Mobile Learning Growing in Africa

Mobile is playing an increasingly important role in learning in Africa.  The following are excerpts from a recent article in Education Week entitled “Mobile Devices Deliver Learning in Africa,” by Michelle Davis.

School-age children across Africa often don’t have access to a formal education. They may live in remote rural areas or in violence-plagued regions too dangerous for teachers to visit. Others can’t spend a full day in the classroom: They have to work or are heading households left without adults because of the ravages of AIDS.

But educators are finding increasingly innovative ways to bring education to such students in various countries in Africa, using mobile technologies to deliver curricula in ways that go beyond what many school districts are doing with portable devices in the United States …

Areas of Africa are “ripe for the use of mobile technology, even more so than in the U.S. because technology—particularly mobile-phone technology—leapfrogs a frayed and ineffective land-line system,” says Matt Keller, the director of global advocacy for the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child initiative based in Cambridge, Mass.

“It can also leapfrog a frayed and ineffective education system,” he says. “Technology will take this generation of kids to a level that is unprecedented there, in terms of thinking critically and analytically.”

The use of cellphones has been particularly prevalent in many African countries throughout the general population. According to a 2009 report issued by the United Nations-affiliated International Telecommunications Union, based in Geneva, 28 percent of Africans now have a mobile-phone subscription …

In Mali, sub-Saharan Africa’s sixth-largest country, with a population of more than 12 million, 10,000 schools are spread over what is often desolate land, says Rebecca Rhodes, the deputy director for student learning for the country’s Road to Reading program, implemented by the Boston-based Education Development Center, a global nonprofit organization. The program is part of a five-year, $30 million reform plan funded the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Rhodes says cellphone use in Mali is widespread, but it’s nearly impossible to visit the often-isolated schools. As part of the Road to Reading program, lesson plans are posted on a blog site, and teachers use their own cellphones to access the Internet for online curricula to use in their classrooms. The EDC also asks the teachers to provide feedback on the lessons by responding to a text-message survey …

Currently, the Mali cellphone program reaches 500 schools, but soon it will go nationwide. The EDC is also seeking to improve data collection and analyze the information. In addition, the group is looking beyond lesson plans toward the possibility of posting sample tests for teachers to download or to provide standard criteria for teacher evaluations …

A variety of other projects involving cellphones are fanning out across the continent.

In March, the Washington-based World Bank Institute launched a new type of problem-solving video game called Evoke, which is designed to empower young people in Africa to come up with creative solutions to social problems.

Students can play the game by accessing the Web, typically through a cellphone or laptop. Students in South Africa can also sign up to receive weekly text bursts updating them on the latest storyline or mission. Those playing the game may collect videos or photos with their cellphones and can submit them using mobile e-mail, according to the game’s blog.

Players are faced with such problems as environmental degradation, lack of food and water, and poverty and violence and are challenged to find ways to solve them. The game ends May 12, and top players who complete 10 game challenges will earn certification as Evoke social innovators, plus a chance at earning online mentorships, seed funding for new ventures, travel scholarships, and a trip to Washington …

A number of factors have coalesced in Africa making it ready for the use of mobile technology for education, says Robert Spielvogel, the chief technology officer at the EDC. With huge numbers of children lacking any kind of formal education, many ministries of education are focusing on the problem.

“There’s a built-in enormous need, and economically there’s almost no way in a timely fashion that enough schools can be built or teachers found,” Spielvogel says. “There’s an openness here because there’s a sense of crisis that you don’t see in the U.S.” …

In addition, a small pilot project in Zambia used cellphones to improve teacher training. Groups of teacher trainees received cellphones and sent text messages to college lecturers asking questions about assignments or social issues.

The EDC also distributed iPods loaded with training videos to help teachers improve their teaching skills. For example, a survey showed teachers struggling with 6th grade concepts, so the videos highlight how to teach topics like congruency in math or the concept of a magnet, Easterbrooks says …