Africa’s mobile phone e-learning transformation

Mobile phone ownership across the continent is rocketing, but can it expand higher education’s reach and quality?

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Source: Getty

Basic handsets, many without internet capability, dominate; smartphone penetration, in the industry jargon, is estimated to be 15 per cent at most

Lesego is 18 and lives in an isolated village in western Botswana. She is smart and wants to study for a degree, but the nearest universities are several hundred miles away in the east of the country, and she cannot afford to relocate.

Instead, she is learning remotely. She does not use a computer, because her family cannot afford one and the electricity supply is prone to frequent outages, but her newly purchased smartphone allows her access to the internet and a suite of online courses – offered by some of the most respected universities in the world – as well as the most up-to-date literature, all at very little cost.

This scenario is imaginary, but it is one that policymakers and educators hope might become a reality for many living in similar conditions in the world’s poorest continent in the not-too-distant future.

Driven by falling costs and a lack of fixed phone line connections, mobile phone ownership in Africa is booming, and is transforming everything from banking and healthcare (with text messages used to transfer money and send health advice), to agriculture and politics (farmers can receive guidance, weather forecasts and market reports, while communications technology has played a key role in recent uprisings) – so why not education?

The possibilities are being much hyped. Last year, the US television channel CNN declared that mobile technology had “immense” potential to transform Africa’s “dysfunctional educational system…as mobile phones – cheaper to own and easier to run than PCs – gain ground as tools for delivering teaching content”.

It has also captured the attention of the international development community. In 2011, the US Agency for International Development and Stanford University held m4Ed4Dev (Mobile for Education for Development), a round-table discussion designed to explore the use of mobile devices for education in developing countries, and last year the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation published Turning on Mobile Learning: In Africa and the Middle East. In February, Unesco hosted its second annual Mobile Learning Week, a five-day conference designed to explore the contribution that mobile learning might make towards its Education for All goals.

Mobile phones are already being used to improve teacher training and as a way of staying in touch with university students, but can they really improve access to and the quality of higher education on a significant scale?

The African economy has been growing at a rate of about 5 per cent a year for the past decade and, according to the World Bank, it is predicted to grow more quickly than that of any other continent over the next five years. The booming information and communications technology sector, and in particular the rapid growth of mobile communications, is credited with having driven much of this remarkable economic expansion.

The figures are certainly impressive. There are now more mobile phones in the whole of Africa than there are in the US. In 2001, only about 25 million people in Africa had a mobile phone subscription, but by last year this number had rocketed to about 650 million – an increase of 2,600 per cent. According to a 2012 report by GSMA, a trade association that represents 800 mobile operators across the world, there are 475 million mobile connections in sub-Saharan Africa alone, compared with just 12.3 million fixed line connections.

“Mobile phones are having a profound impact on so many levels of society in Africa – communication, banking, entertainment,” says Steve Vosloo, senior project officer in the Unesco mobile learning division for teacher development and higher education. “In terms of access, it is like no other ICT before. Obviously radio and television are huge, and play a massive role, but they are broadcast media, whereas mobile technology is an interactive medium. In terms of uptake it has massively surpassed PCs, so we feel that it warrants particular attention.”

Mobile phone ownership as percentage of population

One of the main reasons for the explosion in the number of mobile phones is cost. Simple handsets with basic capabilities are affordable for many, while in many places, basic “entry-level” smartphones can be bought for tens of pounds. Just 10 years ago, internet-ready laptops or desktops with similar processing capabilities would have cost thousands of pounds, and required access to additional technologies such as modems and routers. And with mobile phones, of course, comes the potential to access to the World Wide Web.

At this point, however, the gap between the future scenario and the present becomes clear. So far, only basic handsets, many without internet capability, dominate; in fact, “smartphone penetration”, in the industry jargon, is estimated to be between 6 per cent and 15 per cent in Africa.

And although the mobile infrastructure has improved massively – with the continent’s internet bandwidth (its capacity for downloading materials) increasing 20 times over between 2009 and 2012 – this is a continent in which about two-thirds of the population still live without domestic access to electricity (some innovative low-tech solutions are used to overcome this problem, such as using car batteries to recharge mobile phones).

These are just a few of the reasons why Gary Marsden, a professor in the department of computer science at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, injects a note of caution when discussing the educational possibilities introduced by the seemingly unstoppable rise of mobiles.

“There’s lots of excitement and lots of potential here in Africa, but lots of worry as well,” Marsden explains. “If everyone has a mobile computing device, then that’s fantastic…There is a lot of rhetoric and hype, but evidence on the ground suggests people do have access to handsets.”

Unsurprisingly, technology firms have their eyes keenly trained on Africa. Earlier this year, a Microsoft smartphone built by the Chinese manufacturer Huawei was released specifically for the African market; and after a tour of sub-Saharan African cities, Google chairman Eric Schmidt declared Kenyan capital Nairobi a “serious tech hub”. The city is already home to a Nokia Research Centre specifically dedicated to “understanding the needs of the African mobile phone user”.

And, of course, the situation varies hugely between and within countries, making it difficult and often unhelpful to consider them as one entity. Internet penetration is estimated at 15.6 per cent across Africa, according to Internet World Statistics (it stands at 83.6 per cent in the UK), but in Somalia it is just 1.2 per cent.

“If we start to see mobile technology as the silver bullet, then [mobile learning] is doomed to fail from the start,” Unesco’s Vosloo concedes. “It is not going to be the saviour of Africa’s education, but it can potentially make a significant contribution.”

Dolf Jordaan is head of e-learning at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, a country in which the percentage of adults using mobile phones soared from 17 per cent in 2000 to 76 per cent in 2010 (and is still growing). Here, mobile phones have become the key technology for students browsing the internet for job openings and information about bursaries and grants. Jordaan believes that they will soon do far more. “As mobile technology becomes more affordable and more capable, it will likely become the key technology used for communication with students, content delivery and assessment.”

He suggests that mobile phones could help to tackle one of South Africa’s key challenges: high dropout rates. “One of the big problems that higher education in South Africa faces is the large number of students that get access to higher education but do not have the financial and logistical support needed to complete their studies successfully,” he explains.

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