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Education for All - solution is at our fingertips

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Google G1 next to iPod touch

Image by:James F Clay

Most people agree that it is important to bring new technology into the classroom, however there is much debate as to how this should and can be done in order to achieve education for all. Should we implement iPads, laptops, PCs or e-readers in all schools? No. The answer is already in our hands, and it has been at our fingertips for the past decade. Yes, cellphones!

Mobile learning or m-learning is a branch of e-learning technologies that includes all mobile technologies such as tablets, notebooks, mobile phones and mp3 players - but the main concern here is evaluating the value of implementing cellphones into a strategy for ICT in education.

There is a digital difference
Cellphones have great potential to transform the delivery of education and training in South Africa. Most importantly it is the most viable solution that is able to overcome the challenges of infrastructure, costs, training and delivery that are evident in proposals for alternative technologies. The primary reason that this strategy is able to do so is, because the majority of the South African population already has and knows how to use cellphones.

"There isn't a digital divide in Afica, there is a digital difference"

This is a quote from Adele Botha, a senior researcher in the mobile technologies research group of the CSIR , and she couldn't have said it better. Other technology options are almost impossible to implement nationally due to the high cost, unequal electricity access and lack of security in the country. However, cellphones are different - sales have taken off in South Africa and Africa as a whole. It is worth adding that the delivery of this technology has taken off without the help of non-profit initiatives, government funding and the likes. Therefore, it makes the most sense to use a technology that already reaches three quarters of the country.

According to Stats SA's General Household Survey 2012, 75,5% of households used only cellular phones. This is a huge growth when compared to the 33% of households in 2008. It is also significant to note that the distribution of this technology is nationwide, rather than concentrated in a particular demographic. Stats SA reported that each province had over 54% of households that used at least one cellphone by April 2012. These are rather encouraging figures that support an argument for the implementation of a cellphone m-learning strategy in the country.

Since only 9.8% of the country had access to internet at home in 2011, the cellphone thus becomes the primary way for learners to access the Internet. Hence, Merryl Ford, manager of Mobile Learning at CSIR suggests that “the cellphone is poised to become the ‘PC of Africa’”. Mobile phones deliver the Internet directly to learners and the screens become e-readers that are able to facilitate literacy development.

Unique benefits of cellphones
The benefits of ICT in education are easily identifiable, but the specific benefits of cellular technologies in South Africa include:

  • More lightweight and portable than other technologies.
  • Inexpensive compared to the cost of other mobile technologies. Therefore, this platform maximises cost efficiency.
  • Decrease in training costs, since technology is already widely used and accepted.
  • Longer battery life than laptops, which is ideal in the context of unstable electricity access in SA.
  • Has the potential to expand and reach everyone, thereby benefiting learners everywhere.
  • Facilitates personalised learning and supports situated learning, as many people have their own personal cellphone.
  • Allows for anytime, anywhere learning. Beneficial to learners who need information at home or at night, when they are not at school.

We need Mobile Learning policies
However, it is not enough that this technology is widely used and that it has many potential benefits in South Africa. In order for a mobile phone strategy to work it needs to be supported by research and policies. It becomes less about the technology and more about how mobile learning will be executed in practice. It is therefore reassuring to know that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has placed ICT in education as a top priority, especially mobile learning. UNESCO is actively involved in developing extensive guidelines for Mobile Learning Policy which is informed by their on-going projects and papers. Many countries have outdated ICT in Education policies that were written in the “pre-mobile” era, hence these guidelines are primarily targeted towards policy makers with the aim to:

  • Raise awareness and put mobile learning onto the ICT in Education agenda.
  • Promote value and practicability of mobile learning.
  • Make high-level recommendations for creating policies that enable mobile learning.

Examples of successful projects
UNESCO has also launched numerous projects and pilots in Africa, making them a significant contributor to mobile learning initiatives. In partnership with Nokia, they launched the M4Lit (mobiles for literacy) project, which resulted in the launching of Yoza Cellphones Stories by the Shuttleworth Foundation. This project made mobile novels available that allowed users to read, comment, vote and create mobile novels. Other successful mobile projects include:

  • Learning Academy Worldwide’s M-Ubuntu project: teachers in 5 provinces are using recycled smart phones to bring mobile computing to their classrooms.
  • Dr. Math on Mxit makes use of maths tutors that assist over 30 000 users in maths problems and holds math competitions.
  • Angels on Mxit supports over 120 000 people with HIV/ AIDS information dissemination.

The challenges are possible to overcome
ICT in Education policies need to meet people where they are, and South Africa’s optimal choice in national education transformation are cellphones. There are undoubtedly challenges that need to be considered, such as the accommodation of multiple technical standards (screen sizes and operating systems etc.), limited memory, connectivity, battery life, content security, frequent changes in device technologies, the risk of distraction and the risks of introducing children to a world of internet dangers such as pornography and predators. However, it is more conceivable to tackle these challenges than the inhibiting challenges of distribution, cost and training of other technologies. We are not there yet, but recognising and agreeing on the first appropriate technology to complement South Africa’s education goals is a substantial progression, especially when compared to the proposals that fooled us into thinking that we can make a library or laptop available to every learner in the country.