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Mobile Phones: Better Learning Tools than Computers?

Wayan Vota

From the beginning of the computer age, scientists, educators, and policy makers have looked at the computer as an agent of change in education. With its amazing capacity to expand the human mind, by assisting in computation or facilitating exploration – no other technology can rival its data processing abilities. And put to work in education, the computer promises an unparalleled way to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of learning models, and increase the impact of the limited resources allocated to school systems.

Beginning with innovators like Seymour Papert, and extending through the One Laptop Per Child program, which claimed to be a direct descendant of his work, there is an additional push to move computers to a one-to-one basis with children. That computers could actually supplant the top-down knowledge transfer usually practiced to a more self-directed exploration of knowledge. But reliant on one-to-one computer saturation, this specialized effort has always been restrained by the massive costs to allocate and support such technology diffusion.

But why have a monolithic focus on computers? What about mobile phones?

Today there is a mobile phone revolution in the developing world. From the rural Maasai to the slum dwellers of Mumbai, poor people are acquiring mobile phones by themselves – without the government subsidies of the telecenter era. In fact, mobiles represent a huge shifting the technology deployment burden from the state to private companies and individual consumers.

And yet saturation levels are nearing one-to-one in the developed world already, and gaining quickly in the urban areas of the developing world. Because of their relative low costs and low operating needs, its now a given that mobile phones will always out number computers. In addition, phones are gaining in capacity and computing power, with high-end smart phones rivaling some of the low-end netbooks already.

Could it be that mobile phones offer developing country governments a better learning tool and more educational benefits that computers?

This month, we will have two respected discussants explore this topic:

Dr. Robert B. Kozma
Dr. Kozma has directed or co-directed more than 25 projects that have examined the impact of ICT on teaching and learning and developed advanced computer environments for education.

Michael Trucano:
Mike Trucano is the World Bank’s Senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist, providing support to World Bank education projects with ICT-related ‘components’, and is involved in a variety of research activities.

Please join us for what we all expect to be a lively and informative conversation – your input can start right now.

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22 Responses to “Mobile Phones: Better Learning Tools than Computers?”

  1. Yes and No.

    It is true that there is a high growth rate for mobile phone subscribers in developing countries, but the mobile network coverage on the continent averages ~15% stills the lowest in the world. It is also more important to know that there is a severe variation in countries and also in terms of urban versus rural areas.
    Although there is an increase in terms of mobile phone owners in developing world, and in Africa in particular, not everyone own a smart phone, just because not many schools or other educational institutions can afford it.
    Mobile phones are already having tremendous impact both in education, health and other economic and social development areas in developing countries but there are not yet at the stage that we can start thinking that they are better learning tools than computers.

    There are many problems that m-Education compare to let say e-Education in developing countries like the short life of a battery, the size of the screen (refer to Mike Trucano) that make it just really difficult to access important applications that can help to improve efficiency for teachers or students in schools. Even in the USA it is rare, if not very rare, to see a university Professor accessing BlackBoard applications through his blackberry because of the limitation with the web browsers on most mobile phones that cannot support the javascript and java that Blackboard uses. Now don't get me wrong, that was in September 2008 in the USA. Investment in available electricity and other clean energies is also very important as the lack of power stills a problem in many developing countries. My younger brother, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the country of INGA 1, 2 and 3), is almost inaccessible through his mobile phone 5 out of 7 days a week because of the electricity, he is always "low-batt". Think about it. 5 out of 7 for a school.

    There is a hope for mobile phone to have an impact Education in developing countries. 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. This can also be applied also for parents and their kids in urban and rural areas.

    I would like to know what is the size of mobile phone open source. I know that Google G1 is quite open and might be the only one. But I do not know at which extend. We should start promoting more development of more education-oriented mobile phone open source application now in anticipation of the need that could occur in the near future.

  2. You can’t get a meaningful answer to the question which technology is better without asking, For what purpose? And it isn’t enough to say, For education. What parts of education? Where? For whom? What are the alternatives?

    For example, I am writing digital textbooks. I don’t see how I can deliver them to phones. But put that aside.

    Let me lay out one set of possible answers, and see where that gets us. Then we can consider the other sets.

    Think about an underfunded school in a developing country, in a region where there is currently neither a mobile phone network nor Internet access. A village, where our students will be children of subsistence farmers who have to work in the fields from the end of school until sundown. They have barely enough to eat in good years, and are on the edge of starvation in bad years. Textbooks are in English, not the local language, because there is no textbook publishing company anywhere in the world willing to undertake the expense of translation, sales, and distribution.

    What does a mobile phone give to these students? At the moment, in this situation, nothing. We have assumed that there is no phone network in this location.

    Now, what does a laptop provide? (I will take the OLPC XO as the standard, because it has the only suite of education software specifically designed for this situation.) We have assumed no Internet connection. Well, access to a library on the school server, including a subset of Wikipedia; connectivity for collaboration in the neighborhood; as development continues, Free digital textbooks; possibly, content in local languages.

    This last depends on the community. Unlike commercial software, including almost all software on mobile phones, the XO runs Free Software which the older students can translate as part of their English or other foreign language or second language studies.

    Some will think that this is an unfair comparison. How can we talk about phones in the absence of a phone system? Well, it isn’t our choice to make. The regions of the world without phone service are large, and they contain the populations most in need of the benefits of education and of investments in ICT. We have to conclude that computers work better than phones in a large and important set of cases.

    Now let us add a phone network and Internet, which usually means that we are in the cities or towns. So users can access the Net on the phone, with a very small display and seriously clumsy input hardware. The computers have the same functions as before, plus unlimited use of the Internet. I think we have to decide this case for computers as well.

    The case of Internet but no phone system is even more lopsided, and not all that common, so we don’t need to go into it in more detail.

    That brings us to places with a phone network and no other Internet, which is urged as the starting point of this debate. It is an important case, but not the chief case. It occurs on the margins of the regions with both phone and Internet, out to the borders of the regions with neither. They tend to be in rapid transition, because Internet does not often lag far behind phone service.

    Anyway, how about connecting computers to the Internet over the digital voice network? It isn’t broadband, but it provides e-mail, access to many kinds of content, and much more.

    I guess that does it for me. I see the benefits of both devices. The first telephone in a village is worth about $3000 in creating other economic opportunities, according to Grameen Phone research. But I don’t see how phones enable the education mission, and I do see how computers can do it. An education is worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars _per person_, depending on what sorts of jobs and new business opportunities are available.

  3. This topic is like comparing the benefits of Apples and oranges i.e both has its own different kinds of nutrients ( extra functions and capabilities) with some common ones (of learning something )and both are fruits (digital devices).

    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.

    Another big disadvantage of a mobile phone is the cost of usage. For each transmission of data, and mobile phones need continous transmission, the cost of usage would be too expensive for most. A PC does not cost anything if run offline with unlimited contents.

    It is not a comparison actually. A PC has its place well entrenched as far as ICT in Education is concerned. A mobile phone has its place as a communication device with limted uses as a learning tool for a few rich guys.

    There is one advantage of a mobile phone actually….. they can dispense with the need for Satellite connections to get Internet access to remote areas where land lines are out of reach.

    Which is better .. an orange or an apple? We eat both


    • I fully agree with Alan. Comparison is not right. The thing that is happening is that the Mobile Phone try to mimic all that is possible as the net connected PCs. Laptops try to reach out all that is possible with mobile phones. Photo Frames try to go beyond Home usage. If Educational loads (Text/Audio/Video) get into Mobile Network it will collapse. It can be used only for interactiveness. Bluk Delivery should br through cheap Flash drives.

  4. In my view the One laptop per child is a good program but if this initiative is carried on in isolation it may not solve the problem of lack of access to information in developing countries. The reason being that there is poor and lack of internet connectivity, this hinders the sharing of information and research by both teachers and students.
    Most developing countries have lagged behind in the development of ICT infrastructure, although now there seems to be an appreciable spreading of mobile communication to most urban and rural areas. In the case of Zambia this has helped to improve communication as even some rural areas are now covered. Therefore mobile phone may help to provide the internet connectivity.

  5. With the widening of mobile phone network I see the Laptop and the mobile phone working hand in hand. The mobile phone will provide the internet connection necessary for the teachers and pupils to exchange ideas and carry out research on the internet while the computer would be ideal for processing the information and it would also be a better teaching aid as it has a bigger display screen than a mobile Phone.
    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.

    Although we are slowly begining to appreciate the use ICTs in education there are a number of challenges being faced especially in Africa, these include high cost of internet services, poor mobile phone networks, high cost of the smart phones and the computers.

  6. The mobile phone is a great connectivity provider already. Many of the mobile network operators are rolling out data plans than put the ISP market to shame. Yet these plans are also expensive and designed for businessman use, which means they are often not available where they are needed most – in the rural schools with the least access to outside information sources.

  7. Weziwe Sikaka

    As easily accessible as they are, I do not believe that a mobile phone can ever be used as an educational tool especially in the educational environment. 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. Computers on the other hand are and always will be the ideal educational tools because that is what they are designed to do, to educate.

  8. I'm sure I sound like a broken record by this point; but there are roles for both mobiles and computers (be it 1:1 computing as with the OLPC, or 1-computer classrooms, or simply computer labs). Mobiles have high penetration rates (but how young? elementary school?) but limited capabilities beyond 1:1 or expensive 1:many communication. Computers are much more fragile and require more infrastucture, but have such a wealth of educational software and information (especially if you add in the Internet).

    Neither are silver bullets to heal a failing education system, but both could play a role in extending education (call-backs to listen in to class for rural youth unable to attend school regularly?) if implemented with a reasonable and maintainable budget and good integration into the existing education processes.

  9. Isn't there also an equity problem? _most_ of the mLearning projects in schools take advantage of private ownership of mobile phones to use WAP, SMS and other protocols to disseminate information and aggregate responses.

    But the poorest students certainly don't have access to mobile phones, at least not unrestricted access.

    In contrast, computer projects in schools use computers in those schools. Students' access is limited (I've visited schools where 5 students get to use one computer for about an hour a week!), but it's more or less equally shared and at least in some circumstances it's not tied to community income levels.

    There are _huge_ problems with "gifting" mobile phones to students in poor families or to their parents. Is our infatuation with the mobile phone so profound that we're willing to overlook its unequal distribution?

  10. Cell phone – personal property, inherently portable, inherently connected, inexpensive enough even by third-word standards to enjoy wide ownership, developing with furious rapidity, small, power-constrained, not designed with extensions – external storage, external displays, external keyboards – in mind although they can be so extended, heterogeneous in features, operating systems, processors, connectivity specifics, largely incapable of "bootstrapping", i.e. using a cell phone to develop software for cell phones.

    Many of the characteristics of the cell phone don't lend themselves to the requirements of public education as it is commonly practiced.

    The inherently independent nature of the cell phone, conferring as it does independence from locality, i.e. the school, independence from schedules since web sites have cemented the assumption that a service will bow to the needs of the user rather then the reverse and independence from organizationally-convenient regimentation, i.e. division by age would make the use of cell phones in a government education institution a difficult fit at least. More likely a government agency could not adapt to changes demanded by the cell phone, as has been seen in the U.S., and would simply prohibit them which brings us to the primary criticism of the use of cell phones in a public education setting: why should public education voluntarily undergo the inevitably wrenching changes necessary to make use of cell phones?

    Of course the question is "Mobile Phones: Better Learning Tools than Computers?" which simply ignores the political realities of education and implies the question has some validity independent of that reality. That's a bit too nebulous for me but in that politics-free education universe the answer would be, "who cares?" Education would be carried on in the most efficient, convenient, economical manner which means that where computers are more effective computers would be used and where mobiles are more effective they'd be used.

  11. Hello. The burning question on my mind now is which device should we be purchasing/ subsidising for our students. I teach in a rural Government School in Victoria, Australia. We have a mandate to reach 1-to-1 computing for our students in years 9-12 by 2011. The device of choice for our education department is a netbook. These will all have network access in the school. Over the last 12 months, I have also been trialling the use of the iPod Touch with my entire class of students to explore their educational potential. These devices do not create the same issues of distraction from learning that a mobile phone does and have revolutionised my students connectedness to their learning. Netbook or iPod Touch…what do you think?

    • I think the iPod Touch offers a somewhat similar experience, though as an iPhone and netbook user, I do prefer the "real" keyboard and larger screen of the netbook. In fact, I'm looking for an external iPhone keyboard after this comment.

      But I don't think you should assume the iPod Touch doesn't have phone-like distractions. Skype works quite well on the iPod Touch and would offer more, not less, opportunities for distraction than an SMS-only mobile phone.

      • "I do prefer the "real" keyboard and larger screen of the netbook". So how long before a cell phone has a USB keyboard and the possibility to connect to a large monitor? My G-phone is almost there now. USB 3? Intel's optical USB? Phone, one connector and then any peripheral you care to name. I'm quite looking forward to ditching my netbook and desktop. Actually a "dumb" netbook that I slotted my G-phone into when I needed a bigger screen and keyboard would be ideal and certainly not beyond to-days technology never mind tomorrows. Children will get distracted by almost anything. Maybe some of the distractions actually provide a more effective learning experience 😉

  12. Shared Access Mobile phones is the Most Economical and Scalable Model
    Connecting loud speakers to a mobile phone allows more people to listen.
    Connecting pico video projectors to a mobile phone allows more people to see the display.

    Kunal Chawla is working with Drishtee on a project using mobile phone audio for rural education in India.

  13. Very interesting discussion above. However, when you look at rural India, the mobile phone coverage far out numbers that of computers. Therefore, when using ICT in rural India, it is best to approach the learners with the "known" technology which is the mobile phone and then take them to the aspirational technology "computers" and the use of Internet. We've found through numerous studies that the adoption of mobile phones is much higher and cuts across barriers of age, culture, and literacy skills. T

  14. sherilyn122455

    We're definitely seeing a trend towards mobile phone services in the education sector. As previously discussed, the iPhone was an important factor, but the Linux-savvy tech students are really setting it off with the Android platform. Microsoft is putting some emphasis on this sector for their launch of Windows 7 Phone coming up soon as well.

  15. learningideasforlife

    M-Ubuntu http://www.m-ubuntu.org uses inexpensive, low threshold mobile phones in literacy initiatives in under-sourced schools in South Africa. Any phone in South Africa today can serve, at least, as a data collecting device for project-based learning. If the phone has a Micro SD card slot, the device can serve the purpose of a digital library, storage of paragraphs on e-books, image and video database of additional learning material and space for short paragraphs and notes. All these, independent of mobile service providers. In fact, if any transmission of files is required between teacher and student, BLUETOOTH becomes a viable solution.

    [youtube xXtWctTml8A http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXtWctTml8A youtube]

  16. I have but one thing to say: ALL silver-bullet "solutions" will tarnish. An appropriate solution for any problem is almost always an alloy of various solutions, combined wisely. One of the biggest problems with the education system – other than that conservatives are trying to run it into the ground – is the continuous series false dichotomies which are debated ad nauseum. Negreponte's claim that OLPC's – as they are currently delivered – are all anyone needs is as invalid as the claim that they are worthless. The point is that we need systems that can migrate relatively seamlessly across a multitude of tools and platforms. Even that won't be the be-all-end-all solution. We will still need flexible platforms that can be used in many different ways and in many different environments.


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