Three ideas for mlearning in Africa

Everyone knows that the mobile phone is revolutionising the way people communicate, work, play and live in Africa. Below are three ideas for mobile learning (mlearning) on the continent.

Given that many teens are reading and writing more than ever, not formally but on mobile phones, can these be used as platforms for exposing learners to “good” examples of the written word, and encourage them to read, write and discuss literature? There is certainly a need to explore all available channels to raise the low level of literacy amongst youth in Africa. Further, mobile phones may represent a way to alleviate the chronic shortage of books as they provide a viable distribution solution.

A project that I’ve proposed at the Shuttleworth Foundation is the m4Lit (mobile phones for literacy) pilot. If approved, this project will create a story, published on a mobisite – accessible via mobile phone web browsers and computer web browsers – to explore the opportunities for mobile-assisted literacy development. The story will be published serially (daily) and invite young readers to interact with it as it unfolds – voting on chapter endings, commenting, discussing and finally submitting a written piece as part of a competition.

The overall aim is to increase exposure to the written word and get young people to read and write more. The pilot takes an expanded view of functional literacy, framing the consumption and creation of content as a social exercise that allows for audience participation, using the technology that is in the hands of the youth. (Let’s face it, at USD299 a pop, the Kindle is not going to become the ebook reader of Africa.)

Mobile learning management systems
Building on the learning management systems (LMS) out there, like LAMS or Moodle, a mobile LMS would allow for teachers to create content as well as assignments, which learners then complete on their phones. The ImfundoYami / ImfundoYethu pilot project — “mobile learning for mathematics” — in South Africa is a good example of such a system that:

  • Alleviates the burden of marking assignments for the teachers. Through the web back-end, teachers can immediately see the results of the learners’ assignments. They can also see where the class is struggling (if most learners got questions 10-15 wrong, and those were about fractions, then clearly there’s a problem with the understanding of fractions).
  • Gets kids excited about homework because it happens on the platform they love.

Where to get content for the system? Use open-educational resources (OERs) from sites such as Connexions or OER Commons. Such a system can be used to develop literacy and numeracy, or any learning subject for that matter.

I’ve been struggling with the question of how to make this kind of system sustainable — after all, it costs money to access data over your mobile phone.  Advertising or sponsorship is one model. After my presentation at the Accenture CRM summit, Andrea Spilhaus-Mitchell, Business Development Director at Accenture South Africa suggested that there needs to be something in it for the mobile industry stakeholders. Literacy and numeracy tests would reveal much about mobile phone users, and allow for customising subscriber packages as well as marketing campaigns. In short, it’ll allow the mobile network operators and handset manufacturers to better understand their customers. Further, this kind of data (in aggregate) could be fed into larger reports, such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.

Adding a level of competitiveness to the tests, with an overall score or a leader board, could motivate learners to take more tests and to try harder. This has worked well in Scottish primary schools where learners play Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on Nintendo DS, and also for Dr Math on MXit.

Alternate reality games
Lastly, I do love the idea of alternate reality games (ARG) for African learners, in which they use their mobile phones to access clues and solve the game puzzles. Ushahidi or The Grid (in South Africa) would make the games location relevant.

These are three ideas that I think could make a real impact on learning in Africa, using the device that has changed everything.

9 thoughts on “Three ideas for mlearning in Africa

  1. I think these are excellent ideas. I would have thought that making an LMS like moodle mobile-aware would solve the problem as learners will be able to access the site using either a computer and a mobile phone.

  2. Great blog Steve, interesting topics. But are these ideas a little light on the content creation side?
    I participated in a workshop Nokia (my employer) was running with Pearson the other day, and saw kids creating projects with the video and camera features of our phones. Very cool, and more challenging for the kids than just reading, no?

    1. Thanks @Stephen. Good point — the phones are incredibly powerful content creation tools. I was at the Go Mobile! summit in Zambia and saw the kids creating videos with their phones too. Very engaging and creative for them.

      With the m-novel idea, there is huge potential for the readers to write into the story, or write their own stories, e.g. like on

  3. Awesome ideas, amazing potential. But really Steve, the majority of teachers can’t even manage a spreadsheet (I see it every day). I can’t imagine they would be too keen on creating content for mobile phones etc.

    Cool blog though, interesting.

  4. this is very very interesting blog. we are using ushahidi on ouy citizen media project (I’m a co-founder of and I’ve been investigating for a while on alternatives ways to use Mobile phones in education, democracy and even to help develop micro-credit. your blog has been very helpful and I will folllowing the progress of this incredibe m-novel project. good luck to you !

    1. Thank you, Jogany. So far the activities of users on Kontax has produced good research data. If you know teens in Madagascar from 14-17, please ask them read the story and even leave comments? They can register from Madagascar. We will pay for the once-off registration SMS. It would be great to have an international readership growing.

      I love the work of Ushahidi and am always glad to hear of installations of it. Good luck with FOKO. Thanks again,

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