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Are Mobile Phones and mLearning Failing in Education?

By Steve Vosloo on December 9, 2011

Recently, Tim Unwin was featured in the lengthy article, “Are mobiles failing the world of education?” The reporter noted that specialists are having second thoughts about the efficacy mobiles have in the world of education, despite the initial hype.

mobile phone learning
Deaf students learning by SMS

I have few thoughts on this piece, which has interesting points and says so much about the state of mobile learning right now:

Trough of Disillusionment

Tim Unwin could be in what Gartner calls the “Trough of Disillusionment,” the third phase out of Gartner’s five-phase technology hype cycle:

Technologies enter the “trough of disillusionment” because they fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable. Consequently, the press usually abandons the topic and the technology.

Mobile phones are still too new

Is mobile the god that failed educationists? Only years after seeing a lot of potential in using the tiny hand-held devices to promote learning, specialists are having second thoughts about their efficacy in teaching the millions

To be fair, mobile learning hasn’t really had enough exposure within the education system to draw any conclusions. Of course there have been many pilots, and some mainstream projects that are way beyond pilot phase, but if we compare mobiles to PCs, then we need at least another 10 years of implementation within schools – and informal learning contexts – before we an know whether mobiles have failed educationists.

Lastly, on this point, I recently surveyed 76 teachers from schools in Cape Town about whether mobiles phones were allowed at their schools or not. 30% said that phones were totally banned at school. It is fair to say that not one of those educationists has ever tried mobile learning.

Don’t be fooled by simplicity

Many, many poor people have a (simple) phone. And what can you do with a phone like this?” [Tim Unwin] asked, pointing to the inexpensive phone he was carrying.

This is a question that could be asked to someone who found their job via SMS, or an election that was monitored with the help of Frontline:SMS, or people who are learning English through BBC’s Janala service using only voice and SMS.

Simple phones can be very powerful when used in conjunction with other media. Of course one day when most people have a smartphone and mobile broadband connectivity is widespread, then the capability of phones to deliver rich media content will be fully realised.


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Written by
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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2 Comments to “Are Mobile Phones and mLearning Failing in Education?”

  1. Merryl Ford says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Steve’s article.

    I think another reason that there is the perception that mLearning is “failing” is that many practitioners (i.e. teachers) are still in the grips of the eLearning paradigm. They simply cannot imagine how it’s possible to learn from such a small screen, use such a tiny keyboard, etc, etc. They equate e/mLearning with typical drill-and-practice exercises or learning basic literacy skills.

    The challenge is to use these devices in ways that take advantage of it’s portability, size, accessibility and the fact that it was originally designed to be a communication device. Dr Math (also mentioned in the original Tim Unwin article), does exactly that – it links a child struggling with math homework to a tutor who can help. And it does it in a way both young people are already familiar with, using a chat environment (like MXit) on a mobile phone.

    Teachers need to think beyond eLearning – look at the device, look at what it can do (most phones can now take photos, play music, make audio recordings, access the internet) and design blended learning activities that enables them to use the device as a tool to support learning, rather than as a device to learn from.

  2. Jakub Simek says:

    I’m implementing an ICT4E project at 5 schools in Voi District, Kenya and I can confirm that mobile phones are not currently allowed at schools. But Moi High School – Kasigau, with which we work already for two years is changing the attitude and policies slowly. For example thanks to their school management system, parents can now receive school results of their children by sending an SMS with a reg. number of a respective student and I can imagine more similar services also focused on students. Once the price of qwerty keybord smartphones drops further I can imagine a boom in mEducation.