What Can We Learn From the Global Effort Around Mobile Learning?

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Closing the achievement gap and giving all students access to a world of learning online remains one of the strongest allures of education technology. In the U.S., that conversation is often centered on the newest shiny device, slickest software or free app, but internationally mobile technology is revolutionizing learning too, often without fancy gadgets. Recognizing the creative learning strategies being implemented in developing countries could help expand thinking in the U.S and inform the ongoing discussion about how to use technology to deepen learning.

“In developing countries, mobile has leap-frogged fixed-line connectivity,” said Steve Vosloo, a program specialist, in mobile learning at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “People who were never connected before have access.”

Africa is the fastest growing mobile market and the second largest after Asia. Vosloo says there are more mobile phone subscriptions than people in Africa, meaning some people have more than one. Many people in developing countries have only accessed the internet through a mobile phone and mobile connectivity far surpasses desktop connections.

[RELATED READING: What Will it Take to Bring Mobile Ed to the Developing World?]

Given the rapid growth and existing infrastructure for mobile connections it makes sense to pursue strategies that leverage mobile devices for learning. Most people in developing countries have what are called “feature phones”; they're less sophisticated and powerful than smartphones and have fewer features. But they do have numeric keypads, and can access the internet on a tiny screen. Researchers believe that even this small amount of access offers huge possibilities, although equity is still an issue for those who don’t have the money to consistently buy phone credits.


“Mobile learning can help reach marginalized populations,” Vosloo said, giving as an example a library in Ghana that has no books on its shelves, but now has an e-reader, giving the students of that village access to hundreds of books that could never be physically sent to the library. That e-reader has opened the world to curious learners.


In Nigeria, UNESCO is piloting a program with English teachers. Program leaders send messages daily with examples of how to teach English language to teachers throughout the country. The messages are formatted specifically for viewing on inexpensive devices common in Nigeria and are modular lessons. UNESCO has received feedback from participating teachers that the support is changing their teaching style and helping them to improve. It also allows teachers to share their learning with one another, previously very difficult to do between remote rural villages. An agreement with the mobile provider keeps costs for users low.

[RELATED READING: Library For All: Free Digital Content For Developing Countries]

UNESCO is also studying how the World Reader app has changed reading habits in the developing world, especially in places where many are illiterate. The organization interviewed 4,000 users and found that, in general, users are accessing and reading longer form content on their mobile devices. Detailed results of that study will be released in February.

“Many parents and teachers still think mobile learning and technology is not part of education,” said Vosloo. “[They think] they are more for distracting or disrupting, anything but learning.” UNESCO is working hard to change that perception  and to help education departments to see mobile learning as an opportunity, not a threat. They advocate for clear policies set at the state or national level to guide mobile teaching practices. They’ve even written some guidelines to help governments set policy.

“It also sends out a clear message from leadership that, ‘we’ve considered mobile learning, we want to engage with it and these are the conditions in which it can happen,’” Vosloo said. The uncertain policy moment plaguing most of the world does not exclude the U.S. Districts are bringing tablets into the classroom or allowing student to bring their own devices, but haven’t always set clear policies. Some schools, recognizing the ubiquity of mobile devices, are taking their acceptable use policies and shifting them to become “responsible use” policies, trying to teach students how to use their technology respectfully.

[RELATED: How to Help Mobile Education Go Global]

Vosloo says even phones that only have texting (SMS) and calling functions can be useful for learning. “The main thing to remember is not that we’re going to deliver a whole textbook or learning experience by SMS,” he said. “The idea is what does SMS do well?” UNESCO has used texts to send reminders, for school administration purposes or to send small bits of content to students.

In one project focused on literacy for young women in Pakistan, students would travel to a central location for lessons in Urdu, then return to their remote villages for several weeks. The only way to reach them quickly was through text messages. “The biggest problem for new literates is forgetting what they’ve learned unless that knowledge is reinforced,” Vosloo said. Teachers texted reminders to the girls about reading and discussion assignments. “It played a very important role in that teaching and learning experiment,” Vosloo said.

Another program called BBC Janala in Bangladesh taught English to adults with audio. Students would call a number, listen to a three minute audio lesson and leave a message. The program used voice recognition software and texting for assessment. Again, a deal with the telecommunications provider kept the calls low cost.

Mobile technology is opening up creative ways for people around the world to learn from one another and the internet. In the U.S., school districts sometimes focus on glitzy devices and worry about giving students too much free access to the internet through their own devices. But perhaps there is a lesson from UNESCO’s global education work in recognizing the potential for reaching truly marginalized populations with fairly simple technology.


The UNESCO programs recognize the limitations of the devices their users own and cater their programs to those devices. They work around limitations and come up with creative ideas, rather than expecting every student to have the best phone.