Commonwealth of Learning Mobile Technology Research

In our last issue, Alice Barlow-Zambodla provided an overview of projects using mobile technologies in Africa in a desk-top research project for the Commonwealth of Learning. This follow-up article focuses more specifically on two case studies and challenges for mobile technology projects in a developing world context.

Initial findings indicate that there is potential for using mobile phones in educational programmesin the African context, and in particular in providing learner support.

Dunia Moja Project
In the recently initiated Dunia Moja Project under- and post-graduate students based at three Universities in Africa collaborate via cell-phone with students at Stanford University. The students can watch or listen to presentations loaded on their mobile phones. They have sophisticated mobile smart phones donated by Sony Ericsson with video cameras, audio recorders and Internet capability. This enables the students to:

  • Access a moblog which is an online interface which sends postings to mobile phones.
  • Text, send images and make phone calls whilst class is in session and issues can be debated through the Internet.
  • Communicate with leading experts in different countries.
  • Share course materials, exchange information, contribute course content and help design collaborative activities.

Whilst this is a very exciting initiative, it raises questions of sustainability and scalability as it uses a wide variety of strategies and technologies that would probably prove to be very costly to implement in a developing country context unless heavily financially and technologically supported.

University of Pretoria
At the University of Pretoria mobile phones are being used to provide asynchronous academic support in the form of: questions via SMS with feedback; phone in to listen to mini lectures using interactive voice response technology; interactive multiple choice quizzes; directing to specific resources for specific tasks via SMS. These SMSes are classified as:

  • Academic – instructional
  • Academic – interactive
  • Student questions – interactive
  • IVR – mini lectures
  • Lecturer response - instructional

Viljoen, du Preez and Cook from the University of Pretoria are of the opinion that the successful use of technology to support student learning depends equally and critically on the ability of their educators to design and develop didactically sound m-learning opportunities and environments using mobile technology

Other Examples of Mobile Phone Support
A variety of simpler technology strategies (some that combine different technologies) are being used that involve enhancing communication between learners and teachers who are geographically separated. The types of communication vary from simply sending and receiving of academic or administrative information, to providing mediated academic support e.g. for completion of homework or providing pointers to useful information, helping to pace or motivate a student etc. Such communicative support has been reported as being successful in helping support and direct students so that they persist and complete assigned tasks.

The technology used in the projects that were reviewed seem to consist mainly of one of three types of mobile phone:

  • Basic mobile phone requirement (no connectivity)
  • Basic mobile phone Java or GPRS enabled (with connectivity)
  • Mobile phone with Blue tooth capability (ability to transfer information between two phones near each other)

The phone capabilities impact on the way they can be used to provide support with the more sophisticated phones being able to offer more but are substantially more expensive. As very few young people have access to more sophisticated phones this means that in under-resourced situations many services offered by interventions are limited by the phone capabilities.

In some of the projects investigated the phones are linked to other technologies such as computers and servers, as well as relevant mobile phone software. However, there are related challenges such as:

  • Issues of compatibility between the different types of technology as well as the different software formats and platforms,
  • Network connectivity and down-time. In many rural areas mobile phone networks and electricity are variable creating difficulties in that there is no consistency in such services. This can impact negatively on delivery of student support services using mobile technology and needs to be taken into consideration when planning such interventions.

Further limitations as to what can be achieved using a mobile phone are due to its small screen and level of capabilities. Most projects investigated involved using mobile phones to support learning of Maths. This is probably because the set-up of such a phone lends itself more easily to a Maths exercise than it might for a Biology or History essay. However it is clear that in whatever way the phones are used, information can only be passed on in small packets.

Research and Evaluation
Available information on research and evaluation of mobile technology interventions is rather limited at present with the exception of initiatives like that at the University of Pretoria. This is probably because many interventions are still in their early developmental stages and have not progressed far enough to warrant an evaluation. Further more some projects are difficult to evaluate because they are virtual and/or have a security component to protect young learners and so cannot be easily tracked. There is a definite need for more in-depth research to gain further understanding of the potential use of mobile technology

There is also no clear information regarding costs and benefits associated with the running of the different initiatives. However, most projects that have been able to scale-up are supported through Public Private Partnerships. It is imperative that more long-term research be carried out to further understand the actual cost implications as this has an impact on project viability and sustainability.

Traxler (2005) summarises the situation quite succinctly by saying:

“Current projects in wireless and mobile learning are mainly ‘first-generation’, meaning that their focus is frequently on making the various technologies work, ensuring learning happens and satisfying funding conditions. These projects do not usually address issues of scale, embedding or quality, and technical challenges often squeeze the time and resource available for evaluation. Consequently identifying explicit and objective improvements or costs can be problematic.”

The University of Pretoria and the MRSI ‘models’ do have components that would be relevant in designing an educational programme. Other initiatives such as BridgeIT also need to be further investigated as they seem to have been very successful and scalable.

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SAIDE 2009