already here), now is the time that we need to be preparing for it. The lack of quality resources that scaffold learning is one of the biggest challenges that smartphones can address. Tools that allow for the distribution of materials, collaborative learning between students, feedback between teacher and student, and communication to the outside world need to be developed. Teacher training programs need to be developed, for this change will amount to a complete rethinking of where the physical focus of a classroom will be (from teacher in the front to student groups spread out).

In fact, Shabani shares a viewpoint that is almost universally held in the education and technology fields:

The biggest beneficiaries of these technologies will be students, not really teachers, because the youth tend to learn fast when it come to technology-related applications and devices. This gives me an idea of reverse capacity building: When will students start teaching their teachers? We should think about this and not limit students’ capacity to share their knowledge. There are millions of kids who can help their teachers in how to use technology-related devices and applications.

And that’s a great egalitarian answer to the original question, “Are mobile phones better learning tools than computers?” In a collaborative learning environment, where teachers, students, and technology co-exist, its not the technology, its education that’s the focus.

2 Responses to “Computers Are Better than Mobile Phones, For Now”

  1. Great discussion, and some interesting conclusions. I tend to fall more on the mobile phone side of the debate, although as many have pointed out its not a binary choice. Rather, laptops and netbooks (for those that can afford them) will likely serve as a kind of a bridge to the handheld world. But with less than a quarter of he worlds population connected to the Internet via computers, there is no question which device will win out in the end. Speaking of which, we need to be thinking 5-10 years out, not just over a 1-2 year timeframe. By that time G4 and LTE networks will enable fast connections, new mobile devices, and innovative applications that will make desktops/laptops obsolete. Regardless of the need to focus on the learning environment and the capabilities and inclinations of teachers, its going to be a whole new ballgame and there is no time to waste in getting teachers and administrators up to speed! In my opinion Educators themselves should be leading the charge, and not waiting for the technology to catch up.

  2. I had attempted to post this earlier, but managed to lose my text and ran out of time. It does seem, though, that this is not a bad time to argue for a synthesis of the phone and the laptop.

    I have long argued for using technology that is economically helpful to the family of the educational user, so that it becomes a tool seen as worth supporting. For this purpose the mobile phone would be best, as it has been shown to assist in raising the economic level of users. But for the purposes of education we need to add some of the functions of the laptop. Depending upon the level of education that it should provide, this could be done with as little as the addition of a stylus touchpad.

    I say this because it appears that the initial big application would be basic literacy – both for children and for adults (presumably with their childrens' help). The introduction to the letters of the alphabet (whichever one is used locally), the correspondence of sounds to the characters and combination of letters, the ability to practice drawing letters and to have the program correct or otherwise indicate improvements, all are functions performed by every teacher in every classroom for the first year of education. The advantage here would be that parents could engage in the same lessons and learn literacy where they never would have the time or be willing to suffer the loss of pride to come into a classroom – even if they would be permitted there by school rules.

    It's certainly true that adults learn more slowly and differently than do children, and the programs would have to take this into account. But the basic technology required is pretty much covered by the mobile phone – given a speakerphone mode and a stylus touchpad. Different modules of the programs could be downloaded from the network, eliminating the need for mass storage, and the screen would have to be capable of a certain amount of resolution, but given the ability of the program to speak and to hear pronunciation of letters, such an enhanced phone could provide the start for great increases in basic literacy (and numeracy as well, since numbers and arithmetic can be handled with the same device).

    To create such a "literacy phone" and the necessary programs in a sufficient number of languages and cultural settings would be a big task, but it would produce results much faster than the expansion of numbers of laptops. Later applications could make the same phone an electronic book, which would give it a place in the education process well beyond the basic stages.

    Laptops are indeed necessary for the higher levels of the educational process – but don't forget you have to start simple.


Subscribe to ETD

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner