2022/23: My annual review

I have a tradition, loosely kept since 2009, of writing a short annual review — a looking back and ahead (something like what UNICEF calls a “strategic moment of reflection”). At the intersection of digital, children and policy, what have I done and how have I tried to provide thought leadership?

Biggest areas of interest: Working with amazing colleagues and experts, I’m analyzing issues that could profoundly impact the future of humanity, especially children and youth who are the largest online cohort and driving force of connectivity:

  • Achieving digital equality — how can we better address all the issues (including the non-tech ones) that prevent every child from being able to seize digital opportunities and avoid risks?
  • Shaping the next evolutionary step of the internet — will it see us moving into the virtual reality metaverse or us staying IRL but laden with wearable and embedded technologies in every aspect of our lives (or both)? How can we ensure AI best facilitates how we interact with information and each other? Our Office’s previous work on AI, data governance and personalized learning has been hugely valuable here.
  • Tracking neurotechnology — while it offers unprecedented health benefits for people, like helping those with paralysis move again, will it signal the death of privacy if our thoughts are no longer our own?

In his opening speech at the 2022 UN General Assembly, Secretary-General António Guterres called the “lack of guardrails around promising new technologies to heal disease, connect people and expand opportunity” a “crisis”. The need to unpack what frontier technologies mean for children, and to build those policy guardrails, is pressing today. Positioning UNICEF as a leading organization in this role to help policymakers get ahead of emerging issues is both critical and exciting.

Most impactful moment: Engaging the first cohort of UNICEF Youth Foresight Fellows, a group of bright and talented young futurists, to anticipate global trends. Their insights and ability to see opportunity in crisis were immensely instructive (and refreshing in the current climate of ‘techlash’).

Most brag-worthy: Being a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Artificial Intelligence for Humanity, its Metaverse Governance Working Group, and a contributing expert to MIT Sloan Management Review’s responsible AI initiative.

Most fun: Playing around with AI tools like Dall-E and ChatGPT that generate images and text (see below).

And in 2023 …

Mantra (inspired by the fellows): With young people, shaping the digital future we want beyond putting out fires in the internet we have.

Looking forward to: Working with colleagues in the newly merged UNICEF Innocenti – Global Office of Research and Foresight to bring together the best of research, foresight and policy to better anticipate and direct frontier technologies. Our ambition is nothing less than having children’s rights at the heart of global digital discourse and enabling a future-ready UNICEF. Contributing to the forthcoming Global Digital Compact will be an important moment for influence.

I was hoping for the original Grumpy Cat, but this is pretty cool
Quickly generated during a workshop with the Youth Foresight Fellows
Not bad, ChatGPT

Three years at UNICEF: Looking back

After over three years at UNICEF, it is time to reflect on achievements and learnings and write a “brag pack” (this looking back is a tradition of mine — see my previous reviews).

I’m the Digital Policy Specialist for UNICEF, based in New York in the Office of Global Insight and Policy (OGIP). The Office serves as an internal think-tank, investigating issues with implications for children, equipping the Organization to more effectively shape global discourse, and preparing it for the future by scanning the horizon for frontier issues and ways of working.

I have tried to do two things since joining UNICEF: focus on key emerging digital issues for children, such as AI, digital literacy, and mis/disinformation, and position the Organization as a thought leader on digital issues for children. Below are some highlights:

Project leadership and innovation on emerging digital issues

AI for children

While AI is a hot topic, not enough attention is paid to how it impacts on children in policies and systems (see the report, which I co-authored, that reviewed how little national AI strategies say about children). I thus helped set up and lead the AI for Children Policy Project, a 2-year initiative in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Finland, that aims to see more child-centred AI systems and policies in the world. Working with a stellar team (Melanie Penagos and consultants Prof Virginia Dignum, Dr Klara Pigmans and Eleonore Pauwels, and under the guidance of Jasmina Byrne and Laurence Chandy), I:

  • Developed the work plan for the project, raised the funds for it (largest external funding for OGIP) and manage the partnership with the MFA.
  • Co-authored the Policy Guidance on AI for Children (a world first).
  • Pioneered a user-centred design approach to policy development within the UN: first we held consultations with experts around the world to inform and ground the guidance, then we released an official draft version and held public consultations on it as well as — here’s the interesting bit — invited governments and companies to pilot it (acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers in moving from AI policy to practice). From the field learnings we wrote 8 case studies about what works and what doesn’t, which informed version 2.0 (non-draft) of the policy guidance – released a year later.
  • Have overseen the first UN global consultation with children on AI, led by rock star colleague Kate Pawelczyk, to inform the development of the guidance. Adolescent perspectives on AI documents the findings from nine workshops with 245 children in five countries. A major contribution here is the workshop methodology on how to consult children on AI.
  • Helped to grow and manage an external advisory group for the AI project, including the World Economic Forum, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (Harvard University), IEEE Standards Association, PwC UK and Cetic.br.
  • Hosted the world’s first Global Forum on AI for Children with 450 participants to raise awareness of children and AI and help plot a better AI future.

Achievements: the Government of Scotland has officially adopted the draft policy guidance in its national AI strategy. The policy guidance was shortlisted as a promising responsible AI initiative by the Global Partnership on AI and the Future Society, nominated for a Harvard Kennedy School Tech Spotlight recognition, and our Office’s most popular download.

Teen workshop in São Paulo. Credit: (c) Leandro Martins and Ricardo Matsukawa/NIC Brazil

Digital literacy for children

While many excellent digital literacy initiatives were being driven at UNICEF, the efforts were often ad hoc and not situated within a coherent framework for the Organization. Working with Dr Fabio Nascimbeni and colleagues, we mapped the current digital literacy policy and practice landscape; highlighted existing competence frameworks and how they could be adapted to UNICEF’s needs; surveyed the needs and efforts of UNICEF country offices (a first across the Organization); and offered policy and programme recommendations, including a new definition of digital literacy for UNICEF. Our resulting paper tells all.

Digital mis/disinformation and children

As with AI, mis/disinformation are current and crucially important topics — but the discourse offers little insight into how children are affected. In navigating the digital world, with their cognitive capacities still in development, children are particularly vulnerable to the risks of mis/disinformation. At the same time, they are capable of playing a role in actively countering its flow and in mitigating its adverse effects through online fact-checking and myth-busting. Working with Prof Philip N. Howard, Lisa-Maria Neudert and Nayana Prakash of the Oxford Internet Institute, we authored a report (and 10 Things you need to know) that go beyond simply trying to understand the phenomenon of false and misleading information, to explain how policymakers, civil society, tech companies and parents and caregivers can act to support children as they grow up in a digital world rife with mis/disinformation.

Thought leadership

Helping to sharing knowledge and steer discourse on key issues:

What’s my big idea?

Digital is only a force for good when it serves all of humanity’s interests, not just those of a privileged few. Meaningful technology use must be for everyone, provide opportunities for development and livelihoods, and support well-being. Technology cannot only be for those that can control it and afford it, it should not constrain opportunity and undermine well-being.

These are not new ideas, but what I have come to believe is that the best way to achieve meaningful digital inclusion is to focus on children and youth. A digital world that works for children works best for everyone. Children under 18 make up one-third of all internet users, and youth (here, 15-24 year olds) are the most online age cohort (globally, 71% use the internet, compared with 57% of the other age groups). And yet, despite being significant user groups, they are the unseen teens. Digital platforms are not sufficiently designed or regulated with or for them.

A focus on children and youth will force platform creators and digital regulators to be more conscious of a range of different user needs – not just privilege the adult experience. It will help them take online child protection more seriously, reduce digital surveillance of children, and think creatively and co-operatively about digital experiences that support well-being of children. It does not mean “dumbing down” the internet to the lowest common denominator — not every part of the internet is appropriate for children — but rather holding inclusion, protection and empowerment for all as guiding principles.

So far it has been an incredible journey at UNICEF: stimulating, challenging and rewarding, working with amazing people on issues that really impact on children. I look forward to continue to do work that is pioneering and relevant in the coming years.

The Pearson years: A brief review

Following on from a tradition started at the Shuttleworth Foundation, I have created a “brag pack” of my almost three years at Pearson South Africa (SA) (see previous reviews).

In 2014 I joined Pearson SA‘s Innovation Lab as head of mobile, and believe I have made a valuable contribution to Pearson’s journey from educational publisher to digital learning company. I have done this through product development, delivery on key projects, strategy development and thought leadership. In the process I have honed key skills as an ICT in education leader.

Product development and project delivery
Thought leadership
Honing key skills
Core idea and next steps

Product development and project delivery

I have been product manager on the following projects:

X-kit Achieve Mobile

X-kit Achieve Mobile
 is Pearson SA’s first schools mobile product, offering test and exam revision for learners with feature and smart phones, and now also Android devices. The content is fully curriculum-aligned, levelled for difficulty and based on a solid theoretical framework, while the platform includes leaderboards, badges and social network integration.

I have led the development of the product through four major releases, marking the evolution from a B2C to a B2B institutional sales model, and from a mobisite to an Android app — a first for Pearson SA. All product development was based on user-centred design, through constant classroom observations, user interviews, user tests and data from the app itself.

In an independent study, conducted by Wits University, of Grade 8 learners and teachers at a Johannesburg public school, teachers found that struggling learners seemed to benefit the most from using X-kit Achieve Mobile. A significant 15% increase was seen in the average class mark in pre- and post-tests. Furthermore, 85% of the learners found X-kit Achieve Mobile useful, helpful, challenging and stimulating.

eReader implementation 

Reader+ has been developed as Pearson’s ereader for growth markets, including SA. The first global implementation has been at CTI and MGI, two higher education institutions in SA owned by Pearson, as a central component of creating technology enhanced teaching and learning environments. This was the largest tablet rollout in the country, for around 8,000 students across 13 nationwide campuses. As tablet lead for the Innovation Lab and product manager for Reader+, I was the “voice of the user” on the ground, ensuring that local needs were embedded in the development of the product at a global level. I managed the strategy, user definitions, implementation, testing and ongoing support of Reader+ in the annual end-to-end rollout. Lots of lessons learned.

Global Learning Management System

Pulse is Pearson’s growth market learning management system (LMS), based on a Moodle framework. As with Reader+, it is developed globally and implemented locally, and its first rollout was in SA in a pilot at three deep rural schools. Again, I was product manager and local user champion. It is estimated that by the end of 2016 Pulse will have 300,000+ users in SA, Mexico, India and Hong Kong.


I developed the 3-year mobile learning strategy for Pearson SA, through a broad research and consultative process, and have been a key member of the team that developed the digital learning ecosystem plan for the company.

I have also consulted internally in a strategic advisory capacity. Project Literacy is Pearson’s largest social impact campaign, spanning 5-years. I was on the advisory council that conceptualised the global campaign. One of the key initiatives of Project Literacy is Read to Kids, a mobile phone-based early reading improvement effort based in New Delhi, in partnership with Worldreader and the R4D Institute. I have been an active member of the project team since its inception.

I represented Pearson SA on the Publishing Association of South Africa’s (PASA) Digital Sector Committee, through which we engaged the Department of Basic Education on how to best develop a vibrant and effective digital publishing sector.

Thought leadership

I helped to position Pearson SA as a thought leader in the ICT in education space through writing, participating in events and professional networks.



Along with Prof John Traxler, I co-edited the Prospects: Quarterly Review of Comparative Education journal’s edition on mobile learning. John and I co-authored the introduction: The prospects for mobile learning.

I wrote a chapter Yoza Project : des histoires pour mobiles accessibles à tous in the book Téléphone mobile et création published by the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. (Merci beaucoup, Laurence Allard, for the opportunity.)

I contributed to Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative Approachesa short book released at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2014, as well as UNESCO’s Reading in the Mobile Era report, based on a project that I coordinated while first at UNESCO.

I also wrote Mobile Learning: Key Principles for Success, an analysis piece for the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship, University of Cape Town; Mobile learning: How to choose the best apps for Education Southern Africa magazine; and The Future Is Now: How to Write About ICT4Edu Accurately in 2016, a satirical piece for  ICTWorks.

Presentations and panels

I presented widely — locally and globally, in France, Germany and South Korea — on a range of topics, including: the state of ICT in education in SA; the role of technology as a tool to transform learning; emerging trends in digital education; education design in a digital era; large-scale 1:1 tablet implementations; innovation in Africa; harnessing ICTs for greater access to education for girls and women; digital citizenship; digital publishing in the education sector; and mobile literacy.

See my complete list of presentations here.

Professional networks

I am a panelist on an incubator programme that screens and then helps selected NGOs create and publish services on the Free Basics by Facebook platform. The panel is a small group of international ICT4D experts, which I am privileged to be a member of. We are aiming to on-board at least 100 new social impact organisations in 2016.

bi-logo4For two years I was a judge in the Berkeley Big Ideas contest. The annual contest provides funding and support to interdisciplinary teams of students from the USA who have ‘Big Ideas.’

I also helped to judge PEACEapp, a global competition organized by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and UNDP in collaboration with Build Up to promote digital games and gamified apps as tools for cultural dialogue and conflict management.

Lastly, I am a board member of the FunDza Literacy Trust, which is building a nation of readers in SA through mobile technology.

Honing key skills

While at Pearson I have led digital product development using agile software development principles (Scrum and Kanban).

The company has started to adopt — across the globe — something it calls a Product Lifecycle (PLC) approach. Drawing on agile and lean principles of innovation, it consists of six stages, each with specific activities and gates to take a product from idea to retirement stage. I am a certified PLC Coach and have worked to embed the process in all our work.

I am a firm believer in developing products based on user-centred design principles, which we have focused heavily on at Pearson, more than any other place I have worked. This involved classroom observations, user interviews and focus groups, user tests and data from the products themselves, continually conducted and analysed, to ensure that our decisions were user- and data-driven.

I have deepened my experience in managing diverse and international teams. This included managing UX, development, design, content development, sales and marketing teams. Delivering company-wide training, documentation, and leading the strategic direction of products were also my responsibilities.

Core idea

My work at Pearson was informed by one core idea: that education, and the way people learn, is changing, and this change is interwoven with mobility.

In the Prospects journal introduction, John and I wrote: “Mobile learning is no longer an innovation within institutional learning but a reflection of the world in which institutional learning takes place.”

For the most part, when looking at the education system in South Africa, this change is not apparent enough. But the change, albeit subtle or out of view, has begun.

Next steps

Moving to Pearson was a significant shift from twelve years in the governmental, non-profit, international organisation and “open” worlds, to a corporate and “closed’ world. I made the move purposefully to learn and to develop a business perspective on ICT in education. It has certainly been interesting to see where corporates and non-profits are very different and, (perhaps not) surprisingly, very similar. The issues of profitability and sustainability in mobile education still loom large, but it has been refreshing and instructive to explore ways of attaining them from within a commercial company.

From November I will be returning to UNESCO, based at HQ in Paris. There I will manage a partnership with Pearson as part of its Project Literacy, so I will still be staying close to the Pearson fold. I look forward to applying my corporate learnings in a development setting. I am a believer that the worlds of For-profit and Non-profit, Closed and Open, have much to learn from each other, and in the process both becoming more effective and efficient.

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


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.

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, www.yoza.mobi, 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 MYMsta.mobi, 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.

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 fanfiction.net 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.