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Inevitable: Mobile Phone Inspired Educational Change

Michael Trucano

An invigorating debate! Bob’s opening comments on why to use the computer are all eloquently and succinctly made, and I must confess I agree with most all of them. Given that I am in fundamental agreement with Bob’s remarks, then, I think I’ll begin my response by turning to a few of the comments posted here:

As Tim says, “device convergence” will make this a stale debate, but not yet. Comparing computers and phones is like comparing “apples and oranges”, we can (and will) eat both, as Allen suggests. But, for the sake of this debate, let’s stick with the artificial choice of either/or:

Phones can indeed be a distraction device. We are seeing them banned in many schools (including the USA, as Wayan rightly notes). We are at the same time seeing parents lobby in some countries against such bans, arguing that they need to be able to connect to the children in the case of emergency.

Cheating with phones, cheating with computers, cheating with calculators, cheating with crumbled up pieces of papers. While mobile phones do perhaps offer certain advantages in this regard, I don’t know that any device as a monopoly here.

Indeed, phones are out of reach of most students and teachers in most countries, and smartphones are even further out of reach. But what if we extend our time horizon a bit? Smartphones are coming faster than we think. Can anyone who has seen the explosive growth in mobile phone use over the past five years doubt that cheaper, more powerful, more widespread smartphones are coming, and soon? Government policies and plans often look 5-10 years in the future. A fixation on the ICT form factor of the past — the PC/laptop — seems to me to be terribly short-sighted.

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.

Of all the commenters who have posted insightful remarks on this site, I must confess that I agree the most with Alex’s points.

Seeing phones as destinations for education content and applications ported from PCs is an unnecessarily limitation on our vision here. Simply digitizing textbooks and making them available for use on a computer has not proven to be terribly effective. Why should we expect content developed for 15″ computer monitors to work on 2″ screens?

The success of the iPhone is showing that there are many types of compelling content and applications that only make sense to develop for the phone — and that there are critical masses of software developers willing to do such development.

Only five years ago, the use of the mobile phone for access to banking services had been largely abandoned in ‘developed’ countries. ‘Why would we use the phone to access our banking information, people asked, when we had access to a much richer experience using PCs and the Internet?’ At about the same time, firms in the Philippines were finding many users were quite willing to use their phones in slightly different ways to transfer money to/from their banks — and each other — in ways slightly different from how such practices were envisaged in OECD markets. Learning from such experiences, Safaricom rolled out its version of m-banking in Kenya last year with explosive results.

Just as computers offer certain key andvatages over printed books (and vice versa), so too do mobile phones present us with certain opportunities that computers do not. These are some of the key attributes of mobile phones that make their increased use in education inevitable:

  1. Personal.
  2. Mobile.
  3. Always-connected.
  4. Cheap(er).
  5. And increasingly ubiquitous.

While I agree with Bob and Alex (and so many others here) on many issues, I disagree a little bit on one final point. Yes, the eventual impact of any technology to transform teaching and learning in the classroom does depend on larger, fundamental educational reforms. But I think we need to think a little more broadly here. One recurrent lament in educational technology circles is that ‘ICTs are revolutionizing education everywhere but in the classroom’. Reform of educational systems takes time — often a long time.

But going forward, the rapid growth of mobile phone use, especially in developing countries, and the inevitable development of education content for use on such devices, highlights an important opportunity for individual learners outside of the classroom to engage in meaningful education activities whenever, wherever they want. This is of course no substitute for formal schooling, and certainly no substitute for the critical relationship between teacher and student and teacher at the center of most learning processes.

The importance of such outside-the-classroom use should not be discounted, and, to the extent such use is increasingly effective and widespread, it may turn out to also be an important trigger for larger educational reforms within the formal education system.

5 Responses to “Inevitable: Mobile Phone Inspired Educational Change”

  1. I wonder whether there's a middle ground between computers and mobile phones.

    Take, for instance, the experience of FrontlineSMS:Medic (an introduction to the project on a gorgeous interview that I've just read: http://www.takepart.com/blog/2009/06/10/takepart-

    If it were connectivity – and not computers – the main restriction, could it be possible something like FrontlineSMS:Edu ?

    • FrontlineSMS does not solve connectivity issues – you still need a mobile phone operator and the ability to pay for all the SMS messages that Frontine would use. Let's say there are 30 children in a class. To send each of them a text message would be around $3 (10 cents each x 30 students). You can image that a few of these blast SMS messages could quickly add up in costs.

  2. I guess there is a middle ground between computers and mobile phones in the proliferation of handheld devices like PalmPre, iPod, etc and of mini-laptops or netbooks. The key elements in their widespread use in education will be price (both for the handset and for usage) and screen size.

    BTW, I think the link in Ismael's comment above should point to: http://www.takepart.com/blog/2009/06/10/takepart-

  3. Aw, this was a really good post. In theory I’d like to put in writing like this too – taking time and real effort to make a very good article… however what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something completed


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