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Learning Is an SMS Away: Mobile Phones in Education

Posted on 17/09/2009

Remote teachers can request assistance by uploading text messages to Moodle (a virtual learning environment) through which faculty can track comments and provide support. Photo: AKDN Remote teachers can request assistance by uploading text messages to Moodle (a virtual learning environment) through which faculty can track comments and provide support. Photo: AKDN Penina Onyango, Head Teacher at Kawino Secondary School in Kisumu, Kenya, no longer awaits the arrival of Brown Onguko – her course facilitator at AKU’s Institute for Educational Development, East Africa (AKU-IED, EA) – from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to help resolve her teaching challenges. Instead, she has a much better bargain: she can communicate with Onguko when she actually needs his help, thanks to her mobile phone and text messaging, which costs her as little as Ksh10 (US$ 0.13) per message

Although the University is already using eLearning technology to enhance outcomes for students, it relies on the use of the internet, access to which is still limited, slow or expensive in many developing countries. In Africa, less than 5 per cent of people use the internet – in Kenya only 2.2 per cent of households have internet access and the figure drops to 0.6 per cent in Tanzania, compared to 72.1 per cent in Canada and 61.7 per cent in the US, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) 2009 report Measuring the Information Society.

The mobile phone, however, has become the single most widespread information and communication technology tool today. ITU points out that two-thirds of the world’s mobile phone subscriptions are from the developing world, with Africa continuing to experience the highest growth rate. While just one in 50 Africans had a mobile phone at the beginning of this century, over a quarter of the continent’s population has one today. In 2007, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda had about 30, 20 and 13 mobile phone subscriptions for every 100 people respectively.

AKU-IED, EA has begun exploring the promise of mobile telephony in education in Kisumu, one of six sites where an Educational Leadership and Management certificate course is offered. The five other sites, Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya, Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kampala in Uganda, will be brought into the fold later. Normally, course facilitators travel over 1,000 km from Dar es Salaam to Kisumu to physically support participants through the school or workplace-based stage of the course. But as Onguko, who initiated the mobile technology programme at the Institute, explains, “the field sessions entail discussions about the participants’ action research study, which can very well be done through SMS without having to board a plane, book a room in a hotel for 10 days, and then hire a taxi to visit all the schools involved.”

Instead, 22 public sector head teachers and three Kenyan Ministry of Education officers were offered the opportunity to participate in learning using a mobile phone in 2008. Participants could text message their facilitators or even their colleagues for help. They met regularly in groups of three to discuss issues in establishing new practices in their schools and shared their learning with AKU-IED, EA through SMS messages, which were then uploaded to Moodle (a virtual learning environment) that helped faculty track individual comments and provide support to the larger group. Ouma Felix Otieno, Head Teacher and one of the course participants from Opande Primary School said, “The service kept us linked together, kept us updated and involved all in the programme. It kept participants on their toes, in line with the facilitators’ expectations, and extended our learning areas even to the field and home, not necessarily only in the school or classroom.”

“The experience of teaching in this manner has been a journey of learning,” added Dr Jane Rarieya, Head, Teaching Programmes, AKU-IED, EA. “At times it was overwhelming because I would get a large number of messages in one go, especially after a seminar or cluster meeting. Fortunately these would be stored on my phone and I could provide well-thoughtout responses to the participants.”

A significant feature of AKU-IED, EA’s programme is learning through practice. But as Dr Iffat Farah, Acting Director, AKU-IED, EA points out, “providing support for such learning is extremely resource intensive. Text messaging using mobile phones makes it possible to provide field support to a larger number of teachers at a much lower cost.” In this experiment, text messaging cost around US$ 4 per participant, versus an estimated US$ 120 per person for traditional face-to-face visits by just one facilitator, in the three-month support period.

Like any innovation in its infancy, the mobile learning system is not without flaws; beside technical difficulties such as lost messages in cyberspace, there is also the question of maintaining assessment quality, since a phone service is essentially replacing physical monitoring. However, according to Dr Rarieya, “the course participants who were in frequent contact with their faculty supervisors through text messaging submitted good action research reports and we attribute that partly to the support they got through SMS. Moreover, mobile learning has allowed us to provide more frequent support to participants from distant and remote locations.” Lessons learned from this experiment will contribute to AKU-IED, EA’s ongoing research in information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education, conducted in partnership with the universities of Calgary and Cambridge. This research aims to study the impact of ICT-related interventions for professional development and training.

Mobile technology may well be one of the critical components of teaching and learning in the future in the developing world, enabling AKU-IED, EA to offer high quality, context-relevant programmes in East Africa.

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