Mobile phone boom in developing world could boost e-learning

Digital Content

A study of young people in Ghana, Morocco, Uganda and Maharashtra aims to encourage networks to improve education through mobile technology

Globalisation, as defined by the rich, is a very nice thing, the former US president Jimmy Carter once reflected. "You're talking about the internet, you're talking about cell phones, you're talking about computers," said Carter. "This doesn't affect two-thirds of the people in the world."

That was in 2001; a lot has changed. In Kenya, mobile phones have become an integral part of cash transfer schemes, enabling poor people in urban areas to buy food. In remote rural areas of Peru, computers provided by the Euro-Solar programme are fuelling an appetite for learning among children. And the senior US political adviser Alec Ross – acknowledging the galvanising influence of social media on the Arab spring – has described the internet as "the Che Guevara of the 21st century".

If the global spread of technology can do all this, what else might it achieve? Quite a lot, according to the authors of a report prepared by the GSMA mobile industry body and published to coincide with last week's eLearning Africa conference in Cotonou, Benin.

Shaping the future – realising the potential of informal learning through mobile, explores mobile technology's potential to improve access to education for young people in developing countries. The study looks at Ghana, Morocco, Uganda and Maharashtra, in India, identifying young people's aspirations and priorities, exploring the education and employment challenges they face, and scrutinising their mobile phone use.

The endgame is to establish how the mobile industry and international development community can pool their expertise to create m-learning services that improve teaching and learning, and therefore promote long-term development.

"It's a big step in the right direction in terms of putting the possibilities in front of the GSMA's members and raising awareness of the commercial and business opportunities education represents in the developing world," says John Traxler, professor of m-learning at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK. "Clearly it's a small sample, covering only four countries, so it's indicative rather than representative. But if the networks get the message, it's a valuable piece of work. Networks don't need to hear it's virtuous, they need to hear it's profitable – just enough to encourage them to get out there and do something."

Mobile phones are increasingly ubiquitous in poor countries, which now account for four in every five connections worldwide (pdf). As Elsie Kanza, of the World Economic Forum, recently said: "Regardless of social class, almost everyone [in Africa] has a mobile phone, or two or three. Even in remote villages, mobile phones have replaced the bicycle or radio as prized assets."

An obvious caveat is that voice-calls far outstrip data use in poor countries, which remain an emerging market for smartphones and other data-enabled devices. One reason is cost. A quarter of the young people surveyed – and almost half of those from Ghana – said a shortage of money was the biggest obstacle to accessing educational resources. Even so, the rapid spread of mobile technology offers clear possibilities for learning. Of the young people participating in the study who had accessed the internet, half had done so on a mobile device.

Enthusiasm for learning was a common thread in the feedback. Only family and health were felt to be of greater importance by the study's participants, 30% of whom said having a good career ranked higher among their priorities than marriage or home ownership.

Despite this aspirational outlook, however, only a quarter said the classroom was their principal source of information and education. Friends and family were identified as more important by 41%, while 43% gleaned most of their knowledge from TV programmes.

So can m-learning help? Yes, say the report's authors, who suggest that, by using the study's findings to tap into common interests among young mobile users, the reach and impact of educational material can be increased. Many of those surveyed used their devices to access music and sports content (49% and 24% respectively across the four areas studied); by bundling learning material with, say, football updates, the GSMA researchers believe technology can make a significant difference.

Others, however, are sceptical. Some experts say there is little demonstrable evidence of m-learning's impact, suggesting it threatens to undermine traditional teaching methods and – by leaving those without access to devices at a disadvantage – reinforce inequality.

Traxler believes such arguments are misguided. "You don't have to pay for mobile technology, and it reaches the people you want to reach," he argues. "Computers, books, television sets and college buildings may be infinitely more respected, but people already have mobile phones – they buy them, pay for them, and carry them. So let's look at how the technology is representative of our society, and how we can use it, rather than worrying about the niceties of education."

The report preaches a message Traxler has long championed, one he hopes will now trickle down not only to mobile networks and their commercial departments, but also to governments. "That's where the action needs to happen," he says. "We've had 10 years of relatively small-scale, short-term projects, and by their very nature I'm not sure how much they would really have told us, or how rigorous they were.

"The case that needs to be made is about sustainability, scale, return on investment and impacting on government policies. If the GSMA can do a better job than the rest of us have done in the past 10 years, then good luck to them – and I think they probably will."