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Mobiles, despite hype, failing world of education?

Sunday November 06, 2011 09:17:44 PM, Frederick Noronha, IANS

Doha (Qatar): 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.

Commonwealth Technical Organisation CEO Tim Unwin said on the subject here: "We'd like to believe that technology helps the poorest and marginalised. Yet inexorably, technology is used by those in power to remain in power." Unwin said he grew from being very optimistic about the use of technology, including mobiles, to being "very pessimistic" now.

Unwin was speaking during the weekend at the World Innovation Summit for Education, which drew 1,200 participants to the capital of this small Arab emirate.

Mobile learning could do so much more than it has already done, he argued. He cited a study pointing to a difference between access to and use of mobiles, and said the technology is making it "more difficult" for the marginalised to get the benefits we take for granted.

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

People with disabilities were still hardly getting the benefit of ICTs (information and communication technologies), Unwin said. What are the actual needs of the unemployed or workers in China, he asked, arguing that landed farmers can be quite rich, while the poor workers or the landless were being overlooked by the much-hyped promise of mobiles, he said.

Sharing the platform with Unwin were Indian-origin Shabnam Aggarwal, who co-founded MILLEE and founded The Teach Tour in the US, Laurie Butgereit (of Doc. Math), Java developer, and John Traxler, founder-director of International Association for Mobile Learning (UK).

Agarwal launched MILLEE in 2009 to use mobile phones to take educational games to children in rural India. The Teach Tour, launched in 2010, aims to help discover "why we've failed to educate children worldwide". Her other initiatives include HobNob (a mobile phone-enabled feedback mechanism to give students a voice in their classroom), and Hindsight Conference, which dwells on failures it takes to reach successes everyone focusses on.

She was optimistic about the role of mobiles in education, as Laurie Butgereit of the "Dr Math" project, which uses cell phones to help school students get help from university tutors for their mathematics homework.

Agarwal also helps Digital Green in India to provide agricultural education to rural farmers through video.

She said: "In India, we have been experimenting with making fun educational games on cellphones with an organisation called Milli. We were trying to entertain, teach English and access the poor 'all at once'."

"This is much easier said than done," she acknowledged.

There's no unanimity over who the "hard to reach" are, whom mobiles could help reach. Some see them as teenagers, rural dwellers, people with disabilities, street kids, women and the girl child, or the elderly.

Mobiles can enable people to use them in an empowering way, but the powerful can also control others from doing so, Unwin cautioned. "I come from a society (the UK) which has the most CCTVs (closed circuit, video surveillance TVs), and that could be scary," said Unwin.

Unwin was full of praise for China for attaining 95 percent rural electrification and 99 percent access to mobiles.

There are an estimated 5.3 billion mobile subscribers in the world today, where the total population has just touched 7 billion.

Estimates say India has the second-largest number of mobile phones in the world at over 850 million, after only China, but nearly as many as the combined total of the United States, Brazil and Russia together.

A couple of years ago, the World Bank blog on ICT in education noted that mobile phone use had grown explosively in developing countries and these devices were slowly "making their way into the hands of teens".

But despite the growing hype, it said, there were still "precious few widespread examples of the use of phones for educational purposes inside or outside of classrooms" in the Third World that were well documented or evaluated with any rigour.

Mobiles are more powerful. They're small, light, multifunctional, anywhere-anytime devices. Agarwal said each mobile has more technology in it than what is needed to get a rocket on the moon. Could they still live up to their potential and much-touted promise?

(Frederick Noronha can be contacted at







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