Thursday, 26 July 2012

Not Quite the Bottom of the Pyramid

Mobile phones hold out enormous promise as the single ICT most likely to deliver education in Africa, and to do so on a sustainable, equitable and scalable basis. I think however that so far, we have not often seen much progress beyond fixed-term, small-scale and subsidised pilots and it is worth exploring whether mobile phones can really deliver their promise.

Delivering education in Africa using mobile phones probably strikes governments, institutions and practitioners as easy and obvious because mobile phones and mobile networks are almost universally accessible and reliable in places where environment, economics, infrastructure and security might variously militate against any other ICTs and where the demographics of mobile phone ownership, access and competence, unlike most other ICTs, takes us near to the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ - the actual ‘bottom of the pyramid’ is of course populated by people who can’t even afford mobile phones! Furthermore, mobile phones are an individual ICT not an institutional or corporate ICT and are not predicated on access to colleges, business centres, cyber-cafes or maybe even cities. Therefore, learning on mobile phones should work.

My contention is that whilst many good projects using mobile devices to support learning, by definition, do good work and thus deserve to be praised and celebrated, our problems start when we try to understand these projects, when we try to reason and infer about these projects, when we try to explain and disseminate them in the hope that we can reproduce and replicate them. This is all the more worrying as we overlook the far larger number of less successful projects or when we group, organise and cluster projects in order to find common generalisable themes, forces, causes and mechanisms. Therein lies our problem with scale, sustainability and equity.

Something is wrong and we need to dig beneath the surface. What are my reasons for advocating such caution?

Firstly, of course, failure often goes unreported, unpublished, and unacknowledged, and common impression is that careers and reputations are not built on failures however interesting or thought-provoking. Furthermore, many projects are doomed to success and are reported accordingly. Funders, agencies, ministries, officials, researchers and others will have all invested much prestige and resource giving projects the necessary momentum and visibility, and failure becomes unthinkable or inconceivable.

A common saying maintains that, “if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Watching evaluations in South Africa and Kenya made me think this is true of the mind-sets we bring to our analysis and evaluation of projects. An educationalist will see educational explanations, a technologist will see technological ones, a policy-maker will see policy ones and so on. Our inferences about success are conditioned by our backgrounds. Sometimes these predispositions are built in projects from the outset. In looking at siting or sampling, people from different backgrounds and organisations bring their own ideas about where to site their cluster of project interventions in the hope of getting maximum generality from limited resource but in doing so they bring to the fore, those variables they think significant (and thereby make them significant) and push others to the background. So class size, network coverage or educational content will appear important because they were built in that they would be!

Furthermore, the dream of successful large-scale sustainable learning with mobile devices has been haunted by high-profile successes like mPesa and Grameen. These successes create the expectation and the pressure that learning with mobile devices should be a worldwide runaway success.

On top of that, some years ago, Agnes Kukulska-Hulme and I looked back at reports of mobile learning research projects from around the world and concluded that the researchers were not always very competent and trained in project evaluation. Their evaluations were often fairly informal, disconnected from project objectives, bolted on as late extras, unfocussed and not informed by the relevant literature or expertise. Also, funders and donors are not necessarily trained or critical readers of monitoring and evaluation reports. Below the executive summary and the headlines might be many caveats and nuances that get in the way of simple prescriptions and these get lost.

Of course, in saying this, I am caught between funders who want results, policy makers who want simple robust bases for policy, the development community talking about predictable unexpected consequences, social scientists telling us reality and experience are contingent and postmodernists telling us that the grand narratives of the Western European mind, of which development is undoubtedly one, are all broken and dead.

So our first conclusion must be that our inferences about success and about critical success factors in learning with mobile devices are fairly shaky.

If we look at the mechanics of mobile learning projects in particular and ask about sustainability, things do not get better.

Firstly, funders fund projects, and understandably they try to fund good projects, and as soon as their funding finishes so does most of their influence. This makes moving projects towards sustainability problematic in practical terms. It might however be starting from the wrong perspective all along. Perhaps instead of funding good projects in the hope that they will become sustainable, funders should fund sustainable projects in the hope that they will become good. Meaning that funders should pay more attention to the host, the target, the destination, to the culture, values and expectations of the people who will inherit and support the project and less to the concrete specifics of the projects and its innovations. Perhaps funders should actually avoid known innovators and early adopters on the basis that these people have least in common with the rank-and-file staff who will institutionalise, embed and appropriate educational change and have least in common with the ethos of their institution.

Most mobile learning projects, especially research projects, have been based on providing learners with the necessary devices, especially first generation projects when devices were rare, expensive and complex. This was sensible in producing more rigorous evidence in coming from a uniform technology platform but not in producing evidence that was transferable into the world where funds did not exist to continue to provide learners with devices. Those mobile learning project funded by corporates, especially from within their corporate social responsibility budgets, suffered from similar problems, compounded by the shorter time-scales that characterised the corporate and commercial world. Fixed-term projects, either funded as research or as corporate social responsibility, taught us little about sustainability. By definition, they were not intended to teach us about sustainability. The fact that projects run more smoothly and produce cleaner less noisy data with provided devices rather than learner devices, that they often use the enthusiasm of project staff and the novelty of innovation, has instead created very false and contrived environments and evidence that does not transfer.

If we could produce evidence that was convincing and relevant, we then have the problem of what to do with it!

In countries of big government, where society expects government support from cradle to grave, the role of evidence is at least in theory straightforward, namely researchers take evidence to government, this impacts on policy and then releases or diverts public resources. In fact, informing policy and changing practice are much more complex than this, involving various ways of exploiting expertise as well as evidence but it is still being basically a political process underpinned by a particular set of ideals about the responsibilities of government.

In countries of small government, however, the role of evidence, expertise and experts is more complex and problematic. The players in any possible mobile learning space might include network operators, publishers, handset manufacturers, maybe government, maybe not, and possibly social entrepreneurs and various kinds of community activists. We must work towards models of learning with mobile devices that make money since this ensures that they are sustainable, big money in the case of scenarios that include corporates and small money in the case of scenarios that include social entrepreneurs.

Corporates, of course, each have a specific focus, be it handsets, content or connectivity, and so the challenge for advocates of learning with mobiles devices is moving the argument forward and fostering collaborations, with evidence and whatever else works, with these players. We must recognise however that even if a commercial operation can take learning to the mythic next billion subscribers of the global South, there will still be parts of the curriculum or parts of the population left uncovered, where governments must still recognise some responsibility and recognise the potential to build human capital and potential for the greater good, if only we knew the language, the issues and the arguments that would change their course.

The alternative is working with social entrepreneurs, those individuals embedded within their own communities, prepared to blend making a profit and delivering a social service, perhaps analogous to community teachers in rural schools in Kenya or bare-foot doctors in China. The challenge for advocates of learning with mobile devices is finding out how to design or adapt those devices or applications that hit the spot where market and education might just overlap.

Every technology embodies an ideology. The implication was that every educational technology embodied a pedagogy, embodies a specific set of ideas about teaching and learning. This ideology or pedagogy may be that of the designers or the manufacturers; the technology may however be appropriated by users and learners and the ideology or pedagogy embodied within the technology becomes theirs not the original or intended one. This issue represents one of the challenges to transferring strategies for educational technology from one culture to another, even from one community or sub-culture to another, especially when we recognise how many slightly different communities and sub-cultures inhabit phonespace and cyberspace.

Finally, one obvious way to enhance sustainability and scale is to consciously exploit learners’ own devices, to base national or institutional strategy around the phones that individuals choose, own and carry everywhere. Of course, institutional culture and regulations may actually prohibit phones on the premises and much needs to be done in order to address issues of standards, infrastructure and performance, of access and equity, of content and training but the main hurdle is teachers’ and officials’ perceptions about loss of control and agency in the class-room, about suddenly letting the animals run the zoo.

Of course we assume that using mobile phones to take learning, our learning, to different and distant communities is a good thing. Many of Africa's languages are at risk of extinction and some of the communities and cultures of these languages have an uncomfortable relation with the national language and culture. With these languages go different cultures of knowing and coming to know, of learning and teaching, of what to learn, who to learn it from and how to use what you've learned – communal stories, elders, mother tongues.

Is it right to connect these cultures to the might of the global knowledge economy on the mobile information superhighway where they might end up as exotic road-kill? Are our learning and our technologies likely to be harmful? Can we reconcile informed consent with blissful ignorance? Is this a liberal Western conceit, inconsequential compared to Millennium Development Goals?

Crisis and The Call

Call for Proposals: TEL, the Crisis and the Response

The Alpine Rendez-Vous

The Alpine Rendez-Vous (ARV) is an established but unusual scientific event focused on Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL). The ARV series of events are promoted by TELEARC and EATEL associations. These took up the legacy of the FP6 NoE Kaleidoscope and Prolearn, and the FP7 NoE Stellar, which sustained them along past years. The goal of the Alpine Rendez-Vous is to bring together researchers from the different scientific communities doing research on Technology-Enhanced Learning, in a largely informal setting, away from their workplace routines. Although originating in Europe, the ARV is open to other continents’ researchers and proposals. ARV is structured as a set of independent parallel workshops located at the same time in the same place. Workshops may last two to three days each, half of the workshops taking place in the first part of the week and the other half in the second part, possibly with a “common day” in the middle. The Alpine Rendez-Vous of 2013 will take place from January 28th to February 1st, in Villard-de-Lans, a village in the middle of Vercors. Breaks and meals are organized in a way that promotes informal encounters between participants from the different workshops.

An informal group concerned about the relationships between TEL research and change, discontinuity and dislocation in the wider world have had a workshop proposal accepted and are now calling for proposals and participation.


The TEL research community has undoubtedly been successful over the last fifteen or twenty years in extending, enriching and even challenging the practices and theories of education within its professions and within its institutions, and through them has engaged in turn with the institutions and professions of industry and government. These have however been largely inward-looking discourses best suited perhaps to a world characterised by stability, progress and growth. These are all now problematic and uncertain, and call for new discourses within the TEL research community and across its borders. The world is now increasingly characterised by challenges, disturbances and discontinuities that threaten these dominant notions of stability, progress and growth. These represent the grand challenges to the TEL research community, challenges to the community to stay relevant, responsive, rigorous and useful.

Earlier discussions (eg purpos/ed,  & e4c, education-for-crisis, had outlined the emergent crisis in broad terms and identified different perspectives and components, including
  • economic and resource crises, including long-term radical increases in economic inequality within nations; youth unemployment across Europe, the polarisation of employment and the decline in growth; sovereign debt defaults and banking failures; mineral and energy constraints;.
  • environmental and demographic crises, in particular, the implications of declining land viability for migration patterns; refugee rights and military occupations; nation-state population growth and its implications for agriculture, infrastructure and transport
  • the crisis of accountability, expressed in the failure of traditional representative democracy systems especially in the context of global markets, the growth of computerised share-dealing; the emergence of new private sector actors in public services; the growth of new mass participatory movements and the rise of unelected extremist minorities both challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state and its institutions
  • socio-technical disruptions and instability, exaggerated by a reliance on non-human intelligence and large-scale systems of systems in finance, logistics and healthcare, and by the development of a data-rich culture;  the increasing concentration and centralisation of internet discourse in the walled gardens of social networks; the proliferation and complexity of digital divides;  the dependency of our educational institutions on computer systems for research, teaching, study, and knowledge transfer
  • the dehumanisation crisis, expressed in the production of fear between people, the replacement of human flourishing with consumption, the replacement of the idea of the person with the idea of the system, the replacement of human contact with mediated exchange, the commodification of the person, education and the arts
and specifically, in relation to TEL;
  •            TEL and the industrialisation of education; marginal communities and the globalization and corporatisation of learning; futures thinking as a way to explore TEL in relation to resilience; the political economy of technology in higher education and technological responses to the crisis of capitalism; the role of openness as a driver for innovation, equity and access; digital literacies and their capacity to shift TEL beyond skills and employability in an increasingly turbulent future; connectedness and mobility as seemingly the defining characteristics of our societies; the role and responsibility of research and of higher education as these crises unfold, the complicity or ambiguity of TEL in their development; is the current TEL ecosystem and environment sustainable, is it sufficiently responsive and resilient, how extent does TEL research question, support, stimulate, challenge and provoke its host higher education sector?

TEL is at the intersection of technology and learning and encapsulates many of the ideals, problems and potential of both.  Education and technology permeate all of the perspectives outlined above, some more than others. It is possible however that they could ameliorate some of their consequences or amplify and exaggerate others. TEL has been a project and a community nurtured within the institutions and organisations of formal education in the recent decades of relative stability and prosperity in the developed nations of Asia-Pacific, North America and Western Europe. Some of the critical challenges directly relate to the perceived missions of the TEL project and its community. Contemporary formal education in schools, colleges and universities is increasingly reliant on TEL. The TEL community is however currently poorly equipped either to resist the progress of these crises today or to enable individuals and communities to flourish despite their consequences tomorrow. The transition movement, the open movement and the occupy movement are all parts of wider responses to differing perceptions and perspectives of the underlying malaise.

The Call

The proposed workshop will enrich conversations by bringing in new perspectives and will explore how the different communities can learn from each other, perhaps bringing about more open, participative and fluid models of education. It brings together researchers seeking to articulate these concerns and responses, and develop a shared understanding that will engage and inform the TEL community. It is timely, necessary and unique, and will contribute to a clearer and more worthwhile formulation of the Grand Challenges for TEL in the coming years.

One of the outputs of the workshop will be a special edition of a peer-reviewed journal; other options, such as an open access journal, a book or a website, are possible if there is a consensus.

Please submit an individual or collective two-page position paper, or propose a structured discussion or debate on the role and place of TEL in the light of our analysis. Contributions will be selected by the organisers on the basis of individual quality of the papers and the overall balance and coherence of the programme.


Submission by 17 August 2012


·       Doug Belshaw, Researcher, Mozilla Foundation
·       Helen Beetham, Consultant, JISC
·       Hamish Cunningham, Professor, University of Sheffield
·       Keri Facer, Professor, University of Bristol
·       Richard Hall, Reader, De Montfort University
·       Marcus Specht, Professor, Open University, Netherlands
·       John Traxler, Professor, University of Wolverhampton, (corresponding organiser)

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Sustainable University

Does the impact of mobiles and mobility on our society mean that the education system, especially the institutions of formal learning, need to make tactical, technical changes and reforms in order to be sustainable, ask whether business-as-usual is still possible. Or do these changes suggest that the education system is somehow broken, no longer fit-for-purpose and unsustainable? Or perhaps some more complex and fragmented answer lies between these extremes?

The personal, cultural and social aspects of the impact of mobiles on the education system hinge on the essential difference between desktop technologies and mobile technologies, a difference that means we can ignore the former but not the latter. Interacting with a desktop computer takes place in a bubble, in dedicated times and places where the learner has their back to the world for a substantial and probably premeditated episode. Interacting with a mobile is different and woven into all the times and places of people’s lives.

Mobiles have created simultaneity of place, the juxtaposition of physical space and multiple virtual spaces full of conversational interactions, where identity, ideas, images and information are generated, shared, discussed and transformed. This changes learners' sense of time, space, place and location, their affiliations and loyalties to institutions, groups and communities, the ways in which they relate to other individuals and to groups, to learning, knowing and understanding, their sense of their identity, and their ethics, that is their sense of what is right, what is acceptable and what is appropriate. The literature of mobilities research documents and analyses these changes but fails to see their significance for formal education. The literature of mobile learning research highlights disruption and mobiles but usually fails to unpack the deeper significance.

Desktop technologies can be ignored but not mobile technologies; desktop technologies operate in their own small world, mobile technologies operate in the world. Desktop technologies are tied to buildings, mobile technologies to people. Mobiles demolish the need to tie particular activities to particular places or particular times. They reconfigure relationships between public and private spaces, and the ways in which these relationships are penetrated by virtual spaces. Virtual communities and discussions were previously mediated by static networked computers in dedicated times, places and spaces. Now, mobiles propel these communities and discussions into physical public and private spaces, forcing changes and adjustments to all three as we learn to manage more fluid contexts. Mobiles also shift agency and ownership from institutions to people and challenge the role of formal institutions as gatekeepers and custodians of society's knowledge, education and learning. These changes are clearly challenging the legitimacy and credibility of formal institutions, rooted in fixed times, places, relationships, configurations and roles

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Mobiles, Learning, Africa, Development

There is much activity, much discussion and much interest in the capacity of mobile devices to deliver, support and enhance learning for the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged and the developing communities and regions of the world. Much of this discussion, interest and activity is however uncritical, simplistic and poorly synthesised.
In general the argument for using mobile phones or other mobile devices to address educational disadvantage is straightforward: their ownership and acceptance are near-universal and cut across most notions of ‘digital divides’; their use is based around robust sustainable business models; they are, unlike other ICTs, found at the BOP amongst the next billion subscribers; they deliver information, ideas and, increasingly, images.
Research is needed now because of the rapidly increasing ownership of more powerful handsets in the developing world, the decreasing real costs of this hardware and connectivity, the increasing coverage of higher specification networks in these regions and the increasing activity of corporates representing publishing, handsets, services and infrastructure looking for sustainable business models based on the educational use of mobile devices in developing regions. This represents an opportunity to intervene, to promote and to guide this activity in order that worthwhile educational experiences and opportunities become more widely and more equitably distributed.
Research is also needed now because various communities, necessary actors in facilitating successful learning using mobile devices and technologies, each come with considerable potential but often inappropriate contributions, partial understandings and flawed assumptions:
i. Mobile learning is an emerging mature global research, policy and practitioner community that has exploited mobile devices to extend the reach of learning and of educational opportunities, and has developed applications and formats that enhance and extend the concepts of learning and education. The projects and pilots of the mobile learning community now impact on policy and provision in many parts of the developed world thanks to judicious advocacy and credible evidence. The achievements of the mobile learning community are not characterised specifically by any ‘developing’/’developed’ divide but are not widely known or understood in the developing regions.
ii. The m4d (and larger ICTD) community of researchers, activists and practitioners have currently generally only addressed learning and education as ‘service delivery’, using mobile technologies to smooth the operations of educational institutions, and have not engaged significantly with education processes or practices.
iii. Mobile learning, insofar as it takes place in Africa, has been seen as part of e-learning in Africa and as part of the rhetoric of ‘catching-up’ and ‘leap-frogging’. The technologies of e-learning necessarily but perhaps implicitly embody ideas and practices of teaching and learning native to America or Western Europe. Furthermore the model for procuring and deploying and supporting ICT for education is no longer appropriate, being based on institutional provision rather than learner provision.
iv. The pace at which mobile devices and technologies are brought to market and more importantly are exploited, domesticated and appropriated leads to a very fragmented understanding of their affordances and of the nature and significance of any medium-term trends.
v. Mobile devices increasingly allow users to generate, share and discuss ideas, images and information, specific to them, their locations and their own physical or virtual communities, in effect to determine and manage their own learning and knowledge. This problematises the role, status and credibility of formal education and its institutions but also impacts and perhaps threatens learners’ indigenous cultures, languages and social structures, perhaps rooted in stable hierarchies and a more oral tradition.
Areas to be explored must include the balance between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches, ‘progressive’ versus ‘traditional’ values in education, the relationships between mobile learning, lifelong learning, distance education and classroom teaching, the ethical and cultural aspects of educational interventions and the boundaries and differences between various research communities and their methodologies for example between participative design and anthropology.

Friday, 23 April 2010

random thoughts on 'development' and e-learning

• African universities, professionals, researchers, educators (and maybe ICTD in general) etc are not exposed to the most exciting, most innovative work in European e-learning (ideas, concepts, communities and people, not just gadgets, systems and technologies) including mobile learning (and vice versa)
• The m4d (mobile-for-development) community seems preoccupied with ‘service delivery’ / with infrastructural & organisational solutions - education is not just another service
• there is a plethora of not-for-profits/community activists in this space esp. South Africa
• Methodologies (and ethics, epistemology) do not travel well; they are genuine meaningful challenges
• Confusion and overlap of research, development, consultancy, philanthropy, capacity building etc
• Big awareness of funding/financial possibilities (corporates conscious of the 'next billion subscribers' / consultants & researchers mining donor and development funds) esp. in South Africa
• There are considerable discrepancies between informal/community expectations about technology, education and those formal expectations within institutions, funders/donors
• Mobiles don't merely replicate existing 'digital divides' eg North/South, gender, age
• In Africa, the relationships between projects, evidence, sustainability, private sector, equity, policy, governance are variable and weak
• African universities, professionals, researchers, educators etc are however exposed to big business selling products that are usually wholly inappropriate (technically, infrastructurally, culturally, financially and pedagogically)
• Moreover these products and their sales pitch resonate with uncritical ideas of ‘leap-frogging’ within Africa itself amongst some officials in ministries and universities; e-learning in Africa is too often conceptualised as a deficit to be redressed
• The rhetoric of ‘catching-up’ is drowning out any discussion of ‘appropriate’.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Learning with ‘Appropriate’ Technology in Africa: PC Labs or Mobile Phones

It is important and urgent to debate and discuss the issue of ‘development’ in relation to e-learning and the issue of 'appropriate' technology in relation to e-learning, and especially to debate and discuss these issues in relation to each other.
One specific reason for this debate and discussion is that we need much greater clarity about the perceived tension between those e-learning strategies based on near-universal ownership of mobile devices amongst potential learners on the one hand and those e-learning strategies based expensive large-scale installations of static institutional networked desktop computers on the other. This discussion is also important because it is also a discussion about the balance between the individual and the institution, the community and the corporate, the bottom-up and the top-down and it is vitally important to the issue of sustainability.
There are of course many competing and confused ideas about what could constitute 'appropriate' learning technologies and systems for Africa, and about what would be the ‘appropriate’ forms of e-learning in Africa. There are also many competing and confused ideas about ‘development’ and much emotive rhetoric about ‘catching up’ and ‘leap-frogging’. This contribution aims to discuss these but, of course, any discussion of education, and any discussion of education in Africa is always in danger of simplifying Africa or simplifying education or both.
Firstly, the idea of a technology system, especially a socio-technical system such as an e-learning technology system, is complex and many definitions of systems and technologies emphasise their human and social components, alongside the technical and tangible components, and also emphasise how understanding or designing a technological system crucially depends on identifying its purpose and the nature of its interactions with its environment. With anything other than the simplest system, these are complicated, unclear and often contested.
Secondly, Africa is composed of widely different countries and cultures; many of the institutions and structures of formal education in Africa are still strongly influenced by the legacy of contact, most likely colonisation, with different European countries each with its own different educational traditions. This is apparent in ideas about instruction, curricula, assessment, organisation and management and may cut across national boundaries. These institutions and structures may however now be influenced by the growing globalisation of educational thinking and by the pressure of global educational technology developers and vendors. Furthermore, as in countries in other continents, the institutions and structures of education may however not be sympathetic to the practices of community and to the ideas of informal learning in the different local cultures across Africa, or even conducted in the same languages. There can sometimes also be vagueness in defining in practical terms the ‘African-ness’ that ‘appropriate’ technologies and systems are supposed to be addressing: is it sparsity, rurality and distance? Is it infrastructure, capacity and organisation? Is it national, cultural and linguistic diversity? Or is it something else? There is always a risk of making superficial generalisations but there is always a practical need to learn what can be transferred or replicated too, and a need to formulate policy.
Thirdly, education systems and institutions have seldom developed their own sustainable, scalable technologies anywhere in the world. It is unlikely that any parts of Africa will be any different. Instead, education systems have appropriated or co-opt technologies, that is, they have used technologies for purposes for which those technologies were not intended or designed or sold. There are a variety of reasons for this but one must be perceptions amongst vendors and developers that education is only a small market compared to commercial and industrial markets. Nevertheless some technologies have been developed for purely educational markets – VLEs and e-portfolios are the obvious ones currently.
Education systems in most parts of the world have appropriated the desktop computers and the software systems designed for the American and European corporate markets. Financial constraints make this practice virtually essential but this has clearly been problematic for the development of ‘appropriate’ educational technologies anywhere in the world. This is perhaps more problematic for education systems in the 'developing' regions of the world since they are doubly distant from the original intended designs. Dedicated educational hardware is practically non-existent and dedicated educational software is miniscule compared to the volume of commercial and industrial software; furthermore the vast majority of this dedicated educational software originates outside the world’s developing regions so its ‘appropriate-ness’ is suspect too.
Fourthly, looking at ‘appropriate’ technologies from outside Africa raises the issues of designing for ‘appropriate-ness’ rather than procuring it. Participative design and user-centred design both seem at first sight to be the tools for developing ‘appropriate’ local or indigenous technologies. However community preferences may differ from the preferences of trained or professional educators and they may also differ from the ideas of ‘progressive’ developers and theorists from the ‘developed’ regions. Furthermore, raising the issue of design implicitly raises the issue of evaluation, or perhaps M&E in an African or ‘development’ context. Evaluation methods must be aligned to design practices in order to feedback meaningfully into iterative design. And if we are concerned about sustainability, then the outputs of evaluation must be appropriate to the developer community and perhaps also to the policy and business communities in order to generate the type of evidence that will either change policy and thus secure public funding or establish a business case and thus encourage commercial activity.
Seeing sustainability at a national level in these terms is by no means easy because it probably implies the kind of 'big government' that would characterise the UK or Sweden but not the US or South Africa, the kind of 'big government' prepared to commission and then evaluate evidence and then change policy and allocate resources. In countries with 'small government', sustainable educational technology is in the hands of businesses or social enterprises, and the mechanisms to support and sustain initiatives are different and less obvious.
Fifthly, sustainability is also an organisational and a cultural issue. It is easy to see any discussion of educational technology in Africa in terms of physical challenges and physical deficits, to see the problem (or rather to define the problem) in terms of infrastructure, in terms for example of reliable mains electricity, broadband connectivity, secure clean buildings, modern computer hardware, up-to-date licenses and software installations. And this simple analysis suggests that once a range of these physical pre-conditions have been met, that successful e-learning will take place. We must however recognise that no technology is culturally neutral, either as it is originally designed or deployed or as it is subsequently appropriated. Every technology embodies an ideology. In the case of educational technology and of e-learning, the ideology is in part the implied pedagogy. So when institutions or countries procure and install a particular educational technology, they also install the ideology including the pedagogy that comes with it. Of course the technology and its ideology may not be aligned to their new learners or their institutions and culture. The misalignment could be at a number of levels. The educational technology may not be aligned its host institution and its ideas about teaching and learning, it may not be aligned to popular, informal or cultural expectations about learning (of course, the educational institutions may not be aligned to popular or informal expectations about what constitutes learning and how to learn either).
Another dimension to the discussion of sustainability and ‘appropriateness’ is the lifecycle of projects and innovations in e-learning in both the ‘developing’ and the ‘developed’ regions of the world. In most cases and in most places, these are small-scale and fixed-term; they are usually funded, staffed, implemented and evaluated in ways that keep them isolated from their host communities and host organisations and almost inevitably they fail to embed and endure; they are evidently ‘inappropriate’.
And lastly, to return to the issue of appropriation, of course people generally appropriate technologies anyway; the 'missed call' or the 'please call me' is the obvious example - the network operators and the handset vendors clearly did not set out to provide the world with free messaging. However there is a tension between those technologies appropriated by educational institutions, such as PCs, and those appropriated by the community, for example for informal mobile learning. Implicitly the idea of appropriation is linked to the idea of sustainability; those technologies appropriated by the community must evidently have some attributes of sustainability; those technologies appropriated by the educational institutions may not be sustainable.
Any attempt to analyse educational technologies in Africa may be simplistic. Our concern is to question whether the rhetoric of ‘catching up’ or ‘leap-frogging’ in e-learning is not taking place at the expense of a discussion about what is ‘appropriate’.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Mobile and Connected - the Challenges and the Implications

I continue to worry about the relationships between mobile technologies within education and mobile technologies outside in society. My latest formulation is for Eduserv, "We live in a society increasingly characterised by mobility and connectedness; our educational institutions are however still largely characterised by fixity and isolation, and perhaps by the risk of irrelevance.

Recent years have seen a growth and interest in mobile learning, in many countries of the world and in all sectors, universities included. At the same time, the acceptance and ownership of increasingly powerful mobile personal technologies has become widespread, nearly universal , in our societies. These two trends might seem supportive of each other and in some respects they are. In other respects, however, their relationship is more problematic.

This talk explores the impact of mobile technology on society and the phenomenon of mobile learning within our institutions, and the likely strategic implications and issues for UK universities."