Tag Archives: UNESCO

5 Take-aways from the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week Webinar

The 2016 UNESCO Mobile Learning Week kicked off on Monday with a webinar entitled Innovation and quality: Two sides of the same coin? The virtual event, held in partnership with Education Fast Forward, debated the extent to which mobile technology can strengthen the quality of education and facilitate learning.

I blogged about the five key take-aways on ICTWorks – you can read the post there.

(Image: @AndrewGraley)



Literacy, gender and mobiles

At the 2015 UNESCO Mobile Learning Week, I sat on a panel about literacy. Below are my speaking notes. Thank you to Ms Saniye Gülser Corat, Director for Gender Equality at UNESCO, for moderating the panel.


Brief for the panel:

Due to a history of educational inequity, many more women than men are illiterate: globally, 64 per cent of illiterate people are women. Limited access to physical books and other learning materials disproportionately affects women, particularly in developing countries. Cultural norms can make it difficult for girls to leave home in order to attend literacy trainings or participate in outreach activities. Motherhood and assumed family obligations can further prevent women from building literacy skills in formal education settings.

How can mobile learning interventions break through barriers and promote literacy for women and girls in ways that are sustainable and scalable? How can mobile technology help develop essential literacies beyond reading and writing, such as media and technology literacy?

Three basic points I want to make

Much has already been achieved by mobiles for literacy.
The Goethe Institute of Johannesburg last month hosted an mLiteracy Networking Meeting to examine the opportunities and challenges for mobiles to increase literacy development, especially in Africa (see my speaking notes from the meeting).

It was an incredibly valuable, interesting and much-needed gathering by some of the old and new players in this space. The good news is seeing how far mobiles for literacy has come, how it has grown, how many young and old people it is reaching and engaging. How the mobiles for literacy field has not only provided another much needed medium to access reading material, but also allowed readers to comment and write their own pieces. It has given readers a voice, something not possible at such scale or immediacy in the print medium.

Gender sensitive does not equal gender specific.
In many cases we do not need initiatives focused only on women and girls, but rather on women and girls, men and boys. In other words, a holistic approach that is gender sensitive. Of course there is spill-over when particular genders are targeted – as with the example of Business Women, a mobile service for women entrepreneurs in Nigeria that has reached 100,000 women AND to which 20,00 men have also subscribed.

The need for specificity.
We know that local context is a key differentiator. There are different gender-related opportunities and barriers across and within countries, cities and communities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and so when answering questions about improving literacy for women and girls, we need to provide broad enough responses that can be adapted and applied appropriately to specific audiences.

Pearson is playing a key role in improving literacy.
Last year Pearson launched Project Literacy, a five-year campaign to help ensure that by 2030, every child around the world has the support they need to become a literate adult. On the Project Literacy site, almost 200 organisations and people working in literacy have posted their challenges and inspirations.

Three suggestions for how to answer the questions

Take an ecosystem view.
For an initiative to be successful and scalable, it is essential to understand the full range of stakeholders, enablers and constraints in the mliteracy ecosystem. This view is recommended by the UNESCO Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning.

For your initiative, who can increase visibility, lower costs, benefit from your content? Which policies support your work, or hinder it? Who provides the devices that the women and girls use, who supplies the network infrastructure? Which stakeholders have been the hardest to engage with? Interrogating the ecosystem was a key theme of the Goethe Institute mLiteracy Networking Meeting – a sign, I think, of how the mliteracy space has matured.

Target content and programmes.
From Yoza Cellphone Stories, and also other mliteracy projects, we know that the romance genre is very popular. Equally are stories that talk to the social issues of the audience: pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, drugs, mothering, job-seeking, education, etc. Content must be targeted to the communities who we want to consume and engage with it. This does not re-enforce gender stereotypes but rather recognises the different life experiences of women and girls, men and boys, and so normalises and mainstreams differences across these groups.

Content that develops the skills of readers supports the recommendation from the UNESCO Mobile Phone Literacy – Empowering Women and Girls project: “The particular needs of the targeted women and girls must be addressed and life-skills and empowerment opportunities offered.”

Questions for reflection: Give an example of how you have targeted specifically women/men, or girls/boys? And did doing so alienate the other group?

Increase visibility.
Visibility of resources and opportunities via mobiles remains a challenge – obscurity is the biggest threat to the many excellent initiatives. Visibility includes a number of aspects:

  • Marketing: It is essential that women and girls know about the opportunities.
  • The need for programmes – offline – that encourage reading, literacy, promote its benefits. Mobile is not a panacea and cannot operate while other barriers – cultural, economic, etc. – are not holistically addressed. Example: The Mobile-Based Post Literacy project by UNESCO in Pakistan first spent a long time engaging the village elders to ensure that they understood and ultimately supported the programme to improve the literacy of adolescent girls via mobile phones. This supports the recommendation from the reports of the UNESCO Mobile Phone Literacy – Empowering Women and Girls project: “Community sensitization and mobilization as well as political support are key ingredients for success.”
  • Recognition of mobile as a valid channel for supporting literacy. There are perceptions around the use of mobiles as distracting and undermining education. Research and case studies can change this – in fact this perception is already changing.

Questions for reflection: How have you increased visibility for your project? How have you engaged communities / gatekeepers to sensitize them and seek political support?

Closing words

A wonderful piece by Anathi Nyadu, a FundZa writer and attendee of the Goethe meeting, describes how he used to have to scrounge newspapers from the bin and steal books to satisfy his love of reading. But he believes his niece will never have to do either, thanks to mobile literacy.

1:1 Educational Computing Initiatives — Lessons learned and confirmed at the Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014

Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014I recently had the privilege of attending the 8th Global Symposium on ICT in Education 2014, themed Transforming Education with 1:1 Computing (3-5 November, 2014, Gyeongju, Republic of Korea). All presentations are here.

I presented on 2 Case Studies at National Level: 1:1 Educational Computing Initiatives in South Africa – namely the large-scale tablet implementation at CTI and MGI higher education institutions, and the ICT4RED school tablet rollout in the rural Eastern Cape district of Cofimvaba.

28 countries were represented, sharing their experiences of planning and implementing 1:1 computing initiatives. The event was hosted by the Korean Ministry of Education and the World Bank, along with KERIS, UNESCO Bangkok and Intel. South Korea is one of the leaders in digital learning, so it was a fitting context for the conference.

A number of lessons were learned and known ones confirmed, shared below (download here).

Mobile developments w/c 26 May 2014

The prospects for mobile learning
(Introductory chapter of Prospects journal issue on mobile learning)
By Professor John Traxler and myself

Mobile Report April 2014
by @Native

Innovations out of Africa: The emergence, challenges and potential of the Kenyan Tech Ecosystem
report by Julia manske published by the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications

Pearson’s Learning Curve 2014 report makes a few references to mobile, in particular:

  • Mobile technology can help overcome some obstacles to adult learning in the developing world, e.g. especially surrounding limited access to educational materials. But mobile is no panacea.
  • In its working paper series on mobile learning, UNESCO makes clear that the full potential of using mobile technologies in education is yet to be realised.

UNESCO report: A mobile reading revolution

Mobile phones offer a new channel to literature and an opportunity to improve literacy that is revolutionary. Such is the conclusion of the recently released report by UNESCO titled Reading in the Mobile Era (infographic).

Millions of people do not read for one reason: they do not have access to text. But today mobile phones and cellular networks are transforming a scarce resource into an abundant one.

Drawing on the analysis of over 4,000 surveys collected in seven developing countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe) and corresponding qualitative interviews, this report paints the most detailed picture to date of who reads books and stories on mobile devices and why.

I led the Mobiles for Reading project while at UNESCO, in partnership with Nokia and Worldreader, and am proud and inspired by what the report has uncovered, namely:

  • Large numbers of people in developing countries read books and stories on inexpensive mobile phones.
  • Mobile phones—even those with small, monochrome screens—provide a valid and widely used portal to text, opening up new pathways to literacy in communities where physical text is scarce.
  • While most mobile readers are male, female mobile readers tend to read far more than males. On average, women read for slightly over 200 minutes per month on a mobile device, six times as long as the average time for men. Given that 64% of illiterate people worldwide are female, interventions to facilitate mobile reading among women could help alleviate the global literacy crisis.
  • Both men and women read more—in absolute terms—when they start reading on a mobile device. Because increased reading carries numerous educational and social benefits, governments and other institutions can take steps to promote mobile reading, especially in areas where illiteracy is widespread, but mobile phones are common.
  • Nearly one third of study participants read stories to children from mobile phones. 34% of respondents who do not read to children said that they would if they had more books and stories for children on their mobiles. This highlights an opportunity to build and strengthen children’s literacy with technology that is increasingly ubiquitous in even the poorest communities. More digital content appropriate for young people should be made available on mobile devices as should portals that easily allow parents, teachers and caregivers to find books targeted to children.
  • Many neo- and semi-literate readers use mobile phones to search for and access text that is appropriate to their reading level. More can be done to ensure that beginning readers have access to content that corresponds to their reading ability, allowing them opportunities to improve their literacy skills.

When asked why respondents read on their mobile phones, convenience was the clear winner:


The report has received excellent coverage, including from The GuardianTime MagazineForbes and the Wall Street Journal. The accompanying presentation provides a succinct summary of the findings and recommendations.

Mobiles for reading is a passion of mine. In 2009 I founded Yoza Cellphone Stories (project info here). The report confirms my earlier beliefs that the mobile phone is — and will be for the foreseeable future — the “Kindle of Africa” simply because it is already in the hands of millions of people. While mobiles offer an unprecedented opportunity for increasing access to text, a key challenge remains around sustainability. So far there is no clear example (Yoza included) of mobiles for reading initiatives that are profitable. Indeed, many are funded by governments, foundations or CSI budgets (and the report’s recommendations talk to these stakeholders).

I believe that the answer to sustainability exists, it just hasn’t been worked out yet.

Clearly there is an unprecedented opportunity here to change the game for reading, including for children, women and girls, and semi-literate adults. All stakeholders need to engage with this opportunity to work through the challenges.

I would like to thank and congratulate the excellent M4R team, including (from left) Periša Ražnatovi (Worldreader), Rebecca Kraut, Elizabeth Hensick Wood (Worldreader), Sanna Eskelinen (Nokia), Mark West (UNESCO), myself and Han Ei Chew (United Nations University).

M4R Team at MLW 2014_small


UNICEF Report on Children, ICTs and Development

Yesterday a new UNICEF report Children, ICT and Development: Capturing the potential, meeting the challenges was officially launched. Dorothea Kleine, one of the authors, presented the key findings at Harvard’s Digitally Connected Symposium. I was one of the interviewees for the report.

The short description of the report is as follows:

ICTs are not a technical sphere detached from the complex realities of children’s lives. They are increasingly woven into the very fabric of life, in income-rich and increasingly in income-poor countries. It is clear that if there is no targeted engagement with these socio-technical innovations, they are likely to reinforce existing inequalities. It follows that a focus on children and on greater equity leads to an active and reflective engagement with the potential and challenges of ICT for development, targeting in particular marginalized children. This report serves as a key contribution on which to build informed dialogue and decision making, developed jointly between research, policy and practice.

The launch included a panel with Chris Fabian, UNICEF; Gurumurthy Kasinathan, IT for Change; Chisenga Muyoya, Asikana Network; Gerrit Beger, UNICEF – with all the tweet responses recorded. From the handy list of the report’s key messages, a few stand out for me:

ICTs and development

  • ICTs on their own cannot offer quick wins for child-focused development objectives. Technological innovation, however, can be crucial for strengthening social networks, disseminating information and linking disadvantaged communities with vital knowledge.
  • Change at the systemic level in many cases requires a combination of technological as well as societal change. Achieving this synergy requires buy-in, and ideally participation in design, from intended users. Understanding the social context and rooting ICT for development efforts in existing incentive systems is vital if systemic changes are to be supported.


  • Many projects are either equity-blind or end up working with relatively more privileged children in order to reduce the risk of project failure. In order to change this, funders have a role to play: they must demand equity-sensitive approaches and also recognise/reward risk-taking with harder-to-reach children.

Gender issues


  • To increase the chances of project success, key steps include assessing what other development initiatives are ongoing, what the existing usage patterns of ICTs are and indeed what the landscape of stakeholders looks like. [This is so obvious, and yet so often overlooked]
  • Implementing pilot projects in child-focused ICT for development, while paying insufficient attention to social and cultural context and not involving people actually located within the anticipated beneficiary community are leading reasons to the failure of a project.


  • The study highlights the importance of making sure failure is a recognised part of innovation within ICT for development – and not only recognised but also proactively discussed.
  • If project success is understood to often include elements of failure, then development planning can move away from binaries of successful or unsuccessful projects and instead move to an approach which is open to ongoing learning.

It is obvious that a user-centred design approach that is contextually aware, equity and gender sensitive, not too influenced by commercial interests, and open to sharing (failures and successes) are key elements for successfully leveraging ICT for child-focused development. Given that this is so hard to achieve (based on the overall ICT4D track record), the last point above is particularly important. ICT4D is a living, breathing field, characterised by its many failures, genuine successes, and results in between (what Dorothea calls a “graveyard of successful pilot projects“). The only way the field will grow is if it is open to ongoing learning.

The points about funding being limited in time and scope from governments/foundations, or being driven — and dictated — by the private sector, are not at all new to ICT4D. I wonder, though, for how long we will still bemoan them. If governments/foundations have not changed their funding habits by now, and private companies continue to ultimately be driven by profit, then the change may never happen. We need to have a more open and honest debate about how to incentives these stakeholders to change, or, acknowledge that they will never change and explore how to source funds outside of these structures.

The best panelist quote of the day was by Chris Fabian: “We need to get away from the idea of projects and ‘projects for people.’  It’s not about some people doing a project for others.”

The report was written for UNICEF by the ICT4D Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London and Jigsaw Consult.

Emerging trends in education and mobile learning

At the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2014 I sat on a panel titled Emerging Trends and New Technology – considered in the context of mobile learning. Below are the notes of the key points that I made.

Note: The issue of Emerging Trends and New Technology begs the question: for who? For students in California, or for those in Kolkata? Developed country trends are very different from developing country trends. Most of the points below focus on the latter. Some of the ideas are drawn from the NMC Horizon Report 2013: K-12 Edition, for which I was on the advisory board.

Overlapping of education trends and mobile-enabled opportunities

The brief for the panel stated:

We keep being told that technology is going to transform centuries-old teaching paradigms, but traditional approaches seem to have real resilience and staying-power.  Is this the moment of transformation?  Why is this technological innovation different for education than previous moments (for example, the rise of television or the popularity of personal computers)?

I don’t believe that technology is the single driver of education transformation, although it is certainly a key influencing factor. Education is under pressure to change because of a number of factors. Recently, a United Nations task team led by UNESCO produced a think piece on education and skills beyond 2015 – key points listed below. In all of these instances, mobile learning is well suited to supporting these changes.

  • The think piece highlights that with the increase in access to information, and production of knowledge (both underpinned by technology), there is a questioning of the very notions of the authority of traditional bodies of knowledge controlled by legitimate educational institutions. Mobiles provide a new, and sometimes only, access channel to the internet for many people.
  • 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. Mobile has a role to play in bridging the formal and informal learning spaces. But this requires change in both spheres. More work is needed here. The NMC Horizon Report 2013: K-12 Edition report highlights this as a significant challenge.
  • Learning that is time-dependent and location-dependent is not an option for everyone anymore. Again, anywhere, anytime learning speaks to the changing needs of people.
  • The piece 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 piece says, there will be a need for digital and information literacy, as well as critical thinking and online communication skills. These skills are increasingly important for entering the job market. 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’.

Lastly, I see that the world outside the education institution is changing at a rapid rate, where technology underpins how people communicate, socialise, play, do business, pay for goods, or even farm. This change exerts a pressure on the static nature of education inside the schools walls. A relevant quote is from a forthcoming Prospects Journal edition on mobile learning: “Mobile learning is no longer an innovation within institutional learning but a reflection of the world in which institutional learning takes place,” Traxler & Vosloo, 2014.

Mobile learning itself is a trend

It is on the one-year horizon for the NMC Horizon Report (along with cloud computing). Devices are easy-to-use and pervasive. Device uptake is already huge, and will only grow. A huge amount of mobile apps and services bring education content to mobile devices. App development and programming is being taught in some schools.

Social media bigger than ever, and growing

The NMC Horizon Report says that “Social media is changing the way people interact, present ideas and information, and communicate.” Social media has grown beyond anyone’s expectation. This is where (young) people are “living” online, and they connect via mobile. According to Flurry Analytics, overall app use in 2013 posted 115% year-over-year growth. The segment that showed the most dramatic growth in 2013 was Messaging (Social and Photo sharing included), with over 200% growth.

Pearson Labs explain that “over the past two years, there has been an ongoing debate about whether or not social media should be used in school. But now the debate is over – estimates place the number of teens using social media for learning anywhere between 80 per cent and 98 per cent, and our own discussion on this last year showed an enthusiastic teaching community. Now that social media use is prevalent in most schools, the debate shifts, to how to educate children about how to best use social media?”

Education response:

  • From an education perspective, we must include socialness in learning experiences. Peer-to-peer support and connectivity, tutoring, knowledge sharing.
  • We must also prepare young people on how to navigate this space. Teach and practice digital citizenship. Use social media in the classroom.
  • Policy approach: change from Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to Responsible Use Policy (RUP).

The rise of learning analytics and efficacy

  • Learning analytics is on the two- to three-year horizon for the NMC Horizon Report.
  • Rise of big data and analytic techniques to make sense of it and to help us gain insights about student behaviour and learning.
  • This has benefit for educators: can inform instructional practice in real time as well as aid in the design of curricula and platforms that personalise education.
  • This has benefit for learners: can suggest resources to students and highlight study areas that need extra work.

Better formative assessment, adaptive learning and personalisation via mobile

  • How do we create personal learning experiences even in groups of large classes? How do we cater to different learning styles (visual, text, etc.)? We must get this right on mobile – and we will as adaptive learning engines, more computational power and seamless learning (across multiple devices) become a reality.
  • However, in my opinion it is not being done very well right now. The Horizon Report highlights this as a significant challenge, saying that “there remains a gap between the vision and the tools needed to achieve it.”
  • As Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Advisor at Pearson says, there needs to be a shift in focus from the improvement of schools to the progress of individuals. Monitoring and enablement of learners, powerful combination of teachers and technology (not technology replacing teachers).
  • But education institutions are not responding enough to the changes needed to curricula to recognise newly learned skills.

New models of education

  • The NMC Horizon Report says that “New models of education are bringing unprecedented competition to traditional models of schooling.”
  • The rise of MOOCs is an example.
  • Distance education, underpinned by mobile access, will grow. A blended learning approach is still recommended.

For further reading, see the UNESCO report on The Future of Mobile Learning (report | slides).