Has The mLearning Moment Arrived?

Posted by MarkWeingarten on Feb 10, 2011

The field of mLearning, or learning facilitated by mobile devices, has been generating growing interest in recent years and months. Outspoken advocates of mLearning, such as the authors of a report recently released by GSMA Development Fund, assert that the increasing ubiquity of mobile phone penetration (especially in the developing world) has the potential to reach more students than ever before. Critics, such as Kentaro Toyama, reply that digital content (mobile or otherwise) does little to improve the quality of education and that the hype surrounding it is unwarranted.

One opinion, shared by skeptics and advocates alike, is that "Technology is only a tool: no technology can fix a bad educational philosophy or compensate for bad practice. In fact, if we are going in the wrong direction, technology will get us there faster. Providing schools with hardware and software does not automatically reform teaching and improve learning. (Education Toolkit for Decision Makers, Planners and Practitioners)".

Michael Trucano, Senior ICT and Education Specialist at the World Bank, echoes this opinion in a recent blog post and acknowledges that there are significant gaps in research on the use of ICT in education. He writes, "I won't try to contend that, at the macro- or system level, policymaking related to technology use in education is 'evidence-based'. With very (very!) few exceptions, it largely isn't." Trucano acknowledges that many policymakers are motivated by a fear of being left behind, as other countries and school systems adopt new tools. This is only magnified in the case of developing countries, where technology-based education may be viewed as a means to provide marketable skills to the next generation.

It is clear that a degree of skepticism around mLearning is warranted. What further complicates the matter is that mLearning can be implemented in a variety of settings, with varying degrees of success. Some efforts are focused on students in schools, others are created to supplement schoolwork, and a number of them are designed to support public education efforts. While large-scale mLearning success stories are few are far between (and are often described by marketing directors, rather than 3rd party researchers), there have been a number of studies conducted recently that are helping to fill in the mLearning research gaps.

One study explored the possibility of unsupervised mobile learning in rural India. Students were supplied with mid-level, java-enabled phones and taught to use custom-made educational applications. The software was designed to supplement English language classes at the students' schools. The study's findings suggest modest gains in language learning among the participants but also note that technical difficulties, culturally defined gender roles, and small sample sizes posed challenges. Interestingly, the researchers pointed out a variety of secondary, social effects from the introduction of the phones and software into the community. "…we learned that our mobile learning games have created a shared context that encouraged the formation of new social ties across caste and village boundaries, which were less likely to have developed otherwise."

Another research project, very much informed by the Indian study, was designed to promote Chinese language acquisition. Teachers in rural China noted that many students had difficulty learning to recall and write Chinese characters. Consequently, two pieces of educational software, "Multimedia Word" and "Drumming Stroke", were created. In an effort to make them culturally appropriate, both were designed to include aspects of traditional Chinese folk games. These were installed on relatively advanced mobile devices and used by the students in groups. In addition to students exhibiting improved performance on post-tests, the multimedia interactivity allowed by these devices also generated enthusiasm. "We also noticed that multimedia could effectively inspire children's creativity. For example, during the voice recording stage of the Multimedia Word game, children did not follow our instructions to pronounce the character that needed to be written. They felt that it would make the game too easy and hence less challenging. They instead tried to use other voices to describe the intended character, such as imitating the voice of a crying infant to provide a clue about the character (infant)."

This suggests that smartphones (or at least java-enabled phones) may provide distinct advantages for learning. However, they are not widely available in many parts of the developing world and pose a variety of challenges to project sustainability. SMS-based applications, which could be accessed by the most basic mobile phone, have already proved useful in a variety of contexts, such as mBanking and mHealth. The question is: Does the somewhat limited functionality of SMS also have utility for education?

One area where SMS-based mLearning efforts have generated a great deal of attention is in public education. Text to Change has implemented a number of projects in Uganda and Kenya in which users' health knowledge is assessed through SMS-based tests and targeted information is sent back to them. These services have been offered to mobile subscribers in various communities and to employees of telecom providers, as described in a recent MobileActive case study. It is interesting to note the importance of multiple forms of media in public education efforts such as this. The authors of a report put out by the Ugandan Aids Information Centre and Text to Change write, "The program needs to be complemented with other media approaches such as radio announcements, DJ mentions, posters, testimonies and experiences from those who have accessed services to realize its full potential."

Another SMS-based program that has received significant attention is a literacy project organized by UNESCO and Pakistani mobile operator, Mobilink. In the project, which has been designed to send and receive SMS messages to girls in Pakistan, participants "…received up to six messages a day on a variety of topics including religion, health and nutrition, and were expected to practice reading and writing down the messages and responding to their teachers via SMS." Organizers point to significant improvements in participants' grades and a significant degree of buy-in from participants and community members, despite cultural barriers regarding the use of mobile phones. It is worth noting that, due to the support of the local mobile operator, participants were not required to pay for SMS messages. It may be a challenge to replicate this relationship in other settings.

Another use of mobile phones that shows great potential for education (though not mLearning in the strictest sense) is tracking teacher attendance. The problem of teacher absenteeism is endemic in many countries and has been identified as a significant obstacle to learning. In an article in Education Week, Michelle Davis notes that, "…ministries of education in Africa often hire young women as teachers. But when the women discover they've been posted to a rural school, some never show up at the schoolhouse. And because it's an isolated outpost, it may take months or years for the government to realize students are still without a teacher."

In response to this problem in Uganda, a pilot project has been implemented to track both teacher and student attendance. The system is designed around digital forms sent from head teachers on a weekly basis. The goal is to allow administrators and community members to determine where problems lie and address them much quickly than before. Like Text to Change, the impact of the system is magnified by including a variety of forms of media. As described in the report, "the information is also sent to non state actors at (sub) district level, such as School Management Committees, Parent Teachers Associations, religious and other leaders, and the general public. Information is made available digitally (web, email), by automated SMS, by newspaper print and by local radio."

While the authors of these and other studies highlight the potential of mLearning, it is clear that many of the projects studied are small-scale and use technology (e.g. smartphones) that limit implementation on a larger scale. Another challenge, noted by many in the field, is that much of the existing literature suffers from positive biases, as it is often written by members of the implementing organizations, rather than by 3rd party researchers in peer-reviewed evaluations with sound methodologies.

Despite these concerns, there seems to be a great deal of momentum building around mLearning. As mobile coverage expands and advanced mobile phones become increasingly available, this is only likely to continue.

Image courtesy of Feng Tian, Fei Lv, Jingtao Wang, Hongan Wang, Wencan Luo, Matthew Kam, Vidya Setlur, Guozhong Dai, and John Canny

Has The mLearning Moment Arrived? data sheet 6415 Views
Global Regions:
Countries: China India Kenya Pakistan Uganda

Function Over Form

Thanks for the capture of initiatives regarding mLearning.  The specific examples and connection to students and teachers shows an effort to find common ground on the accessible tools.

One of the comments that continues as a theme is the value of understanding the learning objectives and then applying the technology.


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