Special Report

Mobile Devices Address Tech. Equity in Africa

By Michelle R. Davis — January 30, 2012 10 min read
A primary school student in Kenya uses an e-reader supplied by the Worldreader organization.
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In Ghana, elementary-school-age children who have rarely seen more than a handful of books are now using e-readers to access whole libraries. In South Africa, students are text-chatting with math tutors by cellphone for help with their homework. And in Liberia, educators will soon use electronic tablets to collect vital and accurate information about schools, students, and resources throughout the country.

On the continent of Africa, the use of mobile technology and online content in various forms is gaining steam as a way to bypass some countries’ most significant education hurdles, including rural settings, limited electricity, and a lack of educational resources. Experts say mobile technology—whether cellphones, laptops, MP3 players, tablet computers, or e-readers—is likely to aid many African countries in making a leap in education that was impracticable not long ago.

“The introduction of mobile technology throughout Africa has helped countries to skip several steps in the development process, which could have been much more prolonged,” said Sandy Oleksy-Ojikutu, an education adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, which is funding many education projects using mobile technology in Africa.

“As people got used to using cellphones,” she said, “they got used to using mobile technology.”

Mobile-phone use in Africa is now outpacing that of Latin America, making Africa the second-largest mobile-phone market in the world behind Asia, according to a November 2011 report released by the London-based Groupe Speciale Mobile Association, a consortium of global mobile-phone operators. Over the past 10 years, the number of mobile connections in Africa grew an average of 30 percent a year, and the report predicted it would reach 735 million people by the end of this year on a continent with about a billion people. Some experts say mobile phone growth has been spurred by the fact that cellphones are the cheapest digital tool available on a continent that lacks the infrastructure for higher bandwidth technologies.

The growth has drawn the attention of key players.

For example, USAID recently started an education mobile-phone initiative and last year hosted, in Bethesda, Md., the first International Symposium on Mobiles for Education for Development. The initiative aims to improve access to low-cost mobile technologies for education globally.

In addition, the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, has launched a drive to see how mobile technology can support its Education for All initiative to provide every child worldwide with a free, high-quality education by 2015. Last year, UNESCO established a three-year partnership with the cellphone giant Nokia, to which the company will contribute up to $10 million to identify educational applications for mobile technology.

“In Africa, it’s a situation where even at the best of schools and universities, computers are still fairly rare,” said Tim Kelly, the lead information and communication technologies specialist for InfoDev, a unit of the Washington-based World Bank. “Mobile phones are much more common and are increasingly starting to resemble computers.”

Access to Books, Concepts

Mobile technology is opening up a world of books and academic concepts to students in Africa, providing teachers in rural schools with more professional development and support, and helping governments gather vital statistics about their education systems.

Often, the technologies are not used to supplant traditional schooling, but to encourage learning outside class time or provide an added boost to skills development.

That’s the case with a mobile-phone project launched by Steve Vosloo in 2009, when he was a fellow with the Durbanville, South Africa-based Shuttleworth Foundation, a nonprofit organization working for social change. Mr. Vosloo wanted to increase students’ access to books and improve literacy among low-income students living in Capetown’s shanty towns.

Inspired by the cellphone novels, or m-novels, that had gained popularity in Japan, Mr. Vosloo worked with students to write a serialized novel called Kontax following the adventures of four Capetown teens. The story, aimed at 15- to 18-year-olds, was published online and with MXit, a mobile phone instant-messaging platform. In the first month, 60,000 people signed up to read the story.

The MXit platform also allows people to submit comments through texting. Since then, additional novels about the Kontax group of characters have had readers following their adventures. Mr. Vosloo has now launched the Yoza project, which provides mobile-phone access to 28 different m-novels, as well as five Shakespeare plays and some poetry. More than 300,000 users had accessed the library as of August 2011, Mr. Vosloo said.

While improved literacy was the primary goal of the project, Mr. Vosloo, who is now based in Paris as a programme specialist for mobile learning for UNESCO, said the stories also indirectly address other issues. In one of the Kontax stories, for example, a teenage girl’s mother contracts HIV, and the girl contemplates quitting school to care for her. Mr. Vosloo asked readers, by text, whether she should, drawing hundreds of comments.

Mr. Vosloo emphasized that “the second kind of real benefit of this medium is to engage readers on social issues.”

Because mobile phones are popular in South Africa, they’re being tapped more often for educational purposes.

A class in Senegal utilizes a solar-powered interactive whiteboard as part of a lesson.

Since 2007, the Pretoria-based Meraka Institute, a research organization focused on information and communication technology, has run a program on the MXit platform that allows high school students to text-chat by cellphone with University of Pretoria engineering students for help after school with homework, said Laurie Butgereit, a principal technologist with the Meraka Institute. The technology is even cheaper than sms texting, an inexpensive form of texting used in much of the world, and costs less than one cent per message, she said.

Cellphones aren’t the only mobile way to reach students in Africa. Worldreader, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, started a project in Ghana in 2010 with 500 students in two primary schools and four junior high schools that has students using Kindle e-readers in classrooms every day. Their local textbooks are loaded onto the Kindles, said David Risher, Worldreader’s co-founder and executive director, and large publishers like Penguin and Random House donated books for free use. Students are encouraged to take the Kindles home for reading, Mr. Risher said.

“Kids are reading more, and they’re reading better,” he said. “They had access to so little before, and now we’re seeing kids who have read 50 books or 70 books—crazy numbers.”

In addition, teachers have Kindles that are usually loaded with the instructor’s guide to the textbook—something many teachers had never seen, Mr. Risher said.

He said he chose schools in semirural areas outside the Ghanaian capital, Accra, because they had access to some electricity and could set up charging stations for the Kindles. Once the e-readers are charged, they can go about a month without recharging, making them an ideal technology for a part of the world where electrical service is often spotty.

Though Mr. Risher said he was initially concerned about the possible theft of Kindles, that hasn’t been an issue. Out of 500 machines in Ghana, only three have been lost. Breakage, however, has been a problem. So far, Worldreader has shipped broken Kindles back to the United States, where manufacturer Amazon repairs them for free under a warranty that covers the first year of use.

The program has also expanded to Kenya and is set to begin shortly in Uganda, Mr. Risher said.

“Our goal, which may be overambitious or just crazy … is that we really want to transform reading in the developing world,” he said. “We want to get e-readers to a million kids in five years, and we think there’s a real shot at that.”

Teachers’ Digital Skills

It’s not just students who are benefiting from mobile technology in Africa. Teachers, who often lack training and support in the classroom, are also seeing the upside of mobile technology.

Jim Teicher, the founder and director of Cybersmart Education, with operations based in Bernardsville, N.J., and Dakar, Senegal, said teachers are using cellphones for professional development surrounding his company’s product, a solar-powered interactive whiteboard. About 50 teachers are taking part in a training program with the technology and using mobile phones and sms texting—cheaper than making a phone call—to stay in contact with each other, collaborate on professional-development projects, and provide feedback on the best ways to use the whiteboard in the classroom.

“A big part of using the whiteboard is not about the equipment,” Mr. Teicher said. “It’s about integrating technology into instruction, and that requires deep, ongoing professional development.”

Teachers are using their own technology to make it happen.

“The fact is, everybody has a phone; … people may have no electricity, or very little, but they get five bars on their cellphones,” he said. “It has totally leapfrogged so much other development, and it’s exciting to see the impact of mobile learning.”

Mobile technology is also helping in the collection of data on schools. In parts of Africa, that task is complicated by remote locations, areas of violence, and frequent fraud. Such problems can make it hard to determine where schools are, whether they have teachers and textbooks, and how many students are attending, said Sonia Arias, the deputy director for performance and learning technologies for FHI 360, a nonprofit global-development organization based in Durham, N.C.

Ms. Arias is helping to adapt a longtime, education data-collection effort to tablet computing devices in a number of African countries, including Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, South Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia. The data-collection tool, called EdAssist, uses a paper survey to gather information that can be used by ministries of education to set budgets and allocate sparse resources effectively.

Data collectors in some countries are using cellphones to report the information and to map remote school locations. In the recently formed country of South Sudan, for example, data collectors have used GPS technology through mobile phones to plot schools, Ms. Arias said.

“We’re not about to do away with the print in many places, but in countries with a little more data coverage, it’s becoming increasingly possible” to use mobile technology, Ms. Arias said.

In addition, FHI 360 is in the planning stages of developing an application for tablets to do teacher observations. A data collector would visit a classroom, fill out an evaluation form on a tablet, and upload it to a central site. Instant feedback could be provided, giving suggestions for new approaches on lessons or teaching techniques. A pilot project to use that app is set to launch in Liberia soon.

“That could be huge,” said Ms. Arias. “The issue is that teachers do face-to-face traditional training, and then they go back to schools and they’re left to fend for themselves.”

Overselling Mobile Benefits?

But Ms. Arias said it’s important not to oversell the use of mobile technology in Africa. While many people in Africa have mobile phones, many aren’t smartphones that can access the Internet, she said. Mobile learning, she said, is not going to take the place of traditional teaching methods.

“It has great potential to transform, but let’s not get carried away here,” Ms. Arias said. “What’s cutting-edge here in the U.S. is still a long way from what’s going on in Africa.”

In addition, education with mobile phones in Africa typically involves a student or teacher using his or her own technology and bearing the burden of associated costs, even if those costs are low.

“That cost is passed on to the student, and we’ve got to think about ways to avoid these costs,” said Mr. Kelly, of InfoDev. “I don’t think it will change the basic structure of teaching in Africa, but it will enhance it and bring greater resources and incentives, and improve the way schools are administered.”

Vicki Cerda, who is based in Miami and is the director of communication and outreach for E-Learning for Kids, a nonprofit bringing online learning to developing countries, said the advent of the tablet changes the landscape. E-Learning for Kids offers more than 200 free lessons to students in countries like Ghana and Tanzania, accessible on desktop computers or Android-based tablets. Ms. Cerda said she expects a very low cost tablet to be introduced in the marketplace soon and to explode in Africa. “I know mobile phones are all over Africa, but I’m not sure that’s the right form for education,” she said. “The tablets are great.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Africa: Mobile Devices Address Equity Issues


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