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The Role of mLearning: Technological Breakthroughs for Global Literacy

by Vanessa Thevathasan, Aid & International Development Forum

  •  May 14, 2015
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mLearning is the ability to access educational resources, tools and materials at any time and location, using mobile technology.  While it can be used in schools, one of the greatest uses and fundamental elements of mLearning is its ability to bring education to those who would otherwise be excluded, substantially enhancing their livelihood opportunities. With 785 million adults in the world unable to read and write, achieving educational breakthroughs for the world’s disadvantaged and excluded remains a top priority. Introducing mLearning for wider penetration in developing countries can improve literacy rates on a massive scale. mLearning is a practical and personal way to learn that has the ability to mould a better future for its users.

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), mobile phones are the most pervasive and rapidly adopted technology in history, with six billion of the world’s seven billion people now having access. It is therefore imperative to extend and utilise mobile technology to promote higher literacy rates.

With accessibility has come affordability.  Educational apps, costing $1-$5, are a lot cheaper than traditional educational tools, such as textbooks, which normally range on average around $20-$50 per book. E-books that can be downloaded on mobile devices are now available to millions of users.

In the West, mLearning has broken some ground in establishing better academic relationships between socio-economic disadvantaged children and their parents. For example, the PBS KIDS Ready to Learn Cell Phone study has helped encourage parents to be more active in their children’s academic life,  supporting children to become better readers through SMS. DropBox, Kindle, Nook, iBooks and Google Play Books are all methods which have allowed teachers to upload readings and handouts to their students outside of the classroom, in addition to in-class assignments. These tools have promoted interaction between teacher and student by allowing students to annotate and highlight the test.

Illiterate adults are also benefiting from mLearning. According to The New American, 32 million adults in the United States can’t read and 48 million adults can only read up to a 5th grade level. Cell-ED has designed mobile audio tools that communicate lessons to students.

However, the greatest breakthrough and benefit from mLearning is taking place in the developing world. Mobile coverage could reach as much as 97 percent in Africa without public subsidy. Access to mobile phones, as opposed to ownership, are evening higher, given how families and community members. With massive reach, mLearning can be used for a wide range of purposes.  For instance, The Millennium Villages project in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda uses mLearning modules where community health workers are able to download learning materials on reproductive health, care for newborns and other subjects to their mobile phone. Additionally, working with the Millennium Villages, Ericsson co-founded Connect To Learn, an education initiative supporting secondary education especially for girls through scholarships and the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in classrooms. Additionally, DFID’s project in Afghanistan on the use of mobile phones has been aimed at reaching nomad children, teachers and parents to follow up on learning while they are on the move during the summer or winter.

mLearning for girls and women to improve literacy is an importance avenue to pursue, given thete gendered disparities between educational access and resources for boys compared to girls. Women and girls constitute the majority of the 793 million illiterates in the world.  The World Bank has reported that girls continue to lag behind their male counterparts in many areas of the world, in terms of access to education, completion of schooling, and acquisition of basic skills such as literacy.  The gender gap challenge is further impeded by the lack of mobile ownership, usage, and access for girls.  In the GSMA Bridging the Gender Gap report (2015), several key facts have emerged:

  • Over 1.7 billion females in low- and middle-income countries do not own mobile phones.
  • Women on average are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men, which translates into 200 million fewer women than men owning mobile phones.
  • Cost remains the greatest barrier overall to owning and using a mobile phone, particularly for women, who often have less financial independence than men.
  • Social norms influence women’s access to and use of mobile technology, and often contribute to women experiencing barriers to mobile phone ownership and use more acutely than men.

Without targeted intervention from the mobile industry, policy-makers, and other stakeholders, the gender gap in ownership and usage is unlikely to close naturally on its own. To this end, some initiatives started to close the gender gap through mLearning.  In Pakistan, UNESCO has linked up with mobile operator Mobilink and local NGO Bunvad. The partnership has been aimed at improving literacy rates of adolescent girls in rural areas of Pakistan where reading material are limited. The project was launched in 2009 in a rural area of southern Punjab province involving 250 females aged 15-24 who had completed a rudimentary literacy programme.  Each girl was given a mobile phone that allowed the NGO to send out SMS messages in the local language Urdu in an effort to maintain and improve participants’ literacy. Initial resistance from community elders and parents, unsurprising in a conservative traditional society, gave way after the benefits of the projects for the girls were clearly seen. The programme has produced gains in literacy, with lowest exam scores dropping nearly 80 per cent.

"With more than 98 million mobile phone users in Pakistan versus a 60 million illiterate population, the mobile phone holds endless potential if placed in the right hands. A leading cause for extremely low female literacy in Pakistan is either because the educational facility is far or the family does not want the girl to go outside the house. There are however, two flipsides to this sociocultural barrier: the female, while being confined to the home space in Pakistan, is inadvertently the centre of knowledge and learning for her offspring, most of whom don’t make it past primary school; and she has relatively more time available to participate actively in mLearning programmes." Bilal Munir Sheikh, Vice-President of Marketing for Mobilink

Sustainability of these programmes are premised on including men and boys in mLearning. For instance, the Jokko Initiative allows women and girls to train their male counterparts on usage of mobile phones, the educational information they have learnt, and share community messages that they received via SMS.

There is also a greater need for gender-disaggregated data to support mLearning programmes so they are best suited to its target group. UNESCO leads the Mobile Phone Literacy Project, which aims to document the drivers that help to make mLearning interventions for women and girls effective and sustainable.  Overall, this will ensure women and girls are encouraged to use technology and lead the design of mobile learning interventions that will best meet their needs.

Ensuring teachers are included in mLearning will help support students in their overall educational experience. More investment in teacher training is needed in mLearning programmes, especially in the designing, developing and implementation of education technologies.

Monitoring and evaluation on mLearning programmes will be crucial to understand and overcome access and reach problems. Video and skype communication for monitoring classroom progress and teaching quality is a useful route to explore. It is clear that disasters will impede drastically on the quality and access of mLearning, given how many services get cut off during a crisis.

Smartphones have greatly enhanced mLearning innovation. However, despite the many benefits of smart phones they remain inhibitively expensive for a large majority of those living in developing countries. Considering that smart phones have only reached 20 percent reach globally, feature phones remain the most viable tool for mLearning.  While smart phones prices are predicated to fall over the coming years, it is not yet certain how far they will become a common asset for those at the bottom of the pyramid in some of the poorest countries. There are now a number of options to make feature phones mimic smartphones, such as Innoz, biNNu and Mxit. Building apps for existing and commonly used feature phones is a more cost-effective and sustainable means to promote mLearning.

With a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, western Asia and Oceania in danger of missing the Millennium Development Goal 2015 deadline for literacy rates and gender equality, mLearning goes a substantial way to achieving educational attainment. If the Sustainable Development Goals can appreciate the role and impact of technology for educational learning, more people will have the knowledge to better their lives and their future.  This is the power of mLearning: putting the tools of development right in the hands of the people that need them and empower them with more choices, ownership and decision-making to break the cycle of poverty.

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