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The future of education in Africa is mobile (BBC article, UK version)

The article I wrote for the BBC Future site (24 August 2012) is not available to users in the UK, so here it is below …

The future of education in Africa is mobile

Mobile phone


Over the coming months, A Matter of Life and Tech will feature a range of voices from people building Africa’s tech future. This week, United Nation’s mobile learning specialist Steve Vosloo argues phones could be the future of education on the continent.

Education systems are under stress.

It is a problem felt in many parts of the world, but in Africa, the strain is even more acute.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 10m children drop out of primary school every year. Even those fortunate enough to complete primary school often leave with literacy and numeracy skills far below expected levels.

In addition, there is a major shortage of trained and motivated teachers. It is estimated that to ensure that every child has access to quality education by 2015, sub-Saharan Africa will need to recruit 350,000 new teachers every year. It seems increasingly unlikely that this will happen.

Throw in one of the highest concentrations of illiterate adults in the world, and you begin to understand the scale of the problem.

In the last decade many African countries have, against these significant odds, made solid progress in improving their education levels. However, the challenges are often too large. The “usual” tried and tested methods of delivering education are not enough.

Yet there is a potential solution.

While education struggles to cope, mobile communication has grown exponentially. Africa is today the fastest growing and second largest mobile phone market in the world. While in some countries – including Botswana, Gabon and Namibia – there are more mobile subscriptions than inhabitants, Africa still has the lowest mobile penetration of any market. There is plenty more growth to come. Over 620 million mobile subscriptions mean that for the first time in the history of the continent, its people are connected.

These connections offer an opportunity for education. Already, we are starting to see the beginnings of change. An increasing number of initiatives – some large-scale, some small – are using mobile technologies to distribute educational materials, support reading, and enable peer-to-peer learning and remote tutoring through social networking services. Mobiles are streamlining education administration and improving communication between schools, teachers and parents. The list goes on. Mobile learning, either alone or in combination with existing education approaches, is supporting and extending education in ways not possible before.

Numbers game

For millions of Africans, much of their daily reading and writing happens on mobile phones in the form of SMS and instant message (IM) chats. Mobiles are also increasingly being used to access long-form reading material – not only 160 character text bites. For example, projects such as Yoza Cellphone Stories, which offers downloads of stories and novels, has shown impressive uptake amongst young African readers who enjoy mobile novels or ‘m-novels’.  On Yoza, users not only read stories but comment and vote on them. In its first 18 months, Yoza had 470,000 complete reads of its stories and poems, as well as 47,000 user comments.

Since 2010, the non-profit organization Worldreader has provided school children in a number of developing countries with access to digital books through donated Kindle e-readers. Recently, it has begun to publish the books via a mobile phone-based e-reader. The Worldreader app and its library of stories is already on 3.9 million handsets, with active readers in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana, to name a few.

In many countries, mobiles are the only channel for effectively distributing reading material, given the high cost of books and their distribution, especially to rural areas. Reading on a mobile device is different to reading in print. Mobile devices offer interactivity, the ability for readers to comment on content, the ability to connect with other readers and to publicly ask questions and receive support. Mobile devices can be used to deliver appropriate and personalized content, in ways that print books cannot. Of course, print books have their strengths – such as not having batteries that need to be recharged. A complementary approach that draws on the strengths of each – print and mobile books – is ideal.

Social networking sites, accessed primarily or only via mobile devices by most Africans, are also on the rise and offer another opportunity. Already they are being used by teachers and learners to share resources and provide support in open discussions. For communities that are geographically dispersed and cannot afford to meet in person, the support from such virtual communities is invaluable.

MXit is Africa’s largest homegrown mobile social network. With over 50 million users, the South Africa-founded service not only allows its mostly young users to stay in touch by text chatting, it also facilitates live tutoring on maths homework.  Dr Maths on MXit has helped 30,000 school-aged children work through maths problems by connecting them with maths tutors for live chat sessions. The service is effective for two reasons: it is cheap – the actual service is free but users pay a minimal data charge to their mobile providers – and it operates in the evenings, when learners need help with homework. For many children in South Africa, this is the most qualified tutor that they will have access to.

Of course, it is not possible to have a one size fits all approach. The mobile landscape in Africa is spread unevenly across 56 countries: in some places there is good infrastructure and access to mobile data, in others access is spotty and limited to basic services. To make a real impact mobile learning initiatives must – and do in Africa – cater to the full range of technology contexts. An example is Nokia Life, an information service with over 70 million subscribers in India, China, Indonesia and Nigeria. Popular information channels in Nigeria deliver preparation tips for middle and high school exams, health education aimed at families and English language learning. The service uses SMS, meaning it does not need mobile data coverage that is not as widely implemented in many places.

But it is not just about the services. If mobile learning is to have a real impact, we need to also rethink what we mean by education, schooling and what skills it delivers.

Recently, a United Nations task team led by UNESCO produced a think piece on education and skills beyond 2015. The piece predicts there will be a shift away from teaching in a classroom-centred paradigm of education to an increased focus on learning, which happens informally throughout the day. A core feature of mobiles is that they support ‘anywhere, anytime’ learning. Because they are personal and always at hand, they are perfectly suited to support informal and contextual learning.

The report also predicts that there will be an increased blurring of the boundaries between learning, working and living. Mobiles already support skills development in a range of fields including agriculture and healthcare, and provide paying job opportunities for mobile-based ‘microwork’.

In addition to education basics such as literacy and numeracy, the reports says, there will be a need for digital and information literacy, as well as critical thinking and online communication skills. With the guidance of teachers, mobiles provide a medium for developing these skills for millions of Africans who go online ‘mobile first’ or even ‘mobile-only’.

On a continent where education change – what should be taught, how it should be delivered and assessed, and where learning happens – is inevitable, and mobiles are more affordably and effectively networking people to each other and information than ever before, the combined promise is bigger than the sum of the parts. Mobile learning is here to stay and will only influence and enable learning more and more.

Do you agree with Steve? If you would like to comment on this article or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Steve Vosloo is a mobile learning specialist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. He founded the Yoza Cellphone Stories project in 2009. Read his blog or follow him on Twitter at @stevevosloo.

Picture used under creative commons from mLearning Africa.

m4Lit on the BBC (again!) and at the World Bank

BBC World ServiceJune was a good month for m4Lit. It were featured on the BBC for the second time: I was interviewed on the World Service radio programme Digital Planet (listen live). The episode featured other interesting ICT projects in Cape Town — definitely worth a listen.

The World Bank’s infoDev programme held it’s annual symposium in Washington DC and I was invited to sit on a panel to discuss the m4Lit project. The symposium was called Clean Green and Mobile – Making Technology Work for the Poor. There was a high level of interest in the project and it’s findings.