M-Learning "Go Mobile" Summits Peak Interest across Africa This Summer

Posted by LeighJaschke on Jul 13, 2009

A key gathering focused on m-learning in Africa took place in Lusaka, Zambia at the end of June. The 3-day leadership summit entitled "Go Mobile! Using Mobile Learning to Teach 21st Century Skills" is one of four events aimed at bringing together stakeholders in education to introduce the idea of m-learning and to demonstrate the possibilities of mobile phones in the classroom.

According to John Traxler, Co-Director of the International Association for Mobile Learning, m-learning refers to “any educational provision, where the sole or dominant technologies are hand-held devices." Steve Vosloo, the Communication and Analytical Skills Fellow for the Shuttleworth Foundation, adds that at the Zambia summit which he attended, participants discussed what m-learning means today. He says that students and Teachers in Africa are demonstrating that m-learning is no longer tied to these devices, but to what they enable. “This is not', Steve says "just e-learning gone for a walk[...] Mobile devices can enhance extend learning assessment and administration, social networking, and identity development”.

For example in South Africa, Doctor Math, built on the mobile social network Mxit, allows students to complete tutorials, homework, and testing outside of school, and allows teachers to support students and monitor progress. Many more students have access to mobile phones than they do to a computer outside of school.

In Zambia, the Pearson Foundation is involved with the Sara Communication Initiative run by UNICEF. The Initiative uses a adio series, animated films, comic books, storybooks, audiocassettes, posters and guides to narrate the story of a fictitious adolescent girl who faces pressures and challenges often experienced by young people in Africa. Digital storytelling workshops allow teens to create stories about peer pressure in their community and share it through digital media. During the same week as the Go Mobile! m-learning summit, cellphones were used for the first time in the Initiative's workshops, turning the narrative into something that could be brought home.

The summits, sponsored by the Pearson Foundation and Nokia, gather delegates in different African countries to discuss local and content needs for future mobile-based learning and teaching projects. Tanzania and Zambia have recently hosted summits, South Africa and Angola will host them in the coming months. Delegates include education ministry officials, curriculum experts, school masters and teachers.

In a recent interview with MobileActive, Steve Vosloo noted that m-learning summits have two main goals: To introduce and popularize the mobile phone as a tool for engaging students, and secondly, to identify local content needs. Examples of this may include applications that support grade submissions and attendance in remote locations or projects that explore how texting can be used in literacy.

So, what did participants learn? Educators said that mobile phones “can support our teaching process”, that they can be used for distance learning, and that “if you use a cellphone in the classroom you make teaching and learning more interesting, because that is what excites the learners.” Participants learnt that [you] don’t have to be the expert with the phone […] to be in control, and that “it is quicker to access information on the internet through cellphones than on PCs”.

The true value of these sessions, according to Vosloo, was the transformational effect that he witnessed among the Zambian participants. He emphasized that “the perception of cellphones in the classroom clearly developed from nuisance to something that had true potential to engage students, and support teachers in their work”. The key word here is support, as it was widely recognized that the purpose of m-learning is not to replace the teacher student relationship, rather, to enhance it with a new dynamic that can transcend the classroom.

By the end of the sessions, the participants had compiled a list of what they wanted. The list included “educational policy to be changed to support m-learning in the classroom”, a Zambian syllabus with aligned content on the web, discussions dealing with cellphone misuse and risks around m-learning, and "lower prices for cellphone handsets and tariffs [so that] more learners can use them in the schools.”

Mobile penetration in African countries is the second fastest growing in the world (with India the fastest growing mobile market). Participants in the Zambia summit admitted that “the children are ahead of us, they use cellphones all the time. The problem is the mindset of the older stakeholders: teachers, parents and the general community.”...what a learning opportunity.

Apart from the transformation of the delegates from “anti” to “pro” m-learning, the summits being held this summer demonstrate a very important point to the growing m-learning community. As Vosloo points out, each country has its own particular needs. “We need to share our learnings and resources, but most importantly we need to create solutions that can be adapted and customized to the local conditions.”

There is a momentum that is hard to ignore behind mobile technology in education in Africa, in particular. It's already in the classrooms, whether educators and administrators want it or not. Mobiles have been banned in schools across Africa just as they have been banned in school across North America, the difference being that mobile technology is quickly proving itself to be a source of economic gain for the owners of portable phones across resource poor economies, and is recognized as a source of social returns by both children and the adults that they look up to.

Click below to see a short video interview of Steve (done by the Pearson foundation) after he attended the summit in Zambia. Steve added some images and his own videos of Zambian learners (grade 11), who were attending a digital storytelling workshop that lasted a week.

Photo: courtesy Nokia Conversations

Zambia in the Sun

Really good to see that the mobile internet experience is reaching the kids in Zambia. While attending the Zambian primary schools in my younger days, it was quite apparant that a large segment of the youth in the rural areas could not go to good schools because of the cost and logistics of transportation. The mobile learning experience will bring out more of those bright young minds. I wish I was there to see this.

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