Mobile Learning, the next step in modern education

Author: Paa Kofi Antwi-Larbi, Communications Officer at Chalkboard Education

Teaching and learning in Africa have experienced a commendable improvement over the past few decades. With school enrolment in Ghana and Ivory Coast moving from 59% and 56% during 1999 to 86% and 90% respectively in 2018 (World Bank, 2018). These efforts have brought education a long way, yet we can still do better.

Photo by Jordan Rowland

In recent years, we have noticed a somewhat diversified approach in the provision of education around the world; examples of methods include but are not limited to Public, Montessori, Walldorf, boarding, and language immersion systems.

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Primary school enrolment rates evolution since 1977 in Subsaharan Africa (source : Unesco UIS)

The public-school system has been the most common approach across the African continent and, arguably, the world because of its accessibility to communities, standardisation, and cost savings it provides parents. The public system, a large-spanning system with a generally homogeneous curriculum, is essential, but booming populations and funding issues are putting it at stress, with classroom overcrowding, low parental participation, inadequate technologies, etc.

Could we replicate the benefits of the public school system, while nullifying on a large scale the difficulties we have been seeing in many countries? The answer may be closer than we thought!

Mobile learning can be defined as the provision of educational content via technologies that are either handheld or palmtop devices. Mobile learning, similar to and often misrepresented as e-learning, is structurally different in the unique pedagogic advantages and characteristics it possesses. Mobile learning provides a lightweight, tailored, and portable solution which, when appropriately utilized, can cross all accessibility chasms. As early as 2002, experiments for teaching Italian were carried out via SMS to teach language lessons, and the research showed much promise with students having improved their language learning performance (John Traxler, 2005).

Mobile learning is often lumped together with e-learning; however, the difference between the approaches is their means of delivery and content focus. E-learning is focused on providing a content-rich platform, hyperlinked with a substantial volume of training content for students. In contrast, mobile learning has focused on lightweight material with a more personal approach to how content is structured. The means of delivery for mobile learning is geared towards portable devices such as smartphones, palmtops, tablets. However, e-learning is mainly conveyed via laptops or personal computers.

Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji

Mobile learning is the best fit for African markets, and the rationale behind it is based on three things: access, cost, and ease-of-execution. With mobile learning conveyed across phones, reach is extended towards people who would be left out if education was carried out in person or via laptops. Mobile learning is inherently cheaper for users because they get to save on commuting costs. The implementation of mobile learning is more straightforward because learning material is lightweight and does not typically require substantial internet bandwidth.

Why Africa is ready

With a lot of African countries being low in the global literacy rankings, the most efficient way to accelerate education across the continent is to leverage scalable technologies. African countries pay the most for internet access globally, infrastructurally there are not enough schools or teachers to meet the number of students. There is a need for a solution that is affordable and can easily reach everyone.

In 2003, mobile phone penetration in Ghana was just below 3%; this number has grown significantly to 128% as of 2016. BBC accounts that Africa has the fastest growth and second-largest mobile phone market in the world. Some countries like Gabon, Botswana, and Namibia have more mobile phone subscriptions than their inhabitants. The popularity of mobile phones in our part of the world should force us to rethink ways of approaching education in a maybe not so conventional but equally effective way.

Mobile learning will relieve the pressure on schools that are under-staffed and on professors who have a considerable workload.

Mobile learning will allow students to experience remote tutoring and peer-to-peer learning (a teaching approach where students discuss learning material amongst themselves). It will also relieve the pressure on schools that are under-staffed and on professors who have a considerable workload.

Photo by Santi Vedrí

It is naïve to think mobile learning will fully replace traditional education — and no one wants that. Still, it should usher schools towards blended learning (the combination of classroom learning with online learning). The opportunities of mobile learning are abundant and fast-growing, notable among them are gamification (incorporating elements of gaming to make learning material engaging) and tracking (data and analytics on students’ activities and interactions with learning material).

Concretely, mobile learning allows teachers to digitize homework, enabling it to be auto-graded, additionally, it can provide new tools for parents and the teacher to track and measure the pupil’s progress.

EdTech Companies are pushing the new age of learning

As efficient and effective mobile learning is, glamorizing it without considering the necessary infrastructure to be put in place would not be objective of us. There is some basic infrastructure to be put in place, such as electricity, some internet access, and mobile data, for mobile learning to be seamless. And these conditions are met for most people across the continent.

The technology is already in use in all African countries, and EdTech companies are growing everywhere, serving all kinds of public and private customers. The next step for EdTech in Africa is to prove its relevance to big, national decision-makers. Large public-school systems, such as Ghana’s or Ivory Coast’s, should start embracing this trend and these opportunities, and pilot or implement some kind of mobile-based teaching in their curricula when and where most needed: teacher’s training, training in rural areas, vocational training.

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Paa-Kofi Antwi-Larbi, is a graduate in Management Information Systems of Ashesi University, Ghana, and Communications Officer at Chalkboard Education. Prior to leading our marketing and communications, Paa-Kofi was operations officer notably in charge of training content and implementation operations of multiple Teachers’ Training programs in Ghana and beyond.

Educational technology in Africa and emerging markets

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