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5 Takeaways from UNESCO’s 2016 Mobile Learning Week

By Steve Vosloo on March 14, 2016


The 2016 UNESCO Mobile Learning Week kicked off last 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 was an expert panelist participating in the debate, representing one of 26 different countries, perspectives and experiences amongst the speakers. It was a truly rich and lively event, with every guest clearly impassioned by the power that mobile learning has to enable education in new ways, yet also cognisant of the obstacles to realizing those benefits.

We are now on the fifth UNESCO Mobile Learning Week and the field has grown in so many interesting ways. However, old challenges have dug their heels in deeper. In this context, below are the five key take-aways for me, some old, some new.

1. Pedagogy, not technology, must lead

Prof Mike Sharples (Open University) put forward the single, strongest point on mobile learning: that it needs to be led by pedagogy and not technology. When the pedagogy is effective, so is the (mobile) learning. Far too often mobile learning initiatives are headlined by the number of tablets involved. What should lead is the selected pedagogy and appropriate content, enabled and improved through mobile technologies.

While there are many appropriate mobile learning pedagogies, Prof Sharples pointed us to four in particular: spaced repetition for language learning (regular drip feed of content to reinforce newly learned skills); mobiles used in small group collaborative learning (see the work of Prof Miguel Nussbaum on this); mobiles as science toolkits (making use of the 20+ sensors in the latest devices); and mobiles as data collection tools for research purposes.

2. Apply mobile learning appropriately

Are we applying mobile technologies in ways that get the most out of what they have to offer? Associate Prof Thomas Philip (UCLA) shared fascinating research from Californian schools that highlighted the importance of context and place in learning. In his projects, mobile phones were used by students to capture data from the neighbourhood, on which the students then conducted statistical analysis for their assignments. This is a great example of maximising a device that so easily spans the different learning spaces of our lives. (However, when the devices were used in the school context, the students felt much frustration — more about that below).

A point was made by Mark West (UNESCO) that mobile technologies should be used for assessment in schools, and not be seen as a form of cheating when snuck into exam halls. Such thinking can help change the mindset around the possibilities of edtech.

In fact, fully embracing mobile means challenging our ideas of teacher, classroom and content (@activeducator). We need to think of learning spaces and not learning classrooms, and envisage the role of mobile in such contexts. Of course, designing with the user is the only way to truly achieve this.

3. Train and support the teacher

There are some realities that technology cannot leapfrog: the teacher as a key agent in the mobile learning process is one of them. People underestimate the seismic shift for teachers from analog (paper) to digital. It is simply not going to happen if the teacher does not see the value in making the shift and does not have the training and ongoing support to do it. Period. And if your teacher isn’t making the shift, all those shiny new tablets may as well be used as paperweights.

As part of the recent launch of the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (8 million hits from mobile devices in the first 24 hours proved demand for learning on-the-go), the government there is focusing heavily on training to ensure teachers get the most out of the resource (@t_shawki).

We make a mistake, though, if we only train teachers on a particular technology rather than for flexible pedagogy that can incorporate multiple technologies (@uclagseis). Building on the work of the UNESCO ICT Competency Framework for Teachers, as being used in Egypt, would be a good start. Continuous professional development, and linking teachers into communities of practice via their mobiles, is necessary to keep the momentum going. In South Africa, we have even stationed onsite facilitators at schools to support teachers in the first few months of tablet implementations. Very hands-on initial support, slowly withdrawing as teachers become more comfortable teaching with the tech.

4. Are we just frustrating them?

In Prof Philip’s work with high schoolers in Los Angeles, he found that the novel aspect of mobile-based learning soon wore off, that students felt limited when using mobile technologies at school. They were frustrated that, once in the confines of the school, their devices and mobile lives were being governed by narrow policies. For them, mobile learning soon turned out to be chocolate covered broccoli.

Many countries – Nigeria, Pakistan and India were mentioned – ban mobile phones at schools. This is a contradiction and a genuine lost opportunity for Ashok Pandey, a principle in New Delhi, for there are hundreds of millions of mobile phones in India. Apparently bad behaviour (read chatting, flirting, browsing, distracting) is cited as the reason. There are genuine challenges, such as limited bandwidth and unreliable electricity, but, overall, and for different reasons, this situation also leaves students frustrated.

I pointed out that in my experience with implementing mobile learning at schools in South Africa, the students were highly engaged and we had yet not reached the “I’m so over it” phase. Through the heightened engagement, mobile learning helped teachers with the management of large class sizes – over 60 students in some cases.

In these schools, we did invite the students to apply to become “e-champions”, a role that supports teachers in the practical implementation of mobile learning: handing out the tablets, offering first line support to peers, etc. The e-champions have totally risen to the occasion and are very proud to wear their special lanyards and be involved. Only time will tell if they also become frustrated with the inevitable challenges of tech (slow bandwidth, batteries dying, school rules, etc.)

The point, though, is that we (educators) need to ensure that learning remains exciting and real for students, as their mobiles are outside of the four classroom walls. Somebody suggested enlisting students to develop the ICT policy for their schools – we all thought this a brilliant idea.

5. Keep innovating

Lastly, while talking and sharing and recognising the challenges is important, we are on the doorstep of a profoundly exciting time in education and we need to “just do it” (@gavindk). We need to innovate, not digitize (@pgwest).

Just doing it doesn’t mean not being prudent about planning, logistics, intent and monitoring. It can also easily result in using new tech to teach in the same old ways. No, we need to constantly be pushing, reflecting, learning and iterating.

While I genuinely believe that for some teachers, for an initial and limited time, even a “book-behind-glass” (PDF on a tablet) is an appropriate first step into going digital – as it normalises the use of technology in the classroom, we need to be striving towards the transformation of education, where mobile technology – one tool in a repertoire of tools – underpins a fundamental shift to teaching and learning in a way that reflects the increasing mobility in society and in the workplace. We need to keep innovating.

This post was originally published on Steve Vosloo’s blog.

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Steve Vosloo is passionate about using technology in education. He's worked at UNESCO, Pearson South Africa, Stanford University, and the Shuttleworth Foundation on the use of mobile phones for literacy development, how technology can better serve low-skilled users, and the role of digital media for youth. All opinions expressed in this post are his own.
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One Comment to “5 Takeaways from UNESCO’s 2016 Mobile Learning Week”

  1. Steve I was there too on Days 3 & 4 and I think you missed the theme of cost and sustainability that came out in the closing remarks from Fengchun Miao. He gave 5 learnings in his summing up; and 3 of them covered the pragmatic issue of operationalising ML at scale, affordably, optimally and in mass markets. I think he was responding to the feeling from many attendees that the sector has spent too long a time on bespoke and costly pilots that prove we can do interesting and beneficial stuff. It is time to focus on how we use the mobile platform to change outcomes for millions, when there are only small resources and little time.