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
"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
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
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
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
Noronha can be contacted at email@example.com)