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Phones Are a Real Alternative to Computers

Michael Trucano

Could it be that mobile phones offer developing country governments a better learning tool and more educational benefits that 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, so I’ll take the bait for the sake of debate.

The momentum behind the proliferation of mobile devices appears inexorable for the near future. Throughout much of the developing world, when we speak of an low-cost ICT device used by the masses, we are speaking about phones, not computers. In India, there were 15.4 million new phone subscribers in the month of January alone! There is perhaps no more mass-scale undertaking in the world than organized education (with the possible exception of organized religion), and it is difficult to see how the mass adoption of mobile technologies will not intersect with educational practices in key ways.

That said, there are currently five great limitations to the use of mobile phones in education when compared with computers. Quickly, they are:

  1. small screen;
  2. limited battery life;
  3. difficulties with input;
  4. the ‘distraction issue’; and
  5. a failure of imagination (or phrased differently: we haven’t use them in the past, so we don’t yet have workable models to guide us).

Computers do certain things quite well. If we evaluate the potential use of the mobile phone in education only in the comparison to what a computer can do, we are greatly limiting our vision. How about we switch this around, and ask what the phone can do that the computer can’t?

The Phone is Personal

There is nothing ‘personal’ about a personal computer in schools in most developing countries. These are shared use devices. The phone is, for most people, an intensely personal device — in some places, it is the first thing a person reaches for when she wakes up, the last thing she touches before she nods off to sleep, and it is with her throughout her waking hours.

The Phone is Always On

As a tool for just-in-time, connected learning, the phone would appear to have important advantages over the computer, merely given the fact that it is always there, and always on. The success of the iTunes app store is demonstrating that there are great opportunities to exploit the fact that people are walking around with an increasingly sophisticated computer in their pocket that we are choosing to call a ‘phone’ for historical reasons to offer other types of software and learning applications that are not feasible to offer on a PC.

It is perhaps interesting to note that, while there are mass programs by governments around the world to promote computer use among citizens, there are no similar programs to promote mobile phone use, with the exception of Venezuela — these simply do not appear to be necessary.

The Phone is Proliferating

While mobile devices will no doubt play an integral role in education practices in some places in the near future, we remain a few steps removed from mass adoption, even in affluent, education-obsessed, technology-saturated societies like Korea and Japan. That said, while experimentation has been going on exploring the potential utility of the use of phones in the education sector for quite awhile, it is only a matter of time before we reach a tipping point that could lead to quick, wide-scale utilization in many places.

The Phone is Not the Only Solution

Let’s be clear: Whatever our educational objective, what we are interested in is the right tool for the right purpose. Whether it’s a laptop, a mobile device of some sort, radio, or even (gasp) a printed book, whatever technology we chose to use should be commensurate to the goal at hand. The increasing availability of mobile ICT devices like phones in the hands of teachers and learners will not make the PC go away, but it does present educators with a great opportunity.

By focusing almost exclusively on only the personal computer or laptop when evaluating technology options to aid a wide variety of educational activities, ignoring the potential utility of the mobile phone (“the PC in our pocket”), policymakers in many places are in a sense driving forward while looking in the rear view mirror.

39 Responses to “Phones Are a Real Alternative to Computers”

  1. I am a computer geek… I love tweaking computers, fixing up old ones and advocating smart developments… Since the mid 80's I have been tearing them apart.. sometimes breaking them and often putting them back to together with occasional improvements. My passion is low power computer devices – as I follow the news of every new device since my early introduction to the genre as a geek living in Japan before the talk of low cost devices for the developing world. There is nothing new about netbooks when you have seen an elegant Mebius Murimasa powered by a Transmeta CPU http://news.digitaltrends.com/news-article/15454/… and small form factor computers were mastered seemingly ages ago with Sumicom and other companies http://www.kingyoung.com.tw/

    What I am trying to confirm is that we 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 in comparing a mobile phone to a computer. Then again what is a mobile phone and what is a computer, I would guess those devices need to be defined before a deep argument can take place. To me, the most exciting advancement coming out in the year 2009 is the ARM based netbook… a device that may be built to converge between a large phone and a small laptop

    Computers have become popular in teaching and learning as there are massive libraries of applications available to run on them, remove the programs and it is just a heap of parts. Mobile phones have a more limited code base partially due to the proprietary nature of phone operating systems, lack of incentive to program for the form factor and if you look at it from an input perspective they are just too difficult to use to input large amounts of data. Yet from a data retrieval perspective a phone is a great device as it has an exceptional battery life, is portable and becoming more and more affordable, not to mention nearing ubiquitous. Such barriers that can be drawn become challenges and we may soon see a revolution as small laptops might move to phone-like architectures where the x86 code no longer works, we already see new operating systems are being designed to handle the ARM/RISC based devices and manufactures are lining up to show their offerings. Promises of 10-14hour battery life, small, thin and lightweight, low heat emitting and exciting designs are coming soon.

    So what I see as an argument between the mobile phone and a computer is sort of a stale argument, convergence will solve the question in due time. There will be an affordable device that fits each need and limitations will reduce on both sides. At present stage the main dividing factor is ability to input and ability to retrieve information. Mobile phones win the retrieval case as they are so common while computers are the clear cut winner in data input. As a teacher, I will stick with the computer whether it be shared or not… in fact I preferred a shared computer as I think it is not healthy for a human to spend as much time as I do in front of a computer screen.

    • Overall, you are right – convergence will erase the phone/computer dichotomy, but for the moment, there is still a real schism in thought, especially at the Donor/Ministerial level. I constantly overhear people say things like "why focus on computers, phones can do it all now" where the speaker is thinking iPhone.

      Of course the issue is that iPhone adoption isn't widespread outside the Western techno-elite. Phones in general use today, and for the next 5+ years at least, will have basic functionality – be it the design of the phone or the services offered by the network operator.

  2. Ooo look, here is a video on how to cheat on school tests using an iPhone:

    [youtube f1Lh150pu2I http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1Lh150pu2I youtube]

    Now cheating isn't only possible with an iPhone – let's say that I thought of cheat options back in my youth using a photocopier and small scissors, or a fine pen and a steady hand – but such technology in the classroom would be a boon to those seeking a immoral advantage over their peers.

    • This is an excellent example of why we need to make overall reform in curriculum, teaching and assessment before computers (or phones) will contribute to educational improvement. As long as exams continue to test the recall of facts (very easy to text the year Columbus landed in America) the kind of contribution that technology can make is minimal. But when the "exam" requires complex problem solving, the creation of a unique artifact, or the design and execution of a research study, then technology will be able to make a powerful contribution–and cheating will be much more difficult, technology or not (try texting a musical score!!!).

  3. Mike,

    Here in the USA mobile phones are being outright banned in schools – for they are seen as a distraction to learning more often than an enabler of it. I know I loathe the sound of a cell phone ring in a meeting, and multiplied over classrooms with almost 100% mobile phone ownership, they would overwhelm the teacher's ability to manage the classroom. And just think of their creative usage during tests!

    Might we take this lesson – cell phone usage actually disallowed in most American classroom – as a possible reason why all the advantages of cell phones could actually be disadvantages in educational use?

  4. I am inclined to agree with Scott Motlik who argues in his paper “Mobile learning in Developing Nations” (see http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/vi… that it would be a “serious disservice to learners and instructors” in Asia and Africa if they were to choose web (and by extension computer) based technologies over mobile phone technology. Already, mobile phones are widely available, widely used and widely understood and network coverage is growing rapidly to reach even the most remote regions of the developing world. Perhaps what developing countries need is to concentrate on developing more and better applications for the mobile phones rather than focus on the web. This approach is already paying incredible dividends in other fields such as finance (mobile money transfer and banking) so why not education? But I agree wholeheartedly with Robert on one issue- the potential or power of mobile phones or indeed computers to impact or transform education depends less on the technology and more on overall educational reform including reform of curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, teacher development and support and overall management of the system.

  5. There is no black and white in this debate; however, I will attempt to present counter arguments to Robert’s main premise for the sake of enlivening the debate. Moreover I believe that, as one commentator neatly put it, this debate will soon become "stale" because of technological convergence.
    “Computers are more capable than mobile phones” because many of today’s applications have been deliberately designed to take advantage of the ever growing power of computers. One can argue that there is a clear design bias here. But what if applications were designed for the average mobile phone today? The education applications and capabilities that Robert says are more suited to computers can actually be effectively handled in many cases by existing middle-of-the-range (which I will simply define as those costing around US$ 30-70 for arguments sake) mobiles and even the low end ones. Mobiles in many parts of the developing world can now access the internet, can be used for collaboration through SMS, email and via social-networking sites, can create or display basic image or video productions useful for visualizing abstract concepts and interestingly, more often than not, also have a radio in-built. Granted $70 is still quite high for many of the poor in the developing world but prices are dropping steeply and rapidly and more features are becoming available in low-end mobiles (one can blame the no-brand Taiwanese and Chinese phones flooding the markets). 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. And interestingly one of the local operators here, Safaricom, has launched a new mobile education application where students can take primary and secondary levels quizzes in maths, science and English etc and also “review” past national exams on any WAP enabled phone. I have tried out this application and it is not very different from popular web-based quizzes except that it is more widely accessible in a country like Kenya with many more mobile phones than computers. I have personally found myself using google on my phone to look up information or to settle an argument on the go. I would call this real anywhere-anytime learning.

  6. I'm certainly enjoying the discussion, and also wanted to comment on use of ICTs for overall management of the system. For example, with a number of MOEs investing in Educational Management Information Systems (EMIS) to track personnel, finances, student performance, etc., I'm also intrigued by the possible uses of mobile phones to provide more timely access to this information. Traditionally, you'd have a central repository for this information stored on a computer server somewhere with only select administrators accessing this information. Mobile phones be used to send and retrieve more timely EMIS information (take the analogy of Voxiva's projects using SMS to gather information from doctors and nurses, but extend this to education and promote bottom-up access to the centralized data as well) so that administrators, headmasters and other interested stakeholders (e.g., parents) could have access. Thus, mobile phones could be used to promote greater efficiencies and transparency in the overall education policy-making process.

    • I think Frank Method of RTI would love to take on that idea, Tony. He's always been a strong supporter of ICT as a way to increase the efficiency of school systems (the backend admin that makes teachers in classrooms possible). I can see him being excited about a Voxiva-like solution (or AED/Satellife for that matter) that could link schools to central admin services

  7. It's great to see many friends and acquaintances engaged in a long-distance discussion of such an interesting topic. One quick point…

    The organization of mobile phone deployment offers several low-cost means of motivating student and teacher participation in learning: teachers who file reports (EMIS reports, self-assessments, whatever) and students who complete activities (WAP-based problem sets, local SMS-based reporting, whatever) can be substantially rewarded with airtime or SMS credits. Why is this? Partly because they own their phones (or at least some private individual owns the phone), partly because the phone delivers value _outside_ of school.

    Ownership, non-formal applications, and the near-ubiquity of mobile phones are huge advantages in comparison to the impact of small-scale computer labs in schools that are struggling to provide universal and even minimally effective primary and secondary education.

    (And if I were a Min of Telecommunications, and I were handing out licenses to mobile-telecoms, I would make their support of education programs in this fashion a mandatory condition.)

  8. I do, however, also have two points to add to Dr. Kozma's able argument in favor of computers:

    – Over the course of the last 20 years, schools and school systems have built up rich and flexibly implemented storehouses of resources and techniques supporting the use of computers in schools. As computers have proliferated in developing-country schools, these resources have come to include methods for training neophyte teacher-users, collaborative environments linking students in the South to others all over the world, and tools and installation models to address cost and infrastructural problems that have been show-stoppers for far too long. Effective computer use in schools in developing countries is NOT rocket science, it's been accomplished in Chile, in Costa Rica, in Syria, in Uganda, and in many other developing countries. Now–with the proliferation of netbooks and networked computing, as Mr Denny mentions above, is NOT the time to abandon computers in favor of a mobile-phone "silver bullet" for learning. It's the time to reflect on what we know–including what we know of our mistakes–and assess new tools and models, and with these "experiences" in mind get back to the work of increasing access to education and improving the quality of learning.

    – Are we not also talking about issues of equity and global competitiveness? While, obviously, I agree that the ubiquity of mobile phones makes them appealing tools for schools, "computer fluency"–including at a minimum finding and assessing information, and publishing findings and opinions–comprises a key set of skills in relation to national and global economies and societies. In small, resource-poor countries such as Rwanda, Yemen, or Sri Lanka, the importance of developing generations of skilled computer users and adept knowledge workers is high. Mobile phones, despite their virtues, are not appropriate tools for the job.

  9. Mike, in his original comment, put forward five arguments against mobile phone use in education. But I would add a sixth that is equally, if not more important as a constraint on their use. In most countries around the world, mobile use is still priced on a per-minute and per-message basis. If there are 30 kids in a class, that means that the main winner is the service provider, not the school or the students. Of course, that is not to imply that there are no costs associated with computer use in schools, but rather that the billing method used (typically flat rate) does not penalise incremental use.

    The billing problem is soluble and does not necessarily apply to all hand-held devices (for instance, the wi-fi enabled iPod Touch shown in the video above would be an excellent educational device, if you can manage to avoid it being stolen or being used to assist exam cheats). However, it will be some time before mobile operators move to flat-rate billing while they are still making such good profits out of usage-based pricing.

    • Ah, but you could enable a local WiFi intranet that used the iPod touch for minimal ongoing costs. Add in the Air Port / Time Capsule from Apple, with your classroom content and now you have an interesting (if pricey) system.

  10. After reading the comments of Walter Bender on this debate (posted on his personal blog
    http://walterbender.org/?p=198), I realize that Wayan's headline for my opening argument here may be a little off.

    How about "Phones *will be* a real alternative to computers?"

    As Walter notes, phones are (of course) 'computers' themselves, and with the advent of things like Android, they are becoming increasingly programmable. To me, this trend is both laudable and inevitable.

    • (continued)

      My point here is that we should be looking forward when planning, not backward. I am currently involved in a planning and budgeting process for the next *ten years* in one country. (Some will no doubt argue that it is impossible for a government to plan ten years ahead … but that's what this particular government does … and any way, the education sector typically plans at least 10-12 years ahead in most countries by default, depending on the lenth of the primary + secondary system in the country). This country is not thinking about mobile phones *at all* — despite the fact that they are already increasingly ubiquitous among its teaching staff, and the larger communities around its schools. The thinking around technology use in this country is already too infrastructure-centric, from my perspective; it's even more unfortunate that they are limiting what infrastructure they are considering.

  11. (continued)

    So much of the rap against cell phones has to do with their (small) form factor. But children in OECD markets already use both the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo DS — sometimes to play the same games, sometimes for games optimized for the specific device. Let myriad devices bloom!

    I take Tim's point above about airtime costs. But again, I think this is focusing us too much on the here and now. Other connectivity solutions will no doubt emerge, and the business models for existing ones will change as well. (And there options already available beyond wi-fi –> What if you connected your mobile phone via Bluetooth to, for example, an interactive whiteboard?).

  12. Mobile phones are now banned in Kenyan schools, but not for the reason you might expect. ITNesAfrica reports that Education Minister Sam Ongeri banned phones, among other devices, to try and calm student protests over maladministration, incompetent staff and poor supervision, which students claim to be barrier to learners staying in school’s residences.

  13. Mobile phones are now banned in Kenyan schools, but not for the reason you might expect. ITNewsAfrica reports that Education Minister Sam Ongeri banned phones, among other devices, to try and calm student protests over maladministration, incompetent staff and poor supervision, which students claim to be barrier to learners staying in school’s residences.

  14. EdWeek/Teacher Magazine and Sprint are hosting a webinar (right now as I post) on the cell phone as a learning platform; it should be up for re-broadcast in a few days: http://ow.ly/i1gR

    • During this webinar they referred to 'phone computers', not 'mobile phones' (or 'cell phones'). An awkward formulation, perhaps, but one which hints at a more accurate description of how these things will be used in education going forward, I think.

      During the Q&A, Liz Kolb responded to a question about the purported link between mobile phones and cancer by saying that she typically sees kids holding these things in their hands (and texting), not holding them near the side of their head (and talking). Might this not be the dominant user interaction model for these devices more broadly quite soon? (It certainly is in much of Africa.) if so, how might this change the way we conceive of the use of 'phones in education'?

      • One of the other presenters spoke directly to one of the attributes of the phone that I listed in my remarks on this side as a downside to mobile phone use in education: the small screen. In his experience (and I'm paraphrasing here), he said that this ways an initial complaint of his, but it has not proven to be a complaint of kids with whom he works in schools using phones. Might this then be a largely generational criticism, born of a frame of reference that increasingly does not apply to young learners? To me, this recalls findings from Jan Chipchase (and others) about the use of video on phones. Older people say that they can't imagine watching video on such a small screen. Many young people don't seem to have such hang-ups. (It is also worth noting — which Jan does — that watching video on a small screen is a personal experience by necessity, but watching video on a TV is a potentially communal experience — something with potential implications for education, I would think.)

        • I had to leave halfway through the webinar, so perhaps this was addressed, but a lot of the examples were using specific smartphones (and could be done via non-cellular PDAs as well). The problems I see with embedding smartphones in traditional education are cost and compatibility. If the school takes the cost, it can guarantee all the cell phones in use will be the same with the same features, but ownership/personal use is difficult (or expensive)

          If the school externalizes the cost, how do lower-income students justify ponying up for a more expensive smartphone (or a specific smartphone)? How does the curriculum change to accommodate non-standard phones, or set requirements (phone must have a camera, bluetooth or USB connection, texting plan, SIM card… ?). It reminds me of the always-frustrating laptop standards colleges post which exclude unusual configurations, older OSes, and almost always fail to support Linux OS.

          This is not to say that cell phones aren't wide-spread and could be used as part of the curricula, but I'm not sure the cost and compatibility of phones is at a point that they should be mandated.

  15. Wayan
    I am shocked you did not mention the ONE thing that makes phones different from computers and ultimately prevents them from being an option on the savior of the digital divide: the carrier.

    The phone needs a cell phone network by definition. And this means the uses of the device, where it can be used and when it can be used are completely dependent from one central company. The carrier doesn't want to cover that remote area? The carrier decides not to allow voice over the data stream? The carrier wants to charge by minute? They have the right.

    Unless we can have a phone with some kind of mesh networking, that the user can install and run any app he wants, with any functionality he decides then using cell phones for the poorer is basically giving unlimited power to the carrier. And the whole point of the movement is to distirbute knowledge and power around.

  16. Is a smartphone a mobile phone with PDA functionality? Or is a smartphone a PDA with mobile telephony as a feature?

    A PDA does not require connectivity or a carrier. PDAs have local storage for text, audio and video files. Text files are impractical to read on a smartphone by more than one person at a time, but four people can watch a video on a smartphone at the same time. Ten people can listen to an audio file on a smart phone. With an external speaker, 30 people can listen to an audio file.

    In many situations, these examples are much more practical compared to a computer.

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  18. Not sure that using a phone vs. a computer for educational purposes reaches the desired effect. No matter what type of phone we are talking about here, there will always be limitations on what you can learn and how you use it. Computers are a more sensible option, especially when there are people like " j Tim Denny" who like to make something old work like something new!

  19. hi dale

    its not about either or its both and. computer can be could and at the same time mobiles can make difference. use both and offer both. its our modell.

  20. uuups bad writing.

    the strategy can be both and.
    Computer is good in some case and mobile in other.

  21. Phones are computers. Phone technology is merging with desktop computer functions through tablets. Schools need a range of technologies reflecting common use outside.

  22. Godfrey Mayende

    Ideally if computers and mobile phones were both available to distance learning students in Uganda then we would really NOT see mobile phones as alternative to computers. But in the situation of Bachelor of Education students in Ugandan universities who majority of which don’t even have access to computer from their work place mobile phones can be seen as an alternative to computers given its high subscription rate as many have already indicated.

    • Godfrey
      You right. Use them then you see. Theory is not enough. Students are the ones to ask and offer the possibilities. We started to use ICT in Sweden for refugees. Those who knew without doing told it cant work.We started in Eritrea using cyberkafees. It worked. Our world has been built up in the same way. Start and see. Build up new infra dont waith for the government.

  23. Phones are just too small to be of any use other than maybe getting files from one to another. To learning anything from there in real educational environments where lines of text and graphics are massive, it will remain a phone nothing else.

    If the Ugandan students do not have access to computers, well government should proivde some community computers to be used or those cheap netbooks or tablets.

    Charges for mobile phones are really too expensive to be really useful.

    • Andrew J Dupree

      Interesting. Is this true of cheap phones, or do you think even larger smartphone screens are too small? And by charges, do you mean data plans or the cost of the phone itself?

      There is some interesting technology on the horizon connecting smartphones with larger screens. I wonder if that might have potential to solve the problem. The inherent potential of mobile phones combined with a more usable input/output system could be a powerful combination.

  24. Godfrey Mayende

    Interesting, if Government in Uganda has not put electricity in every part of the country then how will community computers be sustained. At least Mobile phones penetration rate is high enough however education students on the external programme in the country, majority can not afford smart phones, they only have cheap mobile phones. Connecting such phones on the monitor for large display might then not be realistic since even majority of bachelor of education external students come from regions with out electricity.

    • Low cost solar power can be had for a few dollars ….Electricity for netbooks is no more of a problem.

      The calling charges per minute of phones are normally too expensive to make even basic use of smart phones just not practical.

      Anywhere in the world has a sustainable use of phone for education … my guess none.
      Even if it has , at most it is restricted to single lines sms kind of lessons and it really is silly to receive a few senteces for a few cents. It adds up and the kind of contents is too simple for any use in education.


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