mLearning in a Global World

Posted: February 9, 2015 by Don Weobong
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Mobile learning or mLearning in a Global World

Recent studies suggest that in the United States, mobile devices are quickly closing what was once a notable “digital divide.” This trend is also apparent on a global level.

Mobile Phones Bridging the Digital Divide

In developing countries around the world, mobile devices are not only often far more widely available than desktop or laptop computers but also more accessible than landline telephones. In 2012, Haiti’s approximately 10 million residents owned an estimated 6 million mobile phones. By contrast, there were only 50,000 mainline telephones in use across the island. Compared to many developed countries, the gap between mobile phone and landline phone use in developing countries is notable. In short, mobile devices are frequently more readily accessible than landline phones or computers and as a result, they represent the most accessible—and in some cases, the only accessible—platform for off-site learning.

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UNESCO’s Report on mLearning

In 2011, UNESCO released a report on mobile learning. Among other observations, the report emphasized that smartphones are already in the hands of people around the world and that smartphone use does not differ widely across economic groups or cultures (e.g., Africans spend an estimated 17% of their disposable income on mobile connectivity). In addition, the report emphasized that while many developing countries continue to be textbook poor, they are often mobile device rich. In other words, there are ample reasons to exploit mobile devices as a learning platform.

The 2011 UNESCO report on mobile learning further emphasized that mLearning holds great potential to transform learning in developing countries. First, it holds the potential to reach previously unreached populations of students. Second, it holds the potential to extend support to students beyond the traditional classroom setting (e.g., by providing tutoring and collaborative learning opportunities outside regular classroom hours). Third, it expands opportunities for self-directed learning and personalized instruction. Finally, it holds the potential to provide teachers working in rural and remote communities with up-to-date resources and tools to carry out daily teaching tasks, such as attendance monitoring. In this sense, mLearning holds the potential to support students both as a stand-alone platform and one used in conjunction with traditional face-to-face delivery models.

As in the United States, adopting mLearning in developing countries means paying close attention to a wide range of considerations. The mobile landscape is constantly shifting and as a result, it is important to develop mLearning apps that are adaptable across platforms (not overly dependent on a specific device that may prove to have a short lifespan). In addition, some research suggests that while the demand for mLearning is great, educators have yet to fully adapt to developing learning modules for small screens. In other words, educators need to work more closely with designers to create learning materials for small, mobile screens. Equally important, educators need to be involved in evaluating these emerging tools. Finally, especially when the audience includes young people, the introduction of mLearning needs to account for the fact that mobile devices are also often associated with heightened levels of distraction and sometimes with forms of cyber bullying. In other words, any mLearning initiative needs to be accompanied with sound policies and guidelines.

mLearning, Local Learning and Cultural Heritage

While robust evaluation needs to continue as mLearning is introduced around the world, there is substantial reason to believe that it is already having a positive impact in communities where access to learning materials is often limited.

In Zambia, the Makhalidwe Wathu (“Our Way of Staying”) project invites members of the community to share favorite regional stories and folktales through SMS messages and voice recordings. The collected stories are then professionally edited into grade-appropriate texts. Subsequently, parents are able to access these literacy materials through SMS messages. Beyond serving to record and preserve Zambia’s rich storytelling heritage, this mLearning initiative offers reading materials in the children’s mother tongue that will ultimately improve literacy rates. The Makhalidwe Wathu Zambian project demonstrates that mLearning not only has the potential to reach populations that have historically had limited access to education but also serves as a powerful way to enable local educators to generate and circulate learning materials in local languages and dialects. mLearning, in this sense, both holds the potential to support learning and cultural and linguistic heritage projects around the world.

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