Is mobile learning the solution for global literacy?

In 2010, British newspaper The Telegraph posted a startling statistic: British children were more likely to own a mobile phone than a book. A study conducted by the National Literacy Trust reported that more than 85% of students aged 7 to 16-years-old had a cell phone, while only 72% had access to their own literature at home. And this is not just a British phenomenon; mobile phones are steadily replacing books as staples of the typical American home.

In an increasingly technological world where 75% of the population owns a cell phone, it makes sense to utilize this common technology in order to help push back against the rising rate of illiteracy. The strategy of mobile learning therefore holds great potential. Also known as “m-learning,” mobile learning makes education readily accessible to students all over the globe, regardless of time and location. Within seconds, students can be connected to an international web of nearly infinite resources and tools geared towards making education more engaging and entertaining.

It is this combination of accessibility and affordability that makes m-learning such an attractive solution for both domestic and global literacy. Whether used as a classroom aid or an independent program, m-learning utilizes the best parts of technology in order to reach a widespread audience of students from all levels of experience. Institutions like MIT are even offering to help innovative educators who want to produce academic apps by providing them with a platform off of which they can design their own programs.

M-learning as an affordable, accessible reading tool
The Sesame Workshop reported in 2009 that 93% of kids aged 6-to-9-years-old had access to a cell phone at home, and the number since then has continued to escalate. With cell phones in the hands of so many kids and innovators constantly on the lookout for new ways to make learning fun, m-learning naturally stands out as a unique and fun approach to educating the future leaders of tomorrow.

In addition to being portable, educational apps for mobile phones are also usually a great deal cheaper than more traditional educational tools, like textbooks and workbooks. Whereas textbooks and workbooks can cost an average of $20-$50 per book, mobile apps can be purchased for around $1-$5. E-books are also substantially more affordable, due to the fact that there is no production cost per book and downloads can be instanteously available to millions of users.

M-learning also provides a more personalized educational experience for each child, particularly for those who don’t receive enough assistance from their teachers or their parents. Flexible instruction, thanks to prefigured programming, allows for each student to receive the help they need immediately and progress at a level which best suits their learning style. M-learning also helps socioeconomically-disadvantaged children and parents establish academic relationships that work for their own schedules. The PBS KIDS Ready to Learn Cell Phone study used text messages as a way to teach busy parents how to encourage their kids to become better readers; studies proved that parents who participated in the program were much more active in their children’s academic life afterwards, thanks to the tips provided by PBS KIDS.

M-learning as classroom aids
M-learning can be used as an aid for teachers who want to implement technology in the classroom in order to keep students interested in the material. Some apps allow teachers to check in on how much information the students are retaining from class lectures; Poll Everywhere, for example, allows a teacher to poll or quiz up to 40 students at a time via text message and can even track students’ progression over the course of multiple quizzes if the students register their numbers. Other apps, like Backchanneling and Twitter, allow students to interact during class presentations without interrupting the speaker and also help quieter students find their voice in class discussions behind the safety of a screen.

M-learning can also help students to organize their materials outside of the classroom. DropBox, Kindle eReader, Nook App, iBooks, Google’s Play Books, and many more all allow teachers to upload readings and handouts for distribution to students in addition to in-class assignments. These apps also have tools that let students annotate and highlight the text itself in order to foster dialogue between students and their reading material. Research-focused apps, like Evernote, Genius Scan+ and Google Docs, also help students organize their research material collected independently.

iPad apps as an alternative to mobile phone-based programs
Though mobile phones do provide a cost-effective solution for illiteracy, the small screens and limited internet capabilities of non-smartphones present more problems in and of themselves. iPads then become an interesting alternative: they are still cheaper than computers, but they have more engaging and diverse apps than most non-smartphones, due to their interactive design and user-friendly appeal. What’s more, iPhone apps can also double as iPad apps, thus doubling the amount of available educational apps that an iPad user can choose from.

In order to test the efficiency of reading-oriented iPad apps, three professors at Iowa State University decided to let a fourth-grade class experiment with five different apps so that they could compare each program’s success rate. Each app targeted a different reading skill: independent reading (iBooks), sequencing (Popplet), visualization (Doodle Buddy), retelling (Strip Designer), cause and effect (Sundry Notes), and main ideas and details (Doodle Buddy). The researchers deemed the trial-run an overall success and noted that “we found that using the iPads for literacy instruction not only supported student learning, but students were also highly engaged and able to demonstrate unique and creative ways of reasponding to text.”

iPad reading apps have also been met with similar enthusiasm from older students. Educational publisher Pearson recently announced the launch of their new program, iLit. The program has already been initiated in the Miami-Dade Public Schools, the fourth-largest school district in the country, in order to help English Language Learners improve their literacy and speech. Pearson has also agreed to sponsor the district’s iSummit, a brief conference geared towards teaching students how to use their mobile phones as educational tools. Over 450 students have been involved in the project since its launch in late January.

M-learning as tool for adult literacy
Kids aren’t the only ones who could benefit from m-learning. According to The New American, 32 million adults in the United States can’t read and 48 million adults can only read up to a 5th grade level. Many organizations are now advocating for literacy program apps on mobile phones as a feasible solution for reducing this staggering statistic in innovative new ways.

The obvious disadvantage of teaching illiterate adults using mobile devices is the lack of a physical presence of an educator in order to help adults read instructions for the exercises. However, some organizations, such as Cell-ED, have cleverly designed programs that rely on the phone’s audio facilities to communicate the lessons to the students. Cell-ED’s system also takes advantage of the phone’s SMS so that even adults without SMART phones and/or internet capabilities can access the program. Though the company is still in its beginnings, Cell-ED reports that it will be posting a report of its success rates over its first five years by the end of 2013.

International opportunities afforded by mobile learning
Due to the fact that m-learning encourages cross-cultural learning and communication, many new initiatives are proposing to use m-learning as a tool for students in developing countries as well developed countries. Unlike other forms of technology, which remain expensive to buy and maintain, mobile phones are becoming much more affordable and available to people in these countries. According to the World Bank, out of 6 billion phone subscriptions worldwide, 5 billion accounts currently belong to individuals in the developing world. World Bank also reports that sometimes, it is easier for people in these countries to access a mobile phone than it is for them to access a bank account, electricity or even clean water.

Since May 2011, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), a long-time frontrunner in the initiative for m-learning, has teamed up with Nokia to supply more phones to more students worldwide. UNESCO recently held its Second UNESCO Mobile Learning Week in order to raise awareness about the possibilities provided by m-learning and facilitate conversation between government officials and education policy reformers. UNESCO has taken a great interest in promoting m-learning as a solution for global literacy and is currently sponsoring over a dozen programs worldwide in order to analyze their varying strategies and success rates.

International initiatives are met with great initial success
Many of the programs sponsored in part by UNESCO have shown great success thus far. For example, the “Let’s Go” project, which ran from 2008-2011 in the USA and Sweden, allowed for students to combine geo-positional data, multimedia and Web 2.0 tools in order to share their scientific findings with other students across the Atlantic. In addition to field-based activities and collaborative learning that utilized the cell phones, these students also became well-versed in the scientific methods of research and inquiry.

Mobile phones have also stimulated youth interest in South Africa through the Yoza Project, also known as “m4lit” (mobile phones for literacy). Yoza provides its users with access to free novels, stories and poems, and allows them to both comment and vote for their favorites. In providing both access to literature and an innovative forum for discussion, Yoza achieved 470,000 complete readings and 47,000 comments in only 18 months.

Similarly, in Pakistan, the Mobile Based Post Literacy Project allowed for 1500 adolescent girls in the rural province of Punjab to take a basic literacy course for the first time in their lives. After the initial course was complete, the girls were rewarded with mobile phones in order to continue their courses and text their teachers with questions. In addition to promoting literacy amongst the young girls, the results reached a much larger audience: the girls frequently shared their knowledge with their friends and families, thus extending the influence of the project to the whole community.

UNESCO’s Mobile Phone Literacy Project
The young girls in rural Pakistan are unfortunately not the only women who have limited access to education. The motivation behind the UNESCO Mobile Phone Literacy project derived from a simple, yet tragic, statistic: “women and girls constitute the majority of the 793 million illiterates in the world.” In many developing countries, women do not have easy access to literacy programs and are further discouraged by a lack of reading material and social prohibitions that limit women’s exposure to education. In response, UNESCO joined forces with ten initiatives focused on promoting female empowerment through literacy worldwide. UNESCO plans to release a comparative analysis of these projects later this year.

From Kenya to Afghanistan, Argentia to Cambodia, these initiatives aim to reach illiterate girls and women who do not have access to education, particularly those in marginalized populations. In addition to making primary and technological education available to these women, these initiatives also seek to teach women about a variety of other important topics that are vital to their daily lives, such as “civil and human rights, health and hygiene (including HIV and AIDS), nutrition, agriculture, or banking.”

Obstacles against both domestic and global mobile learning
Although the technological trend seems to be leaning in favor of implementing more initiatives based on m-learning in the developing world, there are still quite a number of obstacles that must first be overcome. In addition to issues with privacy and security, the phone devices themselves often are not sophisticated smartphones and do not comply with the majority of available educational apps. Vuclip, a mobile video company, handled this problem by creating software that automatically adjusts its resolution and features for the needs and capabilities of each individual phone; however, many other app companies have yet to jump on the bandwagon and access to apps remains limited for non-smartphone users.

Likewise, the cost of data in developing countries is still much higher than it is in developed countries, which limits the accessibility of m-learning to more impoverished communities. The International Telecommunication Union released a report last October that said that the price of data had decreased 30 percent internationally between 2008 and 2011; yet, this significant drop had more of an effect in developed countries than in its developing counterparts.

Still, the potential for effective m-learning is great and is definitely a worthwhile venture to be explored. As Nickhil Jakatdar, founder of Vuclip, stated, “I still am not sure whether a full-blown education on mobile (technologies) is going to be on the cars in the next few years. But I can definitely see mobile being a greater supplement to education taking off.”