Tag Archives: mobile

Mobile learning: How to choose the best apps

(This article appeared in Education Southern Africa, September 2015)

The use of mobile devices to support learning is finally coming of age. While the uptake of mobile phones has been staggering – a full third of South Africans now owns a smartphone – their application in education has, by and large, been limited at scale. Mobile devices, phones in particular, have often been viewed as the antithesis of education. Some educators see them as the centrepiece of the age of “3D”, standing fordigital distraction devices. But this is changing fast.

In 2014, Pearson researched the digital landscape1 and interviewed 510 respondents from the educational sphere. Results showed that 80% of learners have access to a smart phone and that 42% of learners plan to buy educational apps in the next two years. This is closely married to the 46% of teachers who also plan to own educational apps.

The potential that mobile devices offer for learning that happens throughout the day in formal and informal contexts, is available just-in-time, is personal, trackable and complementary of other learning formats, is increasingly evident. No wonder large-scale tablet implementations are on the rise across the country: from the Gauteng Department of Education’s Classroom of the future initiative that aims to replace printed textbooks with tablets and transform all its schools into digital learning institutions by 2018, to the ICT4RED tablet initiative at 26 high schools in Cofimvaba, a deep rural district in the Eastern Cape.

Nevertheless, simply replacing paper with pixels does not mean that the benefits of mobile learning will be realised. One only has to use a few of the tens of thousands of educational apps available to know that they are not all of the same quality. It is crucial, when embarking on the path of mobile learning, to select apps that are based on four key design factors.

Firstly, the design of mobile learning apps should be based on a solid theory of learning. It is not enough to just develop an app with educational content and hope people will find it useful. X-kit Achieve Mobile, an on-the-go revision and practice tool developed by Pearson, incorporates this theory into its design.

X-kit Achieve Mobile was informed by the theoretical framework of Stein and Smith2, which recognises increasing levels of cognitive demands. In practice this meant developing content and quizzes that are layered into difficulty levels, and that challenge the learner to develop the necessary skills to move up through the scaffolds and master each subject topic.

Secondly, it is crucial that when designing a mobile app, the context in which it will be used should be considered. Revision on-the-go is one example. Learners have busy schedules with both curricular and extracurricular activities and they need to be able to do short bursts of practice when they can. Only when mobile learning apps are designed around real users – through focus group, user tests, observations and iterative development – is it possible to optimally leverage the learning opportunity.

The true value of mobile is its ability to track usage and performance, as the apps are used throughout the day. This third consideration ensures that engagement and progress are monitored and can result in reporting on learner strengths and weaknesses. With X-kit Achieve Mobile teachers can set class assignments and draw rich reports on learner performance. Such analysis informs lesson planning and interventions where needed. The self-marked quizzes also save teachers time and can be used as evidence of the informal assessments that are required of all learners.

Lastly, there must be a ‘design for delight’ aspect to learning. Features such as the ability to earn achievement badges, join a leader board and compete against friends, select avatars for your profile, and post scores on Facebook or Twitter, will improve learner engagement. It goes without saying that the content must be fully CAPS-aligned and of the highest quality!

By following these four design principles when choosing an educational app, the full benefits of mobile learning can be realised in your classroom as well as beyond.

To learn more about X-kit Achieve Mobile, visit www.classroomsolutions.co.za/X-kitAchieveMobile

1. Source: Digital Learning Landscape, Schools, 2014.
2. Levels of Cognitive Demands Framework, Stein and Smith, 1998.

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.

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.

UNICEF Report on Children, ICTs and Development

Yesterday a new UNICEF report Children, ICT and Development: Capturing the potential, meeting the challenges was officially launched. Dorothea Kleine, one of the authors, presented the key findings at Harvard’s Digitally Connected Symposium. I was one of the interviewees for the report.

The short description of the report is as follows:

ICTs are not a technical sphere detached from the complex realities of children’s lives. They are increasingly woven into the very fabric of life, in income-rich and increasingly in income-poor countries. It is clear that if there is no targeted engagement with these socio-technical innovations, they are likely to reinforce existing inequalities. It follows that a focus on children and on greater equity leads to an active and reflective engagement with the potential and challenges of ICT for development, targeting in particular marginalized children. This report serves as a key contribution on which to build informed dialogue and decision making, developed jointly between research, policy and practice.

The launch included a panel with Chris Fabian, UNICEF; Gurumurthy Kasinathan, IT for Change; Chisenga Muyoya, Asikana Network; Gerrit Beger, UNICEF – with all the tweet responses recorded. From the handy list of the report’s key messages, a few stand out for me:

ICTs and development

  • ICTs on their own cannot offer quick wins for child-focused development objectives. Technological innovation, however, can be crucial for strengthening social networks, disseminating information and linking disadvantaged communities with vital knowledge.
  • Change at the systemic level in many cases requires a combination of technological as well as societal change. Achieving this synergy requires buy-in, and ideally participation in design, from intended users. Understanding the social context and rooting ICT for development efforts in existing incentive systems is vital if systemic changes are to be supported.


  • Many projects are either equity-blind or end up working with relatively more privileged children in order to reduce the risk of project failure. In order to change this, funders have a role to play: they must demand equity-sensitive approaches and also recognise/reward risk-taking with harder-to-reach children.

Gender issues


  • To increase the chances of project success, key steps include assessing what other development initiatives are ongoing, what the existing usage patterns of ICTs are and indeed what the landscape of stakeholders looks like. [This is so obvious, and yet so often overlooked]
  • Implementing pilot projects in child-focused ICT for development, while paying insufficient attention to social and cultural context and not involving people actually located within the anticipated beneficiary community are leading reasons to the failure of a project.


  • The study highlights the importance of making sure failure is a recognised part of innovation within ICT for development – and not only recognised but also proactively discussed.
  • If project success is understood to often include elements of failure, then development planning can move away from binaries of successful or unsuccessful projects and instead move to an approach which is open to ongoing learning.

It is obvious that a user-centred design approach that is contextually aware, equity and gender sensitive, not too influenced by commercial interests, and open to sharing (failures and successes) are key elements for successfully leveraging ICT for child-focused development. Given that this is so hard to achieve (based on the overall ICT4D track record), the last point above is particularly important. ICT4D is a living, breathing field, characterised by its many failures, genuine successes, and results in between (what Dorothea calls a “graveyard of successful pilot projects“). The only way the field will grow is if it is open to ongoing learning.

The points about funding being limited in time and scope from governments/foundations, or being driven — and dictated — by the private sector, are not at all new to ICT4D. I wonder, though, for how long we will still bemoan them. If governments/foundations have not changed their funding habits by now, and private companies continue to ultimately be driven by profit, then the change may never happen. We need to have a more open and honest debate about how to incentives these stakeholders to change, or, acknowledge that they will never change and explore how to source funds outside of these structures.

The best panelist quote of the day was by Chris Fabian: “We need to get away from the idea of projects and ‘projects for people.’  It’s not about some people doing a project for others.”

The report was written for UNICEF by the ICT4D Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London and Jigsaw Consult.

The glue of it all is cheap, reliable internet access

I was interviewed for the November edition of City Views — “your free Cape Town central city newspaper” — about the importance of affordable connectivity for ideas to spread and innovation to flourish (drawing on the ideas of Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson that I spoke about in my TEDx Stellenbosch presentation). Pull quote:

Lots of innovation is happening totally under the radar – in people’s garages, in backyards, in shacks – but these are all pretty small-scale and the lessons aren’t really communicated out. If you can provide a network to connect these people – help them research what others are doing, find that someone down the street who is working on the same thing – then good ideas can be amplifi ed and businesses scaled up. The glue of it all is cheap, reliable internet access.

The whole edition is dedicated to connectivity and creativity in Cape Town — it’s worth a read.

TEDx Stellenbosch presentation: People, Connectedness and Mobiles

TEDx StellenboschPeople, Connectedness and Mobiles: How the streets of the mega city will innovate is a presentation I gave at TEDx Stellenbosch on 29 July. The theme of the day was imagining Africa as a vast mega city. The transcript and slides are on the mLab SA website.