Empowering digital citizenship through mobile technology

mobile_360_africa_logoAt GSMA Mobile 360 Africa, held in Cape Town in November, I sat on a panel about Empowering the Digital Citizen. Below are my speaking notes. An excellent summary of the session was written by Leigh Andrews.

What is digital citizenship?

According to Wikipedia, “A digital citizen refers to a person utilizing/using information technology (IT) in order to engage in society, politics, and government participation.” The act of digital citizenship is participation. This is enabled by mobile technologies that are in the hands of everyday people. The benefit of digital citizenship is engagement and I would say, empowerment, for both citizens and government. Citizenship implies both rights and responsibilities.

Citizen rights are increased access to information and services, and having a voice that can be heard. Remember that access to information alone is meaningless if one cannot act upon that information (for more on this see Economics Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s work Development as Freedom). There must be the opportunity for a response.

Responsibilities are exercising that voice, and doing so wisely. If citizens have the ability to talk to government and each other, then they must use those channels. Equally, citizens should also make use of government self-service. If not, the result is a decline in the offering of such services.

Government responsibilities are the need to be open about its data, to share information, to empower citizens to help themselves and, most critically, to actively respond to citizen voices and participation in an engaged way. For example, if the city of Cape Town allows its citizens to report broken street lights and potholes in the roads, but does nothing with that information, then the service has not only been pointless, it has eroded peoples’ belief in government’s desire to listen, act and be accountable.

A personal example comes from Cape Gateway (as it was known then), a ground-breaking service founded in 2002 that increased accessed to government information for citizens of the Western Cape through three channels: a web portal, walk-in centre and call centre. I was the Design and Usability Lead for three years, constantly trying to make the information and channels as accessible to people as possible. So, our content team would always try to offer the most direct contact details of government departments and people. Not a general contact number, but the number of Mrs Nozuka, the primary contact for driver’s licence renewals. We made government employees so accessible that some asked us to change the numbers – their phones had never rung so much!

It always struck everyone on the project that while we would try to get people as close to Government as possible, we only offered the introduction. If Mrs Nozuka never responded to calls or emails to assist in licence renewals, then ultimately the citizens would not be empowered, only somewhat informed.

So, what does this mean for education?


There is the possibility now for an offering that is much better suited to the needs and realities of adults and children, whose daily routines are filled with work, with chores or even baby-sitting in many child-headed households. According to UNESCO, this increased flexibility is one the necessary changes that education will undergo in the post-2015 world.

For too long education has been a rigid framework into which people must fit, or be excluded by.   Now, with mobile technology in particular, teaching and learning can happen in different ways and at different times. Examples include face-to-face learning that is complemented by self-study in a blended model, increased access to educational resources, access to online teacher and learner communities where peer-to-peer learning can happen, virtual tutoring (even via IM chat as with Dr Math on Mxit), and variations of MOOCs that are sensitive to the needs of developing country students. Overall, greater flexibility in learning opportunities will lead to greater education uptake.

More efficient management of resources

There is also the possibility of more efficient management of education administration and resources. Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) are traditionally used by administrators to report on school results, infrastructure, teacher attendance, etc. — to better inform planning at the district, provincial or national level. Now teachers, students and parents can also report in.

Drawing from the field of citizen science, we would say that teachers, students and parents are part of the sensor network, using their eyes and ears to report back into the grid that can help to manage resources more effectively and efficiently through the aggregation and analysis of real-time data. Of course this reporting is done by SMS, phone camera, GPS readings, email and more.

Increased education transparency

Finally, increased transparency and visibility in education is key to increased digital citizenship. Teachers, students and parents should have access to the information that is collectively gathered by and about them, and to the responses by government. This not only serves as an incentive to participate in the process (you see the fruits of your labour by improved services), but provides the possibility for oversight (if there are no fruits you will know and should complain/campaign).

The transparency also applies to self-service within education. If student records were kept in a more open, digital and standards-based way, then they could be accessed throughout the educational career of the student, even as she leaves formal education and embarks on the lifelong learning journey. This is obviously empowering for students, but also government as more data is gathered about the learning habits of citizens which can better inform policymaking.

1:1 Educational Computing Initiatives — Lessons learned and confirmed at the Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014

Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014I recently had the privilege of attending the 8th Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014, themed Transforming Education with 1:1 Computing (3-5 November, 2014, Gyeongju, Republic of Korea). All presentations are here.

I presented on 2 Case Studies at National Level: 1:1 Educational Computing Initiatives in South Africa – namely the large-scale tablet implementation at CTI and MGI higher education institutions, and the ICT4RED school tablet rollout in the rural Eastern Cape district of Cofimvaba.

28 countries were represented, sharing their experiences of planning and implementing 1:1 computing initiatives. The event was hosted by the Korean Ministry of Education and the World Bank, along with KERIS, UNESCO Bangkok and Intel. South Korea is one of the leaders in digital learning, so it was a fitting context for the conference.

A number of lessons were learned and known ones confirmed, shared below (download here).

Content and mobile: Four key considerations


I recently participated in Mobile Web Africa 2014, sitting on a panel about Mobile content, users and consumption. Below are the four key points that I think are important when thinking about content and mobile today.

Content is back

  • It used to be important, then it became cheap, throw-away. People created sites and services with bad content, flooded the mobile web. In education there are SO many apps, so many mobile learning services and products. Are they all good? No.
  • People are coming back to the notion of quality content. It stands out. It is appreciated. Whether this is financial or not is another story.
  • Quality content is a differentiator.

Content is contextual

  • We are moving from mobile to multi-device usage.
  • How it is consumed is crucial to how it is presented. Now more than ever, despite designing for mobile first, we need to think about the context of use for the different platforms and media.
  • Pearson has a single body of content, how is it presented, layered, animated across platforms and media?

Content is social

  • There were fears, and to an extent many of us in education are still cautious, about intruding into the social media lives of learners. Kids smell school, and My Space for them means their space. However, I think that with the rise of social media, the door has opened.
  • “Social media is changing the way people interact, present ideas and information, and communicate.” Social media has grown beyond anyone’s expectation. This is where (young) people are “living” online, and they connect via mobile. According to Flurry Analytics, overall app use in 2013 posted 115% year-over-year growth. The segment that showed the most dramatic growth in 2013 was Messaging (Social and Photo sharing included), with over 200% growth.
  • From an education perspective, we must include socialness in learning experiences. Peer-to-peer support and connectivity, tutoring, knowledge sharing. Content is social.

Content is layered

  • We know that people scan the web. But you can’t scan all educational content. Much of it requires deep reading. What do to?
  • Create layers – one for scanning, one for digging deeper, one for reference. We need to allow for multiple readings, multiple views.

Education design in a mobile era

I recently gave a presentation on Education design in a mobile era at the 3rd International North South TVET ICT Conference held in Cape Town.

Serious game play for learning analytics

The Department of Design, a collaboration between the Netherlands and South Africa, recently held a Serious Gaming Festival to explore how this field can impact planning, idea generation and collaboration. Marcus Vlaar,  one of the founders and Chief Creative Officer at Ranj Serious Games, gave a fascinating keynote about The Ancient Learning Method of the Future.

A veteran in the field, Marcus explained that his company has created around 400 serious games, many for corporates with the goal of developing key competencies and testing those skills in a game-based simulation context. One game has the player managing a global flu pandemic, in another the players are staff at a multinational pharmaceutical company learning about ethical and business compliance by being tested with real life dilemmas.

One of their latest projects, and I think the most interesting, takes a holistic view of a user as she works through a number of the games (each game is usually a discreet experience). By adding a meta-layer over the existing games, Dex, as the project is called, tracks usage over time and feeds user activity into an expert system that measures competence levels. By aggregating and analysing this rich data, Dex can report to the user, and her employer or educational institution, for example, how she is developing different competencies and recommend which ones she needs to focus on.


The concept of taking a holistic view of a student as she progresses along a learning path is certainly not new. Digital learning systems allow for data to be captured and analysed in order to, over time, paint a picture of a learner where progress is made visible and problem areas are exposed. Some educational offerings, such as the Khan Academy, are already doing this to a certain extent. Khan’s learning dashboard tracks a user as she works through the body of content and assessments.

Through intelligent tracking the lofty goal of learning analytics, that enables personalised and adaptive learning, can be achieved. While everyone knows it’s a great idea, achieving learner analytics is very difficult to get right, especially when you want to track learners across a number of different educational products and services — much like what Ranj is doing with its games. It requires building effective data systems — as Pearson is aiming to do — that can capture usage activities, share that data across different applications (easier said than done!), and analyse the data using comparable metrics. So the “critical thinking” metric in the flu pandemic game needs to be the same as the one in the pharmaceutical business compliance game. What is needed is a single view of a learner across a period of time. This is at the heart of Pearson’s efficacy goal of putting learning outcomes at the centre of all its educational offerings.

Increasingly online companies are tracking our usage paths through the Internet, e.g. Google’s single sign-on is not only for its many Google products, but also for partner organisations that require user authentication. It is essential that educational institutions also take a more holistic view. For the first time in the history of the world it is theoretically possible to track and guide a learner from kindergarden to PhD graduation, and beyond. Surely we should prioritise the building of interoperability and intelligence into all of our learning products and services. It will take years — even decades — for organisations to get this right, but whoever cracks the nut first will definitely have a key advantage and be taking learning in the right direction.

Mobile developments w/c 26 May 2014

The prospects for mobile learning
(Introductory chapter of Prospects journal issue on mobile learning)
By Professor John Traxler and myself

Mobile Report April 2014
by @Native

Innovations out of Africa: The emergence, challenges and potential of the Kenyan Tech Ecosystem
report by Julia manske published by the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications

Pearson’s Learning Curve 2014 report makes a few references to mobile, in particular:

  • Mobile technology can help overcome some obstacles to adult learning in the developing world, e.g. especially surrounding limited access to educational materials. But mobile is no panacea.
  • In its working paper series on mobile learning, UNESCO makes clear that the full potential of using mobile technologies in education is yet to be realised.

UNESCO report: A mobile reading revolution

Mobile phones offer a new channel to literature and an opportunity to improve literacy that is revolutionary. Such is the conclusion of the recently released report by UNESCO titled Reading in the Mobile Era (infographic).

Millions of people do not read for one reason: they do not have access to text. But today mobile phones and cellular networks are transforming a scarce resource into an abundant one.

Drawing on the analysis of over 4,000 surveys collected in seven developing countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe) and corresponding qualitative interviews, this report paints the most detailed picture to date of who reads books and stories on mobile devices and why.

I led the Mobiles for Reading project while at UNESCO, in partnership with Nokia and Worldreader, and am proud and inspired by what the report has uncovered, namely:

  • Large numbers of people in developing countries read books and stories on inexpensive mobile phones.
  • Mobile phones—even those with small, monochrome screens—provide a valid and widely used portal to text, opening up new pathways to literacy in communities where physical text is scarce.
  • While most mobile readers are male, female mobile readers tend to read far more than males. On average, women read for slightly over 200 minutes per month on a mobile device, six times as long as the average time for men. Given that 64% of illiterate people worldwide are female, interventions to facilitate mobile reading among women could help alleviate the global literacy crisis.
  • Both men and women read more—in absolute terms—when they start reading on a mobile device. Because increased reading carries numerous educational and social benefits, governments and other institutions can take steps to promote mobile reading, especially in areas where illiteracy is widespread, but mobile phones are common.
  • Nearly one third of study participants read stories to children from mobile phones. 34% of respondents who do not read to children said that they would if they had more books and stories for children on their mobiles. This highlights an opportunity to build and strengthen children’s literacy with technology that is increasingly ubiquitous in even the poorest communities. More digital content appropriate for young people should be made available on mobile devices as should portals that easily allow parents, teachers and caregivers to find books targeted to children.
  • Many neo- and semi-literate readers use mobile phones to search for and access text that is appropriate to their reading level. More can be done to ensure that beginning readers have access to content that corresponds to their reading ability, allowing them opportunities to improve their literacy skills.

When asked why respondents read on their mobile phones, convenience was the clear winner:


The report has received excellent coverage, including from The GuardianTime MagazineForbes and the Wall Street Journal. The accompanying presentation provides a succinct summary of the findings and recommendations.

Mobiles for reading is a passion of mine. In 2009 I founded Yoza Cellphone Stories (project info here). The report confirms my earlier beliefs that the mobile phone is — and will be for the foreseeable future — the “Kindle of Africa” simply because it is already in the hands of millions of people. While mobiles offer an unprecedented opportunity for increasing access to text, a key challenge remains around sustainability. So far there is no clear example (Yoza included) of mobiles for reading initiatives that are profitable. Indeed, many are funded by governments, foundations or CSI budgets (and the report’s recommendations talk to these stakeholders).

I believe that the answer to sustainability exists, it just hasn’t been worked out yet.

Clearly there is an unprecedented opportunity here to change the game for reading, including for children, women and girls, and semi-literate adults. All stakeholders need to engage with this opportunity to work through the challenges.

I would like to thank and congratulate the excellent M4R team, including (from left) Periša Ražnatovi (Worldreader), Rebecca Kraut, Elizabeth Hensick Wood (Worldreader), Sanna Eskelinen (Nokia), Mark West (UNESCO), myself and Han Ei Chew (United Nations University).

M4R Team at MLW 2014_small