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.