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

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.

On mobiles for teacher development and edutainment: Interview by Russell Southwood of Balancing Act Africa

Below is an interview by Russell Southwood of Balancing Act Africa on mobile learning in Africa. The interview has two parts: the first video is about how mobile learning can tackle the global teacher shortage and the impact of mobile learning on the education system.

The second part is about the power of interactive and “edutaining” content via mobile devices, for example through the Yoza Cellphone Stories project.

[I had  a cold so please excuse any nasal sounds!]

UNESCO Working Paper Series on Mobile Learning released

UNESCO Working Paper Series on Mobile LearningUNESCO has released the first set of papers in its Working Paper Series on Mobile Learning, for which I was a co-ordinating editor. The 12 papers of the initial launch make up almost 500 pages of research. Half of the papers focus on mobile learning initiatives and their relationship to policies, and the other half on how mobile technologies support teachers and their professional development. For each focus area there is a Global Themes paper that summarises the findings of the other papers.

UNESCO Working Paper Series on Mobile LearningIt has taken many months of hard work to release the 12 papers, produced by a range of external and UNESCO authors. It is certainly hoped that this first contribution in an ongoing series will help to stimulate the growth of mobile learning and lead to more governments actively embracing it.

10 Global Trends in ICT and Education: my take

10 Global Trends in ICT and Education is a post by Robert Hawkins on EduTech, the World Bank’s blog on ICT use in Education. It’s a great list, an “aggregation of projections from leading forecasters such as the Horizon Report, personal observations and a good dose of guesswork.”

While I feel that the trends apply mostly to well-resourced, developed-country educational institutions, I’m happy to report that in South Africa (SA) we are seriously exploring:

Trend 1) Mobile Learning — although we’re not focusing on smart phones but rather on feature phones with GPRS-capability, e.g. in the m4Lit (mobiles for literacy) project.

Trend 8) Teacher-generated open content — the Siyavula project from the Shuttleworth Foundation is building a community of teachers and a platform for this very thing.

I think the trends least likely to take hold in SA are 2) Cloud computing (bandwidth is just too expensive and the infrastructure for it not well enough established) and 10) Teacher managers/mentors (in-service teachers don’t want to relinquish the role of font-of-knowledge and “head” of the classroom. A number of factors, such as poor learner discipline and low teacher content knowledge (making the teacher only just a font-of-knowledge, more like a trickling stream of knowledge) make this a complex issue … it is not simply a case of teachers being resistant to change).

Latop roll-out is great, but do it properly

It looks like permanent teachers will be provided with laptops, via a multi-year roll-out program. This is really great news. As someone who supports the effective, innovative applications of digital media that compliment and improve teaching and learning in the 21st century, I totally support this. ICTs provide huge opportunities to support teaching, and connecting teachers to resources and each other.

But, this needs to be done properly or it will be a monumental waste of money and result in teachers being even more fearful of technology (a known problem). Warning signs from The Teacher article (linked above):

  • “(Pandor) realises that … the computer can catapult one over the tedious development route,” says Firoz Patel, the education department’s deputy director general of system planning and monitoring. Yes it can, but that isn’t a predetermined certainty. This kind of thinking is technologically deterministic — it believes that the machine will solve the problems. Eish!
  • “No face-to-face training is envisaged, but the use of software to assist training is being investigated.” I think this is a bad idea. Face-to-face training is crucial. Just ask Edunova or Khanya.

It is encouraging that between the teacher unions and analysts there is a call for comprehensive training, and monitoring and evaluation. Laptops are a necessary — but on their own — insufficient part of fixing education. Bring them on, train properly, provide content and teacher support (Siyavula is doing this) and they will play their part in the bigger process of fixing education.

A visit to Project Media Literacies @ MIT

Last month I had the pleasure of heading up to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to meet Erin Reilly, Research Director at Project New Media Literacies (NML). This is one of six research projects within the Comparative Media Studies program at the university.

The team at Project NML have come up with a list of new media literacies (NMLs) and cultural competencies that young people need to learn, play, work and live in the 21st century. Since I first blogged about the NMLs in 2007, one more has been added:

Visualisation: the ability to interpret and create data representations for the purposes of expressing ideas, finding patterns, and identifying trends.

“It’s a dynamic, living list,” says Erin. She explained that many youth today have already learned some of these competencies in social settings, but that it’s important for them to formally develop the competencies in other, constructive settings, e.g. in the classroom. Project NML aims to help create that space — wherever it may be, in school or at after school venues — to give youth and educators the appropriate language to critically think about and practice these competencies. Their work is in direct response to the emerging participatory culture in the world.

Erin Reilly and me at Project New Media Literacies, MIT
Erin Reilly and me at Project New Media Literacies, MIT

One of the issues we spoke about was how to promote the importance of NMLs to educators and parents. While Erin and I get this importance, what about those who don’t, who think a “back to basics” (traditional, non-digital) approach is what is needed  in education (as is the case in South Africa)?

Erin explained that we have to present NMLs as a very effective way to develop the basics. We need to demonstrate how to effectively leverage popular culture — which is highly engaging for young people — in the classroom to develop the 3Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic.

She believes that the labels are not important, e.g. NMLs or 21st century skills. What is important are the actual competencies. We need to call these whatever necessary to get the point through. Further, we need to empower educators to create the spaces for their learners to develop and discuss the NMLs. We cannot be the experts who come into the classroom and take over from the teachers. They must be the experts in NMLs. Maggie Verster wrote an excellent blog post about how challenging it is to achieve this in South Africa.

Taking this approach — NMLs as the way to develop the basics — is an effective way to make NMLs part of the curriculum and not an add-on (which drastically reduces it’s uptake by already overworked teachers).

Another key point that Erin raised was how the team at Project NML is increasingly realising that it’s not useful to separate formal education and informal learning. While there are differences between these contexts, the educational dillemas in each are the same, and the learnings in each are easily transferred to the other context.

Finally, Erin demo’d the forthcoming Learning Library, an online play space for learners to practically develop new media literacies.

Hopefully we’ll continue to explore NMLs and work together to see how they play out in the developing world. As I’ve said before, participatory culture is alive and well in the developing world, it just looks different.

A literacy success story

A success story of improving the reading and writing skills of learners is the Zimasa Community School in Langa, Western Cape. Having spent the weekend in Langa for the CSR in Education conference, I realised just how under-resourced most of the schools there are. The attendant ills of poverty are evident in Langa: overcrowding, litter, crime and lack of infrastructure. These factors make it difficult for teachers to deliver a sound education. Similarly, learners struggle to find the space and quiet to do their homework. Imaging trying to study for a test while living in a hostel originally designed for 16 men and now housing 16 families?

Hostels in Langa (Image by mtlp, CC-by-nc-nd)
Hostels in Langa (Image by mtlp, CC-by-nc-nd)

Despite these difficulties, the principal and teachers of Zimasa Community School have managed improve the percentage of learners who achieved 50% or more in a literacy assessment from 8% (2005) to 40% (2008). That’s an increase of 32%! Or an increase of 400% on the baseline results.

Some of the contributing factors for the achievement include institutionalising reading and writing time in class, the school’s dedicated teachers, engaging parents around the learning needs of their children, and allowing learners to read, write and take the literacy test in their mother-tongue (mostly isiXhosa). (It’s not possible to tell if any of these is the dominant variable for the success.)

For the most part, education performance in SA (in fact, globally) is tied to socio-economic status. But it is success stories such as this that demonstrate that it is possible to significantly improve education performance despite difficulties.

Read more about this success story in The Teacher.

Keynote at the Schools ICT Conference

This morning I delivered a keynote presentation at the Schools ICT Conference in Cape Town. The conference is attended by 500 people, mostly teachers, and is about the use of ICT in education.

My presentation The cellphone: ultimate distraction or powerful learning tool? is about the growing disconnect between childrens’ learning experiences in classrooms and outside “in the world.” I propose the cellphone as a tool that supports formal education and also informal learning, and thus as a way to span these disconnected sites of learning. (Children have multiple sites of learning, e.g. school, home, playground, etc.)

Two projects that I highlighted: Dr Math and M4Girls. Two suggested projects: an alternate reality game using cellphones and m-novels, short stories serialised into daily chapters, delivered on cellphones. The phone is used as a reading and authoring platform.

Doubling for growth: CDE workshop notes

The Centre for Development and Enterpris (CDE) held a workshop entitled Doubling for Growth, to discuss ways to address the maths and science challenge in SA’s schools. A report with the same title was published last year that presented a plan to double the number of maths and science matriculants.

The workshop was meant to reflect on progress and challenges since the report, and open the discussion to a wider audience that also wants those kinds of results for maths and science.

It was attended by a number of private companies that invest in the “maths and science problem” as part of their CSR spend. They also need those graduates as future staff.


  • Corporates and government are investing large sums of money but are seeing very little impact.
  • Interventions produce small numbers of graduates, e.g. one company supported 8 matriculants per year.
  • Not enough sharing of resources and efforts between players in this space.
  • How to measure the impact of the various singular efforts to address the problem?

Ann Bernstein, head of CDE, gave a presentation that covered the following:

Challenges in contemporary SA schooling:

  • Lack of accountability
  • Poor management
  • Low time on task (46% of teacher time is spent actually teaching — this should be 85%)
  • Slow pace and incomplete coverage of curriculum
  • Poor teacher competencies: precise facts about teacher qualifications in SA are not known
  • Maths teaching poor all the way through
  • Language of instruction (LOI) is not the mother-tongue language of many learners
  • 220 Dinaledi schools (out of 400) where no impact is seen on HG maths passes

New curriculum has huge implications for teaching capacity:

  • 2007: 275,000 SC learners doing maths HG or standard grade (SG)
  • 2008: > 500,000 doing maths or maths literacy

Many more teachers are needed!

Far too few high performing schools:

  • 2004-2007: SA is stuck on around 25,000 HG maths passes per year
  • 0.5%: number of African matriculants who wrote higher grade (HG) maths and got a “C” or above (2004)
  • 50% of public schools do not produce one single Senior Certificate (SC) HG maths pass
  • More than half of HG maths passes come from ex-model C schools. There is no guarantee that these schools will keep producing. They also face pressure to perform! Focus should not only be on the poorest of the poor and the low-end schools; these well-performing schools should be supported.

CDE recommendations:

  • To strengthen the Dinaledi programme: introduce a contract between schools and the DoE.
  • Identification of talented learners
  • New capacity in the DoE. Need strong communication from the DoE on the issue.
  • Teachers: test them. Need an audit and supply plan. Not enough data on this, not enough being done about it. Need more qualified teachers NOW for January 2009 — must IMPORT!
  • About 80% of public schools are dysfunctional. National voluntary apptitude test. Commit to get those kids to a decent school. Will need bursaries/support.
  • Private sector: current approach is not working, not fundamentally improving the education system. Ad hoc interventions are helpful, but not enough. The private sector must not perform the state’s role. They should use their private resources as “risk capital” to test innovative ideas that can go to scale.
  • Make “Doubling” a national project:
    • Need to strengthen and expand the Dinaledi programme
    • Need HG candidates from outside the Dinaledi schools
    • Take a “SARS approach” and create a unit to run the Doubling project: Executive leadership; Comprehensive strategy; Bigger budget and staff; and Report to parliament every year on progress

CDE proposed an ongoing private sector/foundation forum to:

  1. Discuss and agree on advocacy points of leverage for new the government.
  2. Discuss how to invest in the M&S problem with a “risk capital” approach, and partner with organisations that can take interventions to scale.

Rural Education Project conference

I recently attended the Rural Education Project (REP) Conference. The theme: Towards quality learning and teaching. Between 2006 and 2009, REP aims to develop the literacy and numeracy skills of primary school learners in under-resourced rural schools.

At the Rural Education Project conference
At the Rural Education Project conference

The project, part-funded by the Claude Leon Foundation, is interesting in that it did not set out to look for the one magic bullet in education, but rather aimed to critically explore and measure differentiated approaches to improving education in 38 rural case schools.

Essentially, the project is based on an experimental programme approach: which approaches work in which schools under which conditions? Levels of engagement occurred at district, community, school and classroom levels.

Cally Kuhne, REP project manager, pointed out the benefits of this approach:

  • Contribute to knowledge on rural development, in particular numeracy and literacy improvement, to inform practice and/or policy.
  • Identify contextual challenges related improving quality of teaching and learning in rural schools.
  • Study issues related to improving results.
  • Examine unique features of each school/cluster.
  • Enrich understanding of current practice, programmes, institutions and systems.

The two main organisations involved in the project are UCT’s School Development Unit and the Western Cape Education Department (WCED).

The final findings of REP will only be written up next year. For now the two-day conference was a taster — and an opportunity to network and share opportunities and challenges facing rural education. My conference notes provide details on the various presentations.