Tag Archives: yoza

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

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)

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


Book: Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative Approaches

Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative ApproachesAt the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, a short book Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative Approaches was released.

The book critically reviews existing and new ideas, perspectives and frameworks on education through relevant analyses and case studies. It explores the full array of social benefits of different programmes and interventions and related evidence of return on investment. The authors believe the real value-add of the publication is on conceptualizing and describing innovative, plausible, scalable, compelling and high-impact solutions that will improve access to education, strengthen educational quality, improve workers’ skills and increase equity – across income level, gender and other demographic subgroups.

A challenge posed in the book is: how do we create alternative pathways to learning for school dropouts to give them an additional chance at learning or a career? It was an honour to be asked to contribute a description of Yoza Cellphone Stories as an example of such an alternative pathway.

Launch of phase 2 of bookly

booklyToday is the launch of phase two of bookly, a mobile/browser-based reading and writing platform in South Africa. In 2013 bookly won the Best Start-up award at the annual FutureBook Innovation Awards in London. It is great to see a South African initiative using the technology that is in the hands of our youth to improve literacy. This was the aim of Yoza Cellphone Stories, an initiative that I founded and run.

I received this from NATIVE VML, the company behind bookly:

I wanted to drop you a  line to tell you about bookly – both a reading and writing platform, with the goal of improving literacy in South Africa.

bookly was launched in May last year as an e-reader app on Mxit. We’ve had over 700 000 unique visitors, viewing more than 13 million pages. We added more than 450 books onto our platform and our users have added more than 250 000 books to their bookshelves! By partnering with local publishers,  bookly has also been instrumental in promoting South African authors. Thousands of reads have been achieved for the likes of Modjaji Books, Black Letter Media, Random House, MissWrite and Wordsmack and that’s just the beginning.

To get more people to read, we need more content that is relevant and personal to the kids. To get more content, we need South African to write their own stories.

This is where phase 2 of bookly comes in.

For phase 2 of bookly we are expanding into a writing platform. We have also created www.bookly.co.za, a mobile site which allows anyone to write a bookly.  A bookly  is a short piece of fiction that can be anything from poetry to a short story that is designed for mobile so the objective is to keep it concise but entertaining and provocative. A bookly can be written using anything from a feature phone up to a desktop PC. We will also be launching The bookly Award to encourage  kids to write on the platform. On top of that, we are working with writing workshops such as Sa-Yes, MissWrite, and Access to spread the word about bookly. For more info, please check out the attached documents.

More information about bookly and how to access it can be found in the press release, e.g. bookly can be found in the following ways:

Fiona Snyckers is mentioned in the press release as an author who publishes on bookly — she authored three of the best titles on Yoza in the Sisterz series.

I’m not exactly clear on their business model, but do know that they are not expecting to make millions out of bookly. Rather it is a vehicle for publishers and authors to create interest in their work, grow their brands and gauge interest in new works. With mobile, it is possible to get instant feedback from your readers. I learned this from comments received on Yoza stories. Further, bookly isa  vehicle for supporting literacy development and growing the author base in our country.

I wish bookly and NATIVE VML all the best. As Head of Mobile at Pearson I will be watching its progress with interest.

Yoza Cellphone Stories wins NetExplo Award

Yoza Cellphone Stories won a Netexplo Award in Paris. More information about the award and the presentation I gave is on the Yoza Project site.

Steve Vosloo receiving the NetExplo Award for Yoza Cellphone Stories
Me receiving the NetExplo Award for Yoza Cellphone Stories

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.