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)

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.

2010: A year in review

This is my “brag pack” for 2010. Read the one for 2009.

What I did
As fellow for 21st century learning at the Shuttleworth Foundation I spent the year focusing on my m4Lit, or mobiles for literacy, project. It was launched in 2009 as a pilot initiative to explore whether teens in South Africa will read stories on their mobile phones. It turns out that they will, and based on the success of the pilot phase, I was given another Fellowship year.

Phase 2 of the project essentially involved i) offering more content (which our readers had asked for), ii) improving the user experience, iii) growing the user base, and iv) working towards sustainability.

The Praekelt Foundation was brought in to redevelop the content management system. The new system publishes to a mobisite,, as well as onto MXit (before these were two separate systems), with additional features for interactivity such as easy commenting, voting and reviewing. I called the new offering Yoza Cellphone Stories, and assembled a freelance team to help me run it: top South African authors, an editor, graphic designer, moderators, and social media mavens.

Yoza was launched in August with fourteen stories. Today there are twenty-one stories — in English, Afrikaans and isiXhoza — and growing. Publication of new stories happens on the first of every month, with writing competitions happening all the time.

What worked
1. Publishing a broader range of content, such as soccer (Streetskillz), chick-lit (Sisterz) and teen issues (Confessions), in addition to the Kontax teen adventure series, was very well received. We also published five Shakespeare plays that are being studied by South African learners.

From 2009, our m-novels have collectively been read more than 60,000 times, our readers have posted more than 40,000 comments and submitted more than 10,000 competition entries!

Feedback from our readers is mostly positive: it is clear that we are educating as well as entertaining our readers.

“I must say: the story line it self is gripping, for somereasen everytime i read the kontax stories am kept at the erge of my sit. They are always grattifiying and i can hardly wait for another1. Thank you to the contax team cause for the 1st time in years i am reading again and i lov reading now, and am a guy so you i just dont lyk readin. So thank u again guyz you da best,” by Mphuthumi Busakwe, commenting on Kontax 5: The Sext Files.

“Gr8 story guyz.. I can’t wait 4 th nxt one 2 b published. I’m totally addicted! Love th fact tht Jayden nd Latoya r bck 2gethr. P.s Please give us more than one chapter a day,” by Ms. Makes, commenting on Sisterz 2: Hidden Danger.

“2 all soccer lovers,esp players,here r technical tips,grab them. Gud luck 2d team!” by Assah, commenting on Streetskillz 2: Silver’s Treasure.

It is also clear that there is an implicit conversation happening between the story — and sometimes the Yoza brand — and the readers. We create interesting and deliberately provocative scenarios in the stories to elicit reader opinion, and they usually respond in full force. An example is the comments on this Sisterz chapter (first read the WHAT DO YOU THINK comment prompt on that page).

2. The new interface is more user-friendly and easier to maintain. The actual CMS will be open-sourced.

3. Being on MXit in Kenya has given the project a greater profile.

4. Our stories have also been published on Young Africa Live on the Vodafone Live portal, as well as on, loveLife’s mobile social network. Two high school teachers in the Western Cape have been in contact to say that they are using Yoza in the English classroom.

5. The READ Educational Trust runs an annual Readathon competition, and for the first time teens could enter the writing competition on Yoza via their mobile phones. We also ran writing competitions in conjunction with the Sunday Times and The Sowetan newspapers.

6. We have an open call for writers to contribute stories to Yoza. So far three have been published by authors from Lapa Publishers.

Stockholm Challenge7. The m4Lit project received an Honourable Mention in the Stockholm Challenge award, and has received much media coverage, both locally and internationally, including from School Library Journal, Global Post, City Press, Argus, EP Herald, The Times, M&G Online, Rapport, West Cape News, ITWeb, Soulbeat, Drum Beat, Mashable, Puku, Idasa, GSMA Development Fund, Educational Technology Debate, 5fm, YFM, East Coast Radio and the Voice of the Cape.

Bottom line: Throughout the year I have said, and still say, that the cellphone is a powerful learning and communication tool. Instead of viewing it as a distraction and a hindrance to education, I believe it should be viewed as an essential part of the solution. It is the e-reader of Africa, a device onto which we can quickly and easily publish content to a wide audience, as well as through which young people are given a voice. The high-levels of engagement on Yoza has shown that participatory culture is alive and well in Africa, although here it is via MXit comments and not Youtube videos.

What still needs work
1) Yoza is not producing enough content to feed the mobile monster. Our readers want more and they want it now. They don’t like waiting for the first of the next month to get their next story fix.

2) There is a novelty factor to m-novels. The Yoza stories have not had as many reads and competition entries as the first Kontax stories. Although more comments are made on Yoza stories than before. This novelty-factor has forced us to continually try to improve the user experience and offer targeted content.

3) Sustainability is still not resolved. At this stage, m4Lit has not secured any revenue other than the Shuttleworth Foundation funding, although a number of positive conversations are currently underway for sponsorship.

Future plans
A clear business opportunity has emerged. Our readers are crying out for content about issues, e.g. teen pregnancy or how to handle money. Below is a word cloud of what our readers told us they want to read about. As you can see, it covers the full range of “issues”.

Non-profit organisations, governments and corporates want to communicate their messages to young people, e.g. healthy sexual behaviour or financial literacy. Yoza is the bridge between these groups.

We now have a platform to run Yoza, a team that can offer full-service mobile content campaigns, and a MXit footprint in South Africa and Kenya, with plans to grow into other countries. We are well-placed to transition from Yoza the “cellphone stories library” to Yoza the “mobile social marketing service”. A major milestone is to secure a big first sponsor.

We want young people across Africa to use their phones for reading, writing and learning – and believe that this can ultimately be a positive influence on their lives. In short: more content, more users, more participation, and greater impact.

Living out loud
As Fellows we are required to “live out loud”. On the topic of mlearning, I am a regular event speaker and panelist. I have presented on m4Lit at TEDx Soweto (watch video) and Tech4Africa, eLearning Africa in Zambia, and twice at the World Bank in Washington. I recently gave a thematic keynote at the Open Innovation Africa Summit in Kenya, and at the International Seminar on Mobile Technologies for Learning and Development in Barcelona.

I have been Interviewed by BBC’s Digital Planet as well as PRI’s The World, which is broadcast on National Public Radio in the USA. I regularly write for the M&G’s The Teacher. I am an advisor to the Department of Basic Education on its Guidelines on e-Safety in Schools.

Overall it has been an exciting year and I feel that the project has made a significant contribution to mlearning in Africa. I would like to thank the Shuttleworth Foundation. My three-year fellowship provided a wonderful opportunity to develop innovative projects and live out loud in the mlearning space. I look forward to seeing the work that was begun during my fellowship continue to grow.

Education for All in Africa

On Monday I gave a keynote presentation at the Nokia Open Innovation Africa Summit in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya. The presentation looks at the Education for All goals and how mobile phones can support their achievement. Questions were asked in order to get the delegates into problem solving mode!

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.

TEDx Soweto – A great day out!

The first TEDx Soweto happened on Freedom Day — 27 April in South Africa — appropriately held at the Apartheid Museum. The theme was “The Age of Participation”.

It was a fun and interesting day, with lots of different perspectives and stories — less of a technology focus than the usual TED formula, which I think really worked. A key theme throughout the day was the highly differentiated society of South Africa, with so many people not really having access to meaningful participation in the Web 2.0 way that many of us in the audience do. Not everyone has an iPhone, not everyone watches YouTube. I spoke about literacy in the age of participation, mainly covering the findings of the m4Lit project and the huge potential of mobile phones for literacy development in Africa. A key point I made was that in the developing world participation for most people will happen through mobile phones.


For me the following speakers and messages were highlights. Speaker bios and links are on the TEDx Soweto site.

Khaya Dlanga, blogger, ad exec, youtuber and general good guy, told his life story (in a very funny way!) — about a rural herd boy form the Transkei who, by the age of ten, had already kicked a marijuana habit; who had to drop out of advertising school because he couldn’t afford the fees; and about his first CV, based on which he was immediately hired. It was for a copy writing job and contained something along the lines of:

I’m black
I don’t belong to COSATU
Some of my best friends are white
I used to write FREE MANDELA and ONE MAN ONE VOTE on school walls
As you know, that was a very successful campaign

When he first started posting videos on YouTube — before he became famous — he deliberately used an oblique username so that he wouldn’t be recognised (“Back then it was embarrassing to post videos of yourself on the internet!”). He spoke about the need to create a narrative about yourself on the web before others create one about you. Think about what your strengths are, who you want to be, and be it. He ended by recalling how this herd boy came to ask Barrack Obama an interview question via YouTube, clearly an achievement he is very proud of!

John Perlman, radio presenter and football philanthropist, spoke about the Dreamfields project, his way of getting involved in the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Dreamfields provides sponsored sports kits (Dreambags) to school kids in South Africa. Everything to kit out a whole team is in the Dreambag. They also build soccer fields and hold regional tournaments. One school to which they gave the kit beat Morocco Swallows U19; another of their teams became provincial champs within 6 months. It’s an awesome project that is making a real difference in the kids’ lives. The bit I liked the most was that Dreamfields is not about finding the next Ronaldo or Kaka or Lucas Radebe. Rather, it’s about helping kids have a dream and be the best at whatever they do, whether they become Constitutional Court judges, CEOs of top companies, plumbers or carpenters. There are many roles in society that all need filling — the key is to be the best at whatever you do. Go John!

Steven Newton, head of Google SA (not for much longer though), spoke about the need for relevant, affordable content in Africa, which will be accessed via mobile phones. He’s not too worried about the issue of access to mobile phones — that’s a problem that can be solved (I agree — mobile phones present more of an effective use than an access issue).

Simon Gear, environmental scientist, offered a way for each individual to do their bit to arrest climate change. He asked us to picture a triangle with health, wealth and happiness at the corners. Through examples he showed that by improving any 2 of the 3 of those, the environment will be helped. For example, by going for a walk in a park you improve your health and your happiness. Well used parks are better looked after by the municipality, so the environment is helped. Or by eating less meat every week you improve your health and your wealth (veggies are cheaper than meat). “Factory farming” of animals is reduced this way — so the environment scores. On the issue of happiness, he pointed out that people who spend their money on experiences are happier than those who spend it on things. Basically, we need to buy less and do more.

There were interesting ideas through violin sounds from Samson Diamond, the Standard bank Young Artist of the Year for 2010. Along with his sister and another co-performer, he made beautiful music to demonstrate that it takes different sounds (people) to work together in a way that is harmonious (like a true society should be).

We were taken on a dreamy journey through the three principles of drawing by Khaya Mtshali, graphic designer, lecturer and wise young soul.

To end the day BCUC gave a blistering performance — one 25-minute song that left the performers sweating!

BCUC (Image: Steve Vosloo, CC-BY)


One or two participants didn’t stick to the time schedule (obviously not familiar with the strict TED approach). They also could have made more of a point, a message. I wasn’t sure what the big idea was that they thought was worth spreading (the TED motto).

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it a valuable day. Big up to the TEDx Soweto team for organising the event (and self-funding it after potential sponsors dropped them at the last minute). The organisers pointed out that they’ve had to really sell TED as a concept. For so many of us TED is the standard for big ideas and compelling presentations. No sell necessary. We all need to do our bit to raise awareness in SA of the value of the TED model, and the exciting potential of holding our own TEDx events. African solutions to African problems!

I really look forward to attending future Soweto TEDxes!

What's the real innovation behind m4Lit?

At the World Bank’s Innovation Fair “Moving Beyond Conflict” event in Cape Town, Parvathi Menon, the CEO of Innovation Alchemy gave a short but very insightful presentation on innovation. A key question she asked was: What are the series of innovative ideas that together make an innovative proposition? People often stop at the first idea and think that’s the innovation. Don’t do that! The iPod was the platform not the key innovation. The killer “app” was being able to buy a song at a time for 99c and easily drop it onto a player.

Africa is book-poor but mobile phone-rich, so m4Lit‘s idea to use phones as a way to get teens to read and write is an innovative one, right? No. Applying Parvathi’s points to m4Lit: for our readers the innovation isn’t reading and writing on mobile phones. It’s reading kick-ass stories, affordably, easily (they always have their cellphones with them, they don’t always have books or magazines with them), and being able to make comments and have the world see them in near real time (beats writing a snail mail letter to the author). These are the “layers” that make up the innovative proposition. The mobile phone simply enables all of this. Key to realising the innovative proposition is telling readers that the stories are there — so need to market effectively (and innovatively) — and quickly moderating readers’ contributions.

RASA conference highlights

On Saturday 15th March the Reading Association of South Africa held a conference called “Literacy Works: Best practices in literacy teaching and a focus on mew media: their place in literacy teaching” at the University of Cape Town. It was an informative day, with everyone there clearly enthusiastic and committed to improving the literacy levels of South Africa’s youth.

Texting and literacy
Kevin Sherman, an ICT Education Specialist at the Schools Development Unit, University of Cape Town, spoke about using text messaging to teach literacy skills. It was a fun session where various groups had to translate conventional English passages to txtspk and back again. Afterwards we thought of all the learning activities that we’d employed in the exercise — a list of about 20 points. When weighing up this list against the negatives usually associated with texting, e.g that it might be bad for spelling and grammar, the positives very much won.

Primary school teacher, Fiona Beel, talking about how much her learners have enjoyed blogging (License: CC-BY-NC-SA)

Mobiles for literacy
I spoke about the m4Lit (mobiles for literacy) project, presenting an overview of the project findings. The presentation and research reports will be launched on Wednesday, 17 March. What was interesting is that nobody in the audience during Kevin’s talk or my talk was opposed to texting and using cellphones to get kids to read and write. Usually there is the voice of dissatisfaction in the audience, but not a single one on Saturday. One of the teachers did mention, however, that his school has a strict ban on cellphones, so learners would need to do their cellphone reading and writing after school.

Education reform
The day started with a presentation by Dr Ursula Hoadley, who was part of a task team organised by the Minister of Basic Education in 2009 to review the implementation of the Curriculum 2005 (1997), Review of C2005 (2000) and the National Curriculum Statement (2004). The committee traveled around the country, listened to teachers’ complaints and suggestions for change. What they found was massive confusion around the different policies, and therefore inconsistencies in the way these were implemented.

Over the last decade, in the classroom there has been a focus on group work, the construction of learner knowledge, and a marginalisation of textbooks. The policy focus has been on the “how of teaching,” with a neglect of the “what of teaching” — and this has resulted in problematic practices in the classroom. Teachers complained that they didn’t know what they actually had to teach!

Some of the committee’s recommendations include:

  • Streamline and clarify policies:
    • Single document per learning area/subject per phase, grade R to 12.
    • Design clear, succinct, unambiguous policy and guidelines in clear language, e.g. get rid of “learning areas” and “learning programmes”, and replace with “subjects”.
  • Reorganise subjects and time allocations in the Foundation Phase (FP) to give more prominence to languages and mathematics.
  • The abandoning of Learning Outcomes (LOs) and Assessment Standards (ASs) as curriculum organisers — from OBE. LOs and ASs have not shown to effectively mark learning progress for learners and also draw teachers into bureaucratic box-ticking.
  • Learning and Teaching Support Materials (LTSM):
    • That a national LTSM catalogue be produced. BUT there are also too many textbooks in the market — need to rationalise and ensure quality.
    • That the role of textbooks be reasserted.
    • A textbook for every learner for every subject in every grade.

A return to a focus on content and clear guidelines on what needs to be implemented and how — a “return to syllabus”.

The Minister of Basic Education wholeheartedly accepted the report. Now it needs to be implemented. The bureaucratic machine of government, and the tensions between the report’s recommendations and existing laws and policies is making implementation a slow and uncertain process. Much heated debate is raging at the moment, e.g. the argument for state control of publishing, e.g. one textbook for a particular subject per grade, as opposed to a choice of 16 different textbooks offered at the moment.

The audience noted that we should be aware of binary thinking towards policies, where the pendulum now swings away from “process” back to “content”. Ursula responded that the report was not a pendulum swing where practices that are appropriate in certain settings, e.g. groupwork, are thrown out wholesale. The report is an attempt to address the criticisms and failures of the last 15 years, to make it simpler and easier for teachers to teach.

2009: A year in review

What did I do in 2009 as the fellow for 21st Century Learning at the Shuttleworth Foundation? For a snapshot, check out the presentation below. If you have more time, read the full post.

I have focused on mobile learning. Why?

  1. In South Africa (SA), up to 100% of youth have access to mobile phones. Access to computers is around 10%. The mobile phone is the technology in the hands of young people.
  2. Enabled by mobile phones and social media like MXit and Facebook, the way young people communicate and socialise are fundamentally changing. Mobiles are driving a “social revolution“.
  3. Most of the time mobile phones are used outside of the educational sphere. At school they are banned (I argue that this is not the right response); in the media, teens are abducted by MXit contacts, or use their phones to make and share child porn. Even the very idea of mobile phones to support teaching, learning and administration cannot be entertained because of all the negativity surrounding them (I have found this in South Africa and in Zambia!)

While the potential for learning via mobile phones is enormous, very little is being done to exploit this — in way of projects, research or policies. As a fellow, I couldn’t just stand there any longer and watch this opportunity get wasted.

The reality is that mobile phones are highly pervasive; they are used to communicate, to disseminate information and to play games; to develop identities and be social; and for creative expression. In learning terms, these are highly desirable attributes. Mobile phones are incredibly powerful — arguably more disruptive than PCs as tools for learning . Of course, there are risks and constraints. But these can only be managed if we seriously engage with mobile learning. This needs to happen inside and outside of schools (in the 21st century, as at all times in history, learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom).

Given the above, I did three things: 1) made some noise about mlearning to popularise it, to challenge perceptions (like that txtng is all bad, which it isn’t), and to offer new possibilities to teachers; 2) created an online space for mlearning related materials; and 3) focused on one particular area where I think huge impact to increase reading and writing can be made: m-novels.

1. Raised awareness of mlearning

I’ve presented at conferences in South Africa, New York and Florida. I’ve spoken to 230 principals in Johannesburg, curriculum advisors in Zambia, and pre-service teachers in Cape Town. I’ve written for the M&G’s The Teacher (SA’s largest teacher focused publication), and Tech Leader and Thought Leader blogs. These blogs invite South Africa’s thought leaders to give commentary and analysis. Together with other researchers, I’ve co-authored a conference paper (mLearn 2009) and a journal article. I’ve written a paper and book chapter related to mlearning. I interviewed teens about their mobile phone use and made videos.

Much of this effort entails putting mlearning in the minds of teachers, principals, curriculum advisors and even parents. We are in the early days of mlearning — but just where on the adoption path is hard to say. It’s difficult to compare it to traditional elearning, where for many years the focus was on providing access to PCs. Mobile phones are already in the hands of people. The focus is on utilising existing assets and providing cheaper access to voice, SMS and data services. This path is about effective use, not uptake.

2. An online resource for mlearning in Africa

I created mLearning Africa, a site for projects, papers and news about mlearning on the continent. This is the first such site on the web — a necessary step to begin connecting the few people and projects in this space.

3. Mobiles for literacy

It is well known that one of the contributors to the low-literacy levels of South African learners is that not enough reading and writing happens at schools and home. 51% of households don’t have any leisure books! Teens are actually reading and writing all the time on their mobile phones, e.g. MXit sends 250 million messages each day. (In the USA, the same has been found: huge amounts of reading and writing, but not formally — rather as IM conversations, SMSes, MySpace posts, Facebook updates, etc.  But they need to be reading and writing longer pieces of text too. Traditional literacy is a requirement for these “new media” literacies.

Since August I have led the m4Lit — mobiles for literacy — project, which has explored whether teens are interested in reading stories on their mobile phones, whether and how they write around those stories using their mobiles, and whether mobiles might be used to develop a love of reading. Read the overview of the project, or for up-to-date news the project blog. I looked at the phenomenal success of m-novels in Japan and wondered, will they work here? With SA’s severe shortage of books, and our teens not reading and writing enough, can mobile phones fill that gap?

To find out, I commissioned an m-novel, and followed how teens experienced it. Kontax is a teen mystery short story, published on a mobisite and on MXit. (Check out the story illustrations and the story launch press release). The story is aimed at 14-17 year olds, and written in English and isiXhosa (a world first for m-novels!) I didn’t just want to tell a story though, I invited reader participation — on the site they could comment, meet the characters, write on their walls. I even gave them prizes for commenting and submitting Kontax sequel ideas.

The m4Lit team researched 50 teens in Cape Town (from Langa and Guguletu) as they experienced the story, and also looked at the engagement with the story from teens around the country. This is what we found:

  • The kids love it! Over 5,000 teens have read the story since it’s launch in September. In SA, a book that sells 3,000 copies is a best-seller. Comparing ebooks to printed books is problematic for many reasons, but in the absence of other comparable ebooks, it is somewhat useful. (Do you have to sell something for it to be a best-seller — Kontax is free, after all? No. Amazon’s ebook bestseller list is based on number of downloads, not sales — there are free ebooks in the list.)
  • The readers like to comment and submit ideas. We received over 300 comments on the mobisite, and over 1,500 sequel ideas on MXit.
  • In terms of language, there is interest in indigenous language stories. Of the surveyed teens, 25% read at least some of the isiXhosa version of the story; on the mobisite, 50% of isiXhosa-speaking users posted comments in isiXhosa; and on MXit, 51% of of isiXhosa-speakers in the Western Cape read the isiXhosa version of the story (estimated). Associate Professor Ana Deumert, a linguist, pointed out: “Given the systematic marginalisation of isiXhosa, the lack of access to isiXhosa literacy in the education system and the dearth of isiXhosa reading material, the uptake should be seen as a success.”
  • From the survey we established that there is a strong correlation between language choice and communication mode, e.g. the teens spoke isiXhosa to someone else “face-to-face” but used English, isiXhosa and txtspk when communicating digitally. In schools, it is only traditional paper-based and oral forms of communication that are practised and valued.
  • From the survey, Dr Marion Walton, an expert in mobile literacies, found that “for most of our target group, digital writing takes place primarily on mobile phones. Computer use is intermittent and seems to rely on public access (school, library) rather than home access. In contrast, mobile phones and MXit are pervasive. When digital texts are created or read, they tend to be short texts on mobile phones – SMS and MXit. There was more evidence of digital reading (browsing the web) on computers than of word processing or other computer-based writing.”
  • For the survey participants most reading takes place on mobile phones or on paper. Other than Facebook, SMS and MXit (46% of what the survey participants read), everything our sample learners had read on the previous day was printed on paper.
  • There were many requests for teens to be able to write their own pieces (poems, lyrics, stories, etc.)

In addition to the interesting research findings, Kontax drew a huge amount of interest from the media, including from the BBC (radio and web), SAfm, Metro FM and Business Day. It also won a Bronze Pixel in the Bookmarks Awards 2009 (the only medal in it’s category).

So, for me two things are important:

  1. Kontax has clearly demonstrated that mobile phones are a viable platform for teen reading and writing, as well as for teens to network around their literacy practices.
  2. Teens are doing their digital reading, writing and communicating on mobile phones; it is crucial to understand and take advantage of this for educational purposes.

This must be exploited in SA. If we can provide m-novels for teens and a platform for them to write their own content, then we will make a profound impact on literacy in this country.

What next?

The question we always ask at the Shuttleworth Foundation is So what? What do we do with the m4Lit findings? I believe the following must happen:

  • More stories must be published … a “mobile library” — where we publish Kontax and public domain titles.
  • Kontax must be grown — more readers and more translations (done via crowd-sourcing) in other South African and international languages. An m-novel with high readership – one prominent success story – is a very powerful way to get other people into this space, like authors, publishers, teachers.
  • Teens must be given a space to write and read and comment on stories, poems, lyrics, etc., via their mobile phones. Fan fiction sites like have been shown to be spaces for peer-to-peer language and grammar learning.
  • Alignment of Kontax – or any story on a mobile phone, and learner writing around that – with the curriculum, ideally having it used as a prescribed text. There has been an offer from a high school in Cape Town to include Kontax as a prescribed book next year, and with learners writing assignments on it (for marks). In the bigger picture, there is simply not enough recognition within the education system of mobile literacies, despite the striking prevalence of both in South African teens’ lives. This must change.

I will continue to make noise, to put mlearning materials online, and to employ mobile phones for teen reading and writing. SA simply cannot afford the wasted opportunity cost of not doing these things.