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Computers are More Capable than Mobile Phones

Robert B. Kozma

It’s a pleasure to be engaged in a discussion of this important topic, particularly with Mike Trucano, who has been involved in promoting the use of ICT for development for so long. I don’t think this will be a debate, in the classic sense, because I know Mike and I have very similar beliefs about the positive impact that ICT can have in developing countries.

Also, having done volunteer work in rural villages in Eastern Africa, I believe that the most basic technologies can play a particularly important role in reducing poverty, given the lack of resources and under-developed infrastructure in most of the Southern Hemisphere. Indeed, I’ve seen how a technology as simple as a bicycle can make a significant difference in communication among rural villages, so the increased use of mobile phones is a major advance. Also, there have been times when

I’ve argued against the extensive use of computers in developing countries, at least if not accompanied by other reforms. But for the purpose of argument, I will take the position here that computers have a unique and very powerful role to play in supporting education and development, relative to simpler technologies, such as mobile phones.

To start, I will admit that mobile phones are a very attractive technology in developing countries. They are very inexpensive, relative to other technologies. Handsets can be purchased not much more than $10. This cost can be further ameliorated by distributing a single handset over a number of people through phone sharing or renting. It has an added advantage that communication is in verbal form, an important consideration in countries with a high rate of illiteracy, and in the local language, again another important consideration given that there is very little content on the internet in the numerous tribal languages that are the mother tongue in many developing countries.

However, the mobile phones that the ITU is talking about are not iPhones or other smart phones that provide the user with access to the internet or sophisticate software applications. The features available on the large majority of mobile phones in the developing world are extremely limited. I think it would be fair to say that the capability for the most-sophisticated phones commonly available provide capabilities no more powerful than point-to-point messaging and SMS broadcasting. But the impact of information provided in this form is constrained by low literacy rates. This makes community radio an attractive low-end alternative, one that I’ve argued for on other occasions.

This brings me to my main point. 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.

With the application of artificial intelligence and speech recognition students can even respond in aural form and have those responses evaluated, accommodating issues of illiteracy. Software tools can be used by students to create oral, graphic and written products. And access to the internet connects students to a variety of digital and human resources that can facilitate teaching and learning.

With these capabilities, students can:

  • work on complex projects in science, math, and social studies
  • engage in solving real world problems
  • access libraries and museums across the world
  • collaborate with teachers and students in other countries
  • collect and analyze data
  • create multimedia productions
  • develop community websites
  • connect with remote experts
  • visualize abstract concepts in science and math

These learning applications are not adequately supported by mobile phones. Granted not all computers, particularly the low-end computers most likely available in developing countries, have access to all of the power described above. But most computers, even low-end ones, have much of this power and if Moore’s Law holds, more and more of them will in the future. Of course, Moore’s Law applies to other digital technologies, as well; so even cheap mobile phones will come to have these capabilities and it will be hard to differentiate among these technologies.

But however powerful and inexpensive these technologies become, it is important to keep in mind that education will not improve merely by injecting computers or mobile phones into classrooms. Significant change will occur only if the use of these technologies is accompanied by reforms in pedagogy, curriculum, teacher training, assessment, and the policies that govern them.

With the appropriate changes, the power of computers can be applied to help students move from the rote learning that characterizes much of education in the developing world to complex problem solving and the creation of innovative products and artifacts that prepares them for life in the 21st century.

14 Responses to “Computers are More Capable than Mobile Phones”

  1. 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.

    I understood from my own experience that people at the very "bottom of the pyramid" do not require complex applications to get out of the extreme poverty. They need very easy-to-use and familiar tools that do not require them to spend more of their Adenosine Triphosphate while thinking. They are hungry. That is why in Sub Saharan Africa for example, many computer users use the word "plug and play" referring to a software or hardware that is easy to use. The wizard. Developing countries need a "plug and play" system. Whether a software, hardware, book or training manuals, all this must be very easy to understand. Computers do not often offer that, mobile phones does. Still, mobile phone is not a better learning tool than computer.

    My point is this, while implementing ICT and Education policies in developing countries, policy makers should know that not any policy can be used at any level of poverty. Many people, including myself, have started using computer at age 20. Some in my village in the North-Kivu, DR Congo, never even saw a computer before, but have mobile phones in their hands every day. It requires a huge effort and sacrifice to catch up with many other people of your age in other parts of the world. On top of that, when you are 20, you have other important problems you need to solve in that particular moment of your life in order to survive: find money to finance your school, have clothes, a 1-bed studio, a girlfriend and you have to move in a big city to find more opportunities. All people of the above profile need is a machine easy-to-use that can help them learning while thinking how to solve other problems. it is only after you pass this stage of struggling to catch up that you will be able to think of other application, some of them can be complex.

    Computers are more capable than mobile phones for many reasons as Dr. Kozma cited above. This is true when applied to a population that already has a basic or broad knowledge in mathematics and sciences, know how to use econometric analysis to analyze data or know the existence of websites. It is true for students or professors who are ready to solve real world problem. Not for people who are struggling to solve their everyday problem in their community in order to survive. Those are billions on earth.

    For students and teachers, mobile phone applications are easy to use and do not require a complex training. Neither teachers nor students in Africa read the entire manual that come with a Nokia before they turn it on and start learning by them selves the usage. That is the power of mobile phone. For computer applications, governments and other local institutions need foreign aid in order to start learning how to build a basic website for schools with Joomla or SPIP. Then we have to think of corruption and bad governance after receiving the money for training.

    While using the power of computer to solve complex problems in some part of the developing world, some other part of the same world might a "plug and Play" solution to solve very simple but vital problem in their communities. When we put all these solutions together, we might have a chance to prepare millions of people, from different layers of poverty, for a better life in the 21st century.

  2. Tanveer Shalor

    " Lets educate the people through the tools of Literacy, especially IT", The technology increasing rapidly, This really caused the Social, Environmental and human interaction issues, this means the learning is the process with need not only the data but also need the environment to learn by there all senses, therefor for communication the mobile phone is more portable and reliable tool, but for learning the Computer is more preferable tool, just like the man in a library sitting in a silence and can learn more.

  3. Janet Salmons

    I vote for computers where the focus is learning. Literacy- reading and writing- is essential and more possible with a laptop. I fear a mobile phone only strategy would lead to more short attention span quick responses. Today's students need to learn how to write in a way that supports development of higher order thinking and problem solving. While I think the mobile complements the computer, if you can choose only one I go for laptop.

    • Janet, I too decry the "Twitterization" of public discourse, and I feel that an over-reliance on the small screens of mobile phones – especially in education – will exacerbate the trend. We already see abbreviations used to communicate with a 140 character limit in SMS messages creeping into usage where there is no limit, like emails and blog comments.

  4. 1. A Smartphone is a computer
    2. Adding a large screen and keyboard to a Smartphone is trivially simple – Bluetooth and HDMI
    3. The web is the future platform
    5. There are already more phones than PCs.

    The writing is on the wall.

    • Ian

      1 yes a smartphone is a computer and a phone is a computer and a calculator is a computer and your microwave has a computer in it also… I think Kozma's argument is about phones… he says that the issue is about a basic $10 phone… even make that a $100 phone… more if you like… it is still not a device with the capabilities of a PC not yet at least…

      2 just a few days ago I saw a Samsung Wave playing a video game connected to a large screen DVD… let me see the Wave comes in about nearly $700 and the large screen LCD was pretty pricey also… but whatever it may be it is not trivial… it is expensive, the technology is not readily available… I did a search on GSMarena.com to see what devices have HDMI… as far as I can see only the top level smartphones… we are talking devices in the $600-$1000 range…

      3 the web is the current platform – simple phones are incapable of displaying the web, furthermore they often do not have the correct performance nor software to handle the web

      4 there are far more phones than PCs… yes… but that is not an argument in itself..


  5. The normal mobile phone most have are basic ones displaying characters rather than rich graphics computers are capable of.

    The most important one is that … there are already millions of ready educational software to use.

    Compare this to the basic phones most people have. What can you learn anything from that small device?

    No .. PC beats mobile phone hands down.

  6. Unix was once the premise of minicomputers, it now runs on a phone. You can learn a lot from history. Prices fall with volume, good enough technologies move up into the space previously dominated by more complex technologies. Read up on disruptive innovation and find out why Smartphone technologies will force PC technologies into specialist niches. The only uncertainty is how long it will take.

  7. In my view, the debate does not have to be either / or scenario on whether to use computers or mobiles. It has to be an innovative combination of both. There are certain advantages of mobiles when it comes to user led education initiatives and of computers when its about classroom or online education.

  8. Tom Abeles

    Let me posit a scenario: Suppose we take a village or several villages. Now completely "wire" the community- high speed, low/no cost access and a zero fault computer. I am not having problems imagining such a scenario even for a whole village, not just a "school". I can imagine this in a rural village removed from easy physical access and I can see this in a barrio in a larger community. In fact I have seen both where such efforts have been promoted. I can even imagine the village copy machine able to produce 3D objects- maybe even a star trek matter converter?

    What is missing from this picture? My concern is that:

    a) we see the world revolving around and/or driven by technology. Humility and service seem in short supply
    b) high speed knowledge movement does not equate 1:1 with social/political change. Do we have a hammer/nail vision problem?
    c) time is a critical element. What is needed today and what will be needed tomorrow is a dynamic issue. How do we think about the future?

    OLPC anyone?

  9. OLPC is not a bad concept, it is just not at the right place at the right time or the right price. The world of information – and much of learning is about information – is indeed revolving around technology. There is a bit of a chicken and egg. Digital learning resources need to be freely available such that they can replace more expensive media, the price of accessing those resources also needs to be low. These things are getting closer but we are not there yet and one without the other won't work. Give it 5 years maybe 10.

  10. The simple fact is that you need to utilise a selection of technology to meet the needs of a given scenario. An overall approach based on the concept of one size fits all is always likely to fail as it fails to take account of individual user variances. This is especially true in communities where users require adaptive or assistive technology to access core information and communication.

    If you want to look beyond the debate between mobile phones and PC’s consider the functionality offered by an mp3 player or ebook reader, both are cheap and low cost and recent models incorporate web browsing etc – what is challenged is the form factor of the desktop PC in an era dominated by portability and mobility. with that challenge comes the need to explore both form and the range of functions that technology offers to meet the apsirations of the users.

    Technology does not and should not dominate the debate, the specification of the equipment is based upon the needs and aspirations of users, once that is defined the choice of platform is then a matter of specification


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