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How to Help Mobile Education Go Global

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For many of us, the conversation around mobile learning has shifted from asking whether mobile devices present educational opportunities to how they might best do so.

From that second question, a new initiative has been launched: SMILE, the Stanford Mobile Inquiry Learning Environment, an idea, which, in practice, is almost staggeringly simple. Essentially, SMILE is a learning management system that allows students to create, share, answer, and evaluate questions in a collaborative manner through the use of cell phones.

Students use mobile devices -- typically android phones that are connected to the same network -- to create their own multiple-choice questions about a given topic. Their classmates answer those questions, and evaluate them based on their difficulty. While the devices need to be connected to each other, they don't necessarily need to be connected to the outside Web, which is a key issue for some communities around the globe, said Paul Kim, the assistant dean and chief technology officer of Stanford University's Office of Innovation & Technology and SMILE's creator.

The drive to make questions that score higher on their peers' difficulty index ultimately spurs students to think about the subject material in a deeper way, Kim says. And while there are some shortcomings—such as the lack of allowance for longer-form responses like written answers and essays, and a reliance mostly on more simple content elements such as texts and still photographs—the system's simpleness allows it to be used in a variety of educational environments, ranging from a rural village in southern Africa to a medical school classroom at Stanford itself.

But creating such a project is one thing. Actually putting it into practice is another. So Kim, who has also helped launch SMILE in India, Argentina, and suburban Northern California, shares some of his tactics and lessons learned about how best to launch this project even in communities that are unlikely to have Internet access -- or sometimes even electricity.



Despite reaching out to poor and particularly rural communities around the world, Kim and his team have striven to use as many already-existing resources as possible, even if the devices themselves have to be procured. For example, for a power source on a SMILE pilot project in a remote Indian location with little access to electricity, Kim's team used the batteries commonly found in motorcycles and rickshaws. Another SMILE project in Southeast Asia is adapting the software for use on tablets students already have through a government initiative. Even SMILE's central premise—using children rather than a curriculum to create questions—fits the use-the resources-you-have approach.

“Try not to bring in anything new, because you're not going to find anybody who can service,” devices brought in from the outside, he said. “You're not going to find any replacement parts. So you have to work with what is already out there, and that was my conclusion.”


Part of why SMILE appears to work in under-served communities is because using student questions makes a shortage of content access less important. And as the project has grown, the launch of Global SMILE will provide another workaround for sites with Web access, since it will archive and curate the best student-created questions, and making them available to users worldwide.

But in this initiative, as well as any other aiming to reach diverse student populations, Kim says it is important to keep any content in a context that make sense in the world in which the students live. That can be easier said than done when simple Western essentials like running water and toasters are non-existent in a rural African student's life.

For example, “if you are using books that talk about microwave ovens and blueberry cakes baked from the oven,” Kim says, “it doesn’t make sense in a rural village setting.”


SMILE has worked with populations served by a host of nonprofit, philanthropic organizations, meaning partnerships can often create a more efficient way to administer the program.

Sometimes those organizations are secular, such as the Peace Corps, which has aided work with students using SMILE in Tanzania. But other times, religious charities have also helped provide resources and lines of communication for SMILE projects. Kim acknowledges that affiliating with religious groups can be a delicate issue, but says doing so is often the most cost-effective way to implement a mobile program.

“They don't need any extra incentive. … They just want to reach out to more people,” Kim says. “It could be controversial. But I always tell people that I work with all religious organizations out there, and it has been nothing but success.”


Despite advances in mobile education it can still have a stigma among some educators. For that reason, Kim says he has never purposefully targeted specific countries, regions, or communities for the implementation of SMILE, because letting those communities find him is a more authentic way of insuring buy-in.

“A lot of people come forward, and they say, 'Oh we'd like to do this in our country, in our region, in our school.'” Kim said. “So I've been responding. … It's been always one place leading to another.”