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UNESCO report on mobiles for teacher support

unesco_supporting_teachers_cover_smallOn World Teachers’ Day (5 October) we celebrate the wonderful people all over the planet who have dedicated their lives to the education of others. Without the commitment and patience of teachers, none of us, the educated, would be where we are today.

However, on this day we also know there are not enough teachers in the world. In fact, to meet the first target of Sustainable Development Goal 4 — ensure that by 2030 all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education — is it estimated that 69 million new teachers will need to be recruited. Furthermore, pre-service and in-service teachers need to be trained and supported throughout their careers. All viable options, including digital technologies, need to be leveraged to achieve this goal.

In the spirit of solving the twin challenges of teacher supply and teacher quality, UNESCO recently released the report Supporting teachers with mobile technology, which draws lessons from UNESCO projects implemented in Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Senegal between 2012 and 2014. I managed the project in Nigeria along with Mark West, the report’s co-author. The projects, implemented through a partnership between UNESCO and Nokia (now part of Microsoft), aimed to explore how mobile learning technologies can support teacher development.

The report offers rich descriptions of the four different project contexts, approaches and evaluations, and is well worth reading. Below is a selection of key points from the conclusion, some well known in mobile learning, others new. Hopefully they inspire the edtech community to keep working to support teachers.

Findings about the perceived impact of the projects

  • Contrary to the notion that educators are tech-phobic and resistant to change, in all four projects the participating teachers were enthusiastic to experiment with ‘outside the box’ approaches to teacher professional development.
  • Teachers wanted more training. Even though there were significant efforts to provide initial and ongoing support, more can only help. The range of tech troubles also cannot be underestimated, which require on-site and virtual support.
  • Unsurprisingly, teacher use of ICT increased substantially as a result of the intervention, which led to them reporting dramatically improved ICT skills. This, in itself, is noteworthy (as reported in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018), as teacher digital literacy is crucial for mobile learning.
  • While teacher pedagogy was not formally measured by the project evaluations, in all countries teachers reported increased learner participation in the classroom, especially in Pakistan and Nigeria.
  • No clear increase in communication between teachers was found. This result is somewhat disappointing as mobiles have been shown to enable peer-to-peer learning amongst teachers. The report notes that more attention could have been paid to encouraging this type of communication.

Lessons learned

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Teacher training in Nigeria

  • Mobile phones appear to provide a viable means to expand access to professional development opportunities. As the report notes, this is exciting because it means that an increasingly widespread technology offers a vehicle to support teachers living in areas where traditional capacity building opportunities are scarce.
  • Access to mobile phones should not be conflated with a mobile learning solution. An ecosystem approach is needed, including compelling content, institutional partners, extensive teacher training, ongoing project support, communication campaigns and buy-in from education leaders.
  • Consistent and well-curated educational resources appear to be hallmarks of effective mobile learning content. The report describes how the UNESCO projects seemed to work best when they provided teachers with discrete, well-organized and sequenced packages of learning resources that established clear learning pathways. Highly interactive content is not always needed or appropriate.
  • Mobile learning solutions carry significant costs. Digital is not always cheaper, not only regarding the tech itself, but the complementary activities. For example, the teacher training workshops proved to be the most expensive and logistically complex aspects of the four country projects.
  • Mobile learning solutions for teachers have numerous limitations and are not yet substitutes for traditional and evidence-based teacher training and development. While mobile phones offer much potential for professional teacher development and support, they also come with limitations such as small screen sizes that limit interaction possibilities. Tablets and laptops overcome some of the barriers but, even for them, mobile learning solutions should supplement rigorous teacher training programmes, not replace them.

The report offers a few recommendations for the continued efforts to support teacher professional development using mobile technologies.

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The UNESCO years: A brief review

UNESCO logoFrom 2011 to 2013 I was the Senior Project Officer in mobile learning at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. My role was to help establish and lead the organisation’s mobile learning programmes, publications and events, largely as part of a multi-year partnership with Nokia. The goal of the mobile learning team, which I led, was to provide insight and expert guidance to Member States on how to practically leverage mobile technologies to help achieve the Education for All goals.

In the spirit of reflection (see reviews for 2009 and 2010), below is a summary of key achievements while at UNESCO.

Learning “on the ground”: Practical projects

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I co-managed four Mobiles for Teacher Development projects in Nigeria, Senegal, Pakistan and Mexico, all of which set out to explore how mobile technologies could be used to support teachers and their professional development. I directly managed the Nigeria pilot, in which primary school teachers of English were supported by daily messages to reinforce content knowledge, improve pedagogical practice, share resources and help motivate them. After four months over 70,000 users had signed up to the English Teacher service.

I also project managed the Mobiles for Reading project, which involved surveying over 4,000 users in seven developing countries on how mobiles are, and can be, used to support literacy development. The aim of the project, conducted in partnership with Worldreader, was to better understand how mobile phones can be used to extend access to reading materials in developing countries. A report is coming out in February 2014 with the results of the survey.

Building the body of knowledge: Publications

UNESCO paperIn two years the mobile learning team produced 14 papers — that have been translated into multiple languages — as part of the newly created UNESCO Working Paper Series on Mobile Learning. The papers, comprising over 600 pages, examine more than 40 projects from around the world, considering issues related to policy, mobiles for teacher development and, more broadly, the future of mobile learning. A World Bank  review noted “this series of papers is highly recommended reading.” It was my responsibility to manage the overall publications project and also to author one of the 14 papers: Mobile Learning and Policies: Key Issues to Consider.

•We also published the UNESCO Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning.  I co-authored the guidelines and managed a broad consultation process from experts, the general public and 20 Member States as they provided input to refine the final product.

While I was not directly involved in this project, the mobile learning team also conducted a comparative analysis of effective initiatives on the development of literacy and life skills through mobile phones for women and girls’ empowerment. The purpose was to identify practices that ensure the sustainability of programmes and offer opportunities to scale-up particularly promising approaches. The set of papers from around the world will be published in 2014.

Along with Professor John Traxler, I co-edited and introduced a forthcoming issue of Prospects journal on mobile learning. The issue, which includes a number of papers presented at Mobile Learning Week 2013, will be released in March 2014.

•Lastly, concerning formal publications from UNESCO, I also contributed to the Technology, Broadband and Education: Advancing the Education for All Agenda report, coordinated by UNESCO for the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development.

Convening community: Mobile Learning Week

The flagship event for our team is the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week. From the first event in 2011, it grew substantially in 2013 to include the Senior Education Policy Makers’ Forum, attended by participants from 45 countries. I led the overall organisation of the MLWs.

Spreading the word: Advocacy

As part of advocating for mobile learning, and sharing our findings as broadly as possible, I attended and presented at a number of events (see full list). The standout ones were The Economist’s Nigeria Summit in Lagos; being a panelist at the Ministerial Programme of the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona; and presenting twice at the International Symposium: Mobile Phone and Creation at the Universite Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle.

I wrote The future of education in Africa is mobile for the BBC Future site and was interviewed by Times Higher Education about mobile learning and higher education in Africa (see Africa’s mobile phone e-learning transformation).

I was a member of the Advisory Board for the Horizon Report > 2013 K-12 Education Edition, and represented UNESCO on the executive steering committee of the mEducation Alliance.

Overall my time at UNESCO was interesting, challenging and very rewarding. It was a pleasure to work with an excellent team and learn from my colleagues, and I sincerely hope to continue those relationships into the future. In particular I would like to thank Mark West, Marie-Lise Bourcier, Fengchun Miao, Glen Hertelendy, Diane Boulay, Jongwon Seo, David Atchoarena, Mariana Patru, Francesc Pedro, Mar Camacho, Julio Sa Rego and Soojin Cho. I am also grateful to Nokia for their support for the partnership activities.