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It’s not (only) about the ebook

footnote-summit-30-l-280x280On 30 July I presented at the Footnote Summit 2015 — “the largest digital publishing event in Africa and is dedicated to tackling the real issues facing publishing today.”

My presentation is titled It’s not (only) about the ebook and describes how delivering ebooks is only one part of a digital learning ecosystem that must be implemented holistically.

Download the presentation here.

ICT lessons learned from Rwanda

At the recent Africa – Continent of Opportunities: Bridging the Digital Divide event in Berlin (see my notes here), Mr Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Minister of Youth and ICT, Rwanda, shared some lessons from 15 year of ICT adoption in his country:

  • Vision 2020 is a Government development program in Rwanda, launched in 2000 by Rwandan president Paul Kagame. Its main objective is transforming the country into a knowledge-based middle-income country, thereby reducing poverty, health problems and making the nation united and democratic. Having this and courageous leadership have been critical in getting Rwanda to where it is today. A strong Government vision and commitment to implementation is essential, with a view to strategic partnership.
  • Keeping focus and momentum. Laying 7,500 km of fibre, putting laptops in the hands of 200,000 learners in 400 schools around the country. They want 4G/LTE last mile access to 95% of population by 2017 and have been working with the private sector to achieve this. Interestingly the partners will jointly develop this infrastructure and share it, as opposed to each mobile network operator building its own network (that would be too expensive).
  • Their strategy: as much as possible, let the private sector drive the ICT sector growth.
  • Focus on the demand side – ensure that technology that needs to be in the hands of people is affordable. They are using the Universal Access Fund to achieve this and are manufacturing devices in-country to lower costs.
  • Keeping a focus on girls and women’s empowerment. They work to mainstream ICT into girls development programs.

Of course the Rwanda experience is not without its faults and challenges, but it is a country that has genuinely committed to reaping the benefits promised from ICT and the lessons learned along the way are valuable to all countries.


Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, Mr Jean Philbert Nsengimana


Images: Thomas Ecke, Copyright

One textbook policy = bad idea. Here’s why, from Jansen, Attwell and Spaull

logo01Recently the Franschhoek Literary Festival hosted a session titled “We Won’t Get No Education”. Description from the programme:

Government’s controversial proposal to limit textbooks to one per subject has raised alarms across disciplines. Francis Wilson asks Arthur Attwell (Book Dash), Jonathan Jansen (How to Fix South African Schools) and Nic Spaull (post-doc Education fellow at the University of Stellenbosch), what the implications are.

It was a stimulating discussion, and all agreed that one textbook is a BAD idea. But what is for sure is that it will happen. Apparently, even though the government has asked for public input on the policy-in-making, it is a fait accompli and the decision was taken some time back at an ANC conference in Bloemfontein.

In the discussion, technology did not come across too well, since is it was seen as adding complexity to a broken education system that is already struggling with an analogue print-book system. However, tech was described as something that could be used to network people, bring together communities of teachers and facilitate virtual peer-to-peer learning amongst students. Also, to improve the efficiency of education institution administration.

I engaged Prof Jansen on the merits of technology and how, when people propose introducing tablets or ebooks it is the wrong starting point. Rather, we should ask: do you want interactive simulations to communicate complex ideas, especially when many teachers are under-qualified to teach those ideas? Do you want automatic assessment of learning that produces immediate analysis of learner understanding and alleviates the marking burden of teachers so that they can spend more time on task actually teaching? Do you want to enable teachers to connect virtually, to share teaching and learning resources, or simply provide moral support to each other? Do you want efficient, immediate and cost-effective communication between schools, teachers and parents? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then technology has an enabling role to play. He agreed wholeheartedly with that approach.

Below are some rough notes from the discussion. Much of it we already know, but some of the points are useful.

Nic Spaull

  • The big issue in education:Low AND unequal achievement across schools.
  • Every year 1.1m learners start their school education, only 500,000 finish.
  • Of those who matriculate, only 14% go to university. Fewer actually graduate.
  • Half of SA households have only 10 books in the house.
  • 60% of primary schools have no library.
  • In the North-West province: only 30% of learners have access to government bought textbooks. In the WC, that figure is 95%.

The Government needs to:

  • Focus on accountability AND capacity.
  • Focus on early grades.
  • Set early goals and measure, e.g. learners being able to read in their home language by the end of grade 3.
  • Get teachers to take a course on how to teach reading.
  • Follow a programme of identifying Master Teachers who can train other teachers.

He listed three categories of tech rollouts:

  • Hardware focused (1:1 / tablets).
  • Software focused (“the software will make the difference”).
  • “Warmware” focused (it’s about the people, they need to drive it, tech roll outs work when people adopt them).

He also proposed that since Government is going to impose a one-textbook policy, that they should insist the one chosen book is openly licensed so that others can create “paid for” add ons around it.

Arthur Attwell

  • The tablet project in Gauteng will cost 3x the NATIONAL textbook budget. He believes this is too much.
  • He proposes that publishers give permission to local printers closer to schools to print there.
  • One textbook policy = massive damage and loss to small publishers in SA. Will reduce publishing industry to 3-4 players in a few years.

Jonathan Jansen

  • Many schools cannot absorb the level of innovation that is tried to be introduced to them.
  • Following his book “How to Fix SA’s Schools”, he believes that we need to do the simple things well.
  • Good leadership, principals at school early and engaged.
  • A timetable that is stuck to.
  • Teachers trained and teaching on time.
  • Parents involved.
  • Etc.

He believes that the one textbook policy is utter nonsense, a harmful form of reductionism that offers short terms financial gains to the Government. Where it claims to level the playing field across the school sector it will in fact entrench existing divides as middle-class schools can afford to buy books NOT on the catalogue that are more appropriate for their teachers and learners.

He also believes that Government needs to exercise its power over unions when their behaviour is anti-education. And the one thing he admires about President Zuma is his ability to dismantle organisations (e.g. the ANC Youth League). With luck, he hopes that Zuma can dismantle harmful teacher unions.

e-Learning: “e” is for exchange, not electronic

Africa – Continent of Opportunities: Bridging the Digital Divide was an event in Berlin hosted by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to engage with a range of development policy actors from different sectors dealing with digital technology in Africa.


The goal of the event was, through dialogue, to inform the direction of BMZ’s Africa policy regarding bridging the digital divide. It hoped to explore new and innovative ideas for fields of action to implement effective cooperation in the area of ICT in Africa. A new strategic partnership for digital Africa was launched, with a focus on the application of ICT in key areas, including education. BMZ appealed for partners to explore how they could get involved.

The event covered ICT lessons from Rwanda, ICT infrastructure, inclusive digital education, building e-literacy and tools for knowledge transfer.

I sat in on the discussions and summarised the findings from three tables on the particular topic Digital Methods to Transfer Knowledge. In the group was the Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, Mr Jean Philbert Nsengimana, and also Mr Günter Nooke, the German Chancellor’s Personal Representative for Africa in the BMZ, amongst others from around the African continent and Europe.

Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, Mr Jean Philbert Nsengimana

Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT, Mr Jean Philbert Nsengimana

Below are the guiding questions from our session, as well as key points raised. Guiding question 1: What are the most important tools to efficiently transfer knowledge?

  • All participants agreed the tools should not just transfer knowledge, but allow users to create it. Tools should be used to create, transfer, share and engage.
  • We did not focus on particular tools, but rather attributes of tools. These included: being mobile; flexible and adaptable to local context; low-cost (where possible); modular and extensible; and lastly “integratable” with existing platforms.

Guiding question 2: How can we optimise and develop those tools and make them available to anyone?

  • Reduce the cost of usage.
  • Raise awareness that the tools exist and what their benefits are.
  • Ensure a holistic view – not just to consider a tool but the ecosystem in which it is used. This includes training, support, pedagogy, connectivity and cost, amongst other things.

Guiding question 3: Is e-learning the formula for success making face-to-face interactions and education dispensable?

  • No! While everyone recognised the benefits of e-learning – such as enabling distance education, asynchronous and synchronous communication in peer learning networks, and the ability to scale learning beyond fixed time and space constraints – they equally valued face-to-face-based education. Overall, the concept of complementarity, where both approaches are used in the most appropriate way, was seen as the ideal education model.
  • Open and distance learning represent opportunities, but are not silver bullets.
  • Mentors, either face-to-face or virtual, were noted as being able to play a valuable supportive role for teachers/lecturers and students.

Guiding question 4: How can development cooperation contribute to building inclusive digital education?

  • Concerning inclusive education, it was noted that the focus should be on learning and not teaching. The “e” in e-learning should not stand for electronic but rather exchange. We should be exploring digital methods to enable learning,  to teach students to “learn how to learn”.
  • A concern was raised around too much “screen time” for younger learners especially. Finding a balance between digital and offline activities is key here.

Recommendations for development cooperation (and any organisation involved in e-learning really):

  • Take an ecosystem view and include partners (from government, private, civil society and academic sectors), as needed.
  • E-Learning today is not just about ebooks and tablets; those are only small parts in the “digital learning experience” that ultimately includes adaptive assessment and personalised learning, digital learning portfolios and digital administration systems. The whole is made up of many interrelated factors, such as capacity, connectivity, content, political and policy support, and sustainable funding models, all of which need to work together in concert.
  • Do not follow the hype about e-learning and mobile learning. Be informed, be realistic, set a long-term vision (such as Rwanda’s Vision 2020 set in 2000), be prepared for uneven progress across different groups and stakeholders, and most importantly, learn and adapt as you go along.
  • A model should be developed incorporating many of the above issues, including technology, implementation methodology and a business model.  Funding should be provided to pilot the model in a few countries so that it can be refined. Other countries can then adapt it as needed for their own contexts.

A “mini expo” was held where I exhibited Pearson’s X-kit Achieve Mobile and Project Literacy, as well as Yoza Cellphone Stories. Overall it was a fascinating event and a valuable opportunity for Pearson to provide input into the future strategy for a digital Africa. We look forward to continue being a part of the discussions. 027_Afrikatag2015_9205 185_Afrikatag2015_9434062_Afrikatag2015_6771

I would like to personally thank BMZ and the Goethe Institute Johannesburg for their generous support in ensuring my participation in Berlin. The Institute’s support is an expression of their continued interest in the potential of mobiles for literacy in Africa.

Images: Thomas Ecke, Copyright

Literacy, gender and mobiles

At the 2015 UNESCO Mobile Learning Week, I sat on a panel about literacy. Below are my speaking notes. Thank you to Ms Saniye Gülser Corat, Director for Gender Equality at UNESCO, for moderating the panel.


Brief for the panel:

Due to a history of educational inequity, many more women than men are illiterate: globally, 64 per cent of illiterate people are women. Limited access to physical books and other learning materials disproportionately affects women, particularly in developing countries. Cultural norms can make it difficult for girls to leave home in order to attend literacy trainings or participate in outreach activities. Motherhood and assumed family obligations can further prevent women from building literacy skills in formal education settings.

How can mobile learning interventions break through barriers and promote literacy for women and girls in ways that are sustainable and scalable? How can mobile technology help develop essential literacies beyond reading and writing, such as media and technology literacy?

Three basic points I want to make

Much has already been achieved by mobiles for literacy.
The Goethe Institute of Johannesburg last month hosted an mLiteracy Networking Meeting to examine the opportunities and challenges for mobiles to increase literacy development, especially in Africa (see my speaking notes from the meeting).

It was an incredibly valuable, interesting and much-needed gathering by some of the old and new players in this space. The good news is seeing how far mobiles for literacy has come, how it has grown, how many young and old people it is reaching and engaging. How the mobiles for literacy field has not only provided another much needed medium to access reading material, but also allowed readers to comment and write their own pieces. It has given readers a voice, something not possible at such scale or immediacy in the print medium.

Gender sensitive does not equal gender specific.
In many cases we do not need initiatives focused only on women and girls, but rather on women and girls, men and boys. In other words, a holistic approach that is gender sensitive. Of course there is spill-over when particular genders are targeted – as with the example of Business Women, a mobile service for women entrepreneurs in Nigeria that has reached 100,000 women AND to which 20,00 men have also subscribed.

The need for specificity.
We know that local context is a key differentiator. There are different gender-related opportunities and barriers across and within countries, cities and communities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and so when answering questions about improving literacy for women and girls, we need to provide broad enough responses that can be adapted and applied appropriately to specific audiences.

Pearson is playing a key role in improving literacy.
Last year Pearson launched Project Literacy, a five-year campaign to help ensure that by 2030, every child around the world has the support they need to become a literate adult. On the Project Literacy site, almost 200 organisations and people working in literacy have posted their challenges and inspirations.

Three suggestions for how to answer the questions

Take an ecosystem view.
For an initiative to be successful and scalable, it is essential to understand the full range of stakeholders, enablers and constraints in the mliteracy ecosystem. This view is recommended by the UNESCO Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning.

For your initiative, who can increase visibility, lower costs, benefit from your content? Which policies support your work, or hinder it? Who provides the devices that the women and girls use, who supplies the network infrastructure? Which stakeholders have been the hardest to engage with? Interrogating the ecosystem was a key theme of the Goethe Institute mLiteracy Networking Meeting – a sign, I think, of how the mliteracy space has matured.

Target content and programmes.
From Yoza Cellphone Stories, and also other mliteracy projects, we know that the romance genre is very popular. Equally are stories that talk to the social issues of the audience: pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, drugs, mothering, job-seeking, education, etc. Content must be targeted to the communities who we want to consume and engage with it. This does not re-enforce gender stereotypes but rather recognises the different life experiences of women and girls, men and boys, and so normalises and mainstreams differences across these groups.

Content that develops the skills of readers supports the recommendation from the UNESCO Mobile Phone Literacy – Empowering Women and Girls project: “The particular needs of the targeted women and girls must be addressed and life-skills and empowerment opportunities offered.”

Questions for reflection: Give an example of how you have targeted specifically women/men, or girls/boys? And did doing so alienate the other group?

Increase visibility.
Visibility of resources and opportunities via mobiles remains a challenge – obscurity is the biggest threat to the many excellent initiatives. Visibility includes a number of aspects:

  • Marketing: It is essential that women and girls know about the opportunities.
  • The need for programmes – offline – that encourage reading, literacy, promote its benefits. Mobile is not a panacea and cannot operate while other barriers – cultural, economic, etc. – are not holistically addressed. Example: The Mobile-Based Post Literacy project by UNESCO in Pakistan first spent a long time engaging the village elders to ensure that they understood and ultimately supported the programme to improve the literacy of adolescent girls via mobile phones. This supports the recommendation from the reports of the UNESCO Mobile Phone Literacy – Empowering Women and Girls project: “Community sensitization and mobilization as well as political support are key ingredients for success.”
  • Recognition of mobile as a valid channel for supporting literacy. There are perceptions around the use of mobiles as distracting and undermining education. Research and case studies can change this – in fact this perception is already changing.

Questions for reflection: How have you increased visibility for your project? How have you engaged communities / gatekeepers to sensitize them and seek political support?

Closing words

A wonderful piece by Anathi Nyadu, a FundZa writer and attendee of the Goethe meeting, describes how he used to have to scrounge newspapers from the bin and steal books to satisfy his love of reading. But he believes his niece will never have to do either, thanks to mobile literacy.

So what has, and has not, changed in 6 years of mLiteracy?

The Goethe Institute of Johannesburg this week hosted an mLiteracy Networking Meeting to examine the opportunities and challenges for mobiles to increase literacy development, especially in Africa. It was an incredibly valuable, interesting and much-needed gathering by some of the old and new players in this space, including FunDza, Nal’ibali, Mxit Reach, WorldreaderCreative Commons SA and the Kenya National Library Service. Prof Marion Walton was there, who walked the Yoza journey with me from the start, conducting invaluable research.

Goethe-Institut JHB

At the Goethe-Institute’s mLiteracy meeting

The notes from the meeting are here. My own speaking notes are below.

Since launching m4Lit in 2009, what has, and has not, changed in 6 years of mLiteracy? As background to the question:

  • Sept 2009, m4Lit. One story, told in daily chapters. In one month: 63,000 subscribers, 17,200 reads
  • “It’s great … for me it really hard to pick up a book to start reading but i don’t mind reading on my phone” dotty1
  • Aha moment: “Mobiles phones are a viable distribution platform for longer form content and for enabling user participation — in South Africa” (not just in Japan)
  • Today: Yoza Cellphone Stories: 31 m-novels, 18 poems and 5 Shakespeare plays. All CC-licensed or public domain

Since 2009, what has changed?

The space has grown and matured

  • Only Karen Brooks when Yoza started
  • Now there are a number of initiatives

Mobiles for reading

  • Lots of different types of initiatives
  • Reading in the Mobile Era (UNESCO)
    • 15 projects reviewed, divided into categories: reading practice and instruction; access to reading content; and language learning
  • Mobiles for Reading: A Landscape Research Review (USAID)
    • 44 projects reviewed, categories of projects: formal learning and instruction; informal learning (BBC Janala); content (Yoza and Worldreader); training (TPD or aimed at parents as intermediaries for childrens’ learning); data collection (rapid assessment of individuals and monitoring, e.g. Tangerine); communication and dissemination (foster social exchange and dialogue, where literacy practice is a by-product, e.g. Fundza and Yoza)

Technology rising

  • Mobile uptake still massive
  • Smartphone numbers rising
  • Major tablet implementations around the world

Mobile usage / societal shifts

  • Has society become even more mobile?
  • IM is number one app category
  • Increase in visual culture (photo sharing)

Perception shifts

  • Slow acceptance of mobile as educational?

Ecosystem view


  • Competing with traditional publishers?
  • Where do m-novels end and ebooks begin?


  • Reminders to parents increase contact time
  • Increased motivation and increased reading

Since 2009, what has NOT changed?


  • Remains a challenge
  • Over-reliance on external funding
  • Profitability an issue


  • Remains a challenge – obscurity is the biggest threat

Overuse of supply-side approaches to design solutions (USAID report)

2014: A year in review

Halfway through my Pearson contract, and following on from a tradition started at the Shuttleworth Foundation, I have created a “brag pack” for 2014. See previous years here.

Head of mobile

I joined Pearson South Africa‘s Innovation Lab as head of mobile, with the following milestones under the belt:

  • Cursor_and_X-Kit_Achieve_MobileDeveloped the 3-year mobile learning strategy for the company.
  • Product manager of X-kit Achieve Mobile, Pearson South Africa’s first schools mobile service, offering high school test and exam revision for learners with feature and smart phones. The content is fully curriculum-aligned, levelled for difficulty and based on a solid theoretical framework, while the service includes leaderboards, badges and social network integration.
  • Innovation Lab lead for the tablet implementation at CTI and MGI, two higher education institutions in South Africa owned by Pearson (the largest tablet rollout in the country).
  • Strategic advisor to Project Literacy, Pearson’s 5-year global social impact campaign, launched in Sept 2014, that aims to support literacy develop in a mobile age.


couv-téléphone-mobile-et-création-jpg1Along with Prof John Traxler, I co-edited the Prospects: Quarterly Review of Comparative Education journal’s edition on mobile learning. John and I co-authored the introduction: The prospects for mobile learning.

I wrote a chapter Yoza Project : des histoires pour mobiles accessibles à tous in the book Téléphone mobile et création published by the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. (Merci beaucoup, Laurence Allard, for the opportunity.)

I contributed to Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative Approachesa short book released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, as well as UNESCO’s Reading in the Mobile Era report, based on a project that I coordinated while at UNESCO.

Finally, I was interviewed for UNICEF’s Children, ICT and Development: Capturing the potential, meeting the challenges report.

Presentations and panels

I presented, or participated on panels, on the the following topics:

2 Case Studies at National Level: 1:1 Educational Computing Initiatives in South Africa – Presented at the 8th Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014 in Gyeongju, South Korea (view presentation).

Education design in a mobile era – Presented at the 3rd International North South TVET ICT Conference in Cape Town (view presentation).

Mobile content, users and consumption – Panelist at Mobile Web Africa in Johannesburg (read the speaking notes).

Mobile learning is the future – Speaker for mobile learning on the Oxford Union Debate on mLearning (read the debate).

Emerging trends in education and mobile learning – Panelist at UNESCO Mobile Learning Week in Paris (read the speaking notes).


bi-logo4I was a judge in the Berkeley Big Ideas contest for the Mobiles for Reading category. The annual contest providing fundings, support and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of students from the USA who have ‘Big Ideas.’

I also helped to judge PEACEapp, a global competition organized by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the United Nations Development Program in collaboration with Build Up to promote digital games and gamified apps as venues for cultural dialogue and conflict management.

Core idea

This year my work was informed by one core idea: that education, and the way people learn, is changing, and this change is interwoven with mobility.

In the Prospects journal introduction, John and I wrote: “Mobile learning is no longer an innovation within institutional learning but a reflection of the world in which institutional learning takes place.”

For the most part, when looking at the education system in South Africa, this change is not apparent enough. But the change, albeit subtle or out of view, has begun.


Overall it was a good year. Moving to Pearson was a significant shift from twelve years in the governmental, non-profit, international organisation and “open” worlds, to a corporate and “closed’ world. I made the move purposefully to learn and to develop a business perspective on the mobile learning field. It has certainly been interesting to see where corporates and non-profits are very different and, (perhaps not) surprisingly, very similar. The issues of profitability and sustainability in mobile education still loom large, but it has been refreshing and instructive to explore ways of attaining them from within a commercial company.

I intend to take these insights back to the non-profit sector one day since I am a believer that profit and non-profit have much to learn from each other and make the other one more effective and efficient.