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Mobile Telephony Revolution: Impact on Education and Skills Development, Shanti Jagannathan

Digital and wireless technologies have exploded in recent times. Mobile technology in particular has spurred a two-part revolution: it has jumped and skipped technology cycles to reach last mile customers (in 2014, mobile devices will exceed world population) and it has opened up completely new horizons through mobile applications. From a device for mainly voice communication, the mobile is now ubiquitous not only in presence but also in the growing number of functions it can support – banking, commerce, music, movies, games, entertainment, flight tickets, location services, education, health care, social services delivery, and so on. The power of the handheld device has increased manifold. In 2012, global mobile data traffic was nearly twelve times the size of global Internet traffic in 2000. The sale of smartphones outstripped the sale of PCs in 2012 and in many developing countries the majority of people are accessing the internet through mobile phones rather than a PC. The number of mobile-only internet users is projected to reach 788 million, half of them expected to be in Asia Pacific.

The mobile thus offers unprecedented opportunities to reach education and training to millions. It can bridge the digital divide by bringing high quality resources down to the most basic school. In the Philippines, the Text2Teach project by Nokia, Globe Telecom, the Department of Education, Pearson Foundation and Ayala Foundation provides educational videos on math, science, English and values to teachers in public schools that download on to TVs. In Pakistan, a Mobile Literacy Project by UNESCO sent text messages to girl students asking questions on a previous face-to-face literacy program. This type of mobile coaching increased the percentage of girls earning an ‘A’ grade in a follow-up examination from 28% to 60%. A CyberSmart project in Senegal undertook teacher professional development by sending a ‘challenge of the week’ by text to teachers. This helped to keep teachers in a professional development loop. In the Solomon Islands, in-service training support has been provided through closed mobile user groups. Bangladesh’s English in Action initiative aims to raise the population’s English language skills through the use of mobiles by 2017.Educational games are fast breaking into traditional bastions of education. In the US, educational games for the mobile are already outselling those for PCs.

These are only a few of the examples. New tools are helping to deliver e-learning courses in a variety of mobile operating systems and mobile devices in addition to PCs: course offerings range from language courses to finance, MBA and creative disciplines. Universities have started courses on developing applications for the mobile!

However, an even more revolutionary aspect of the mobile for education is that it can re-define the very parameters of education and training. It can promote a shift toward self-directed learning, collaborative and peer-group based learning. These are particularly valuable in the contemporary work place where training that takes people away from work, whether it is teachers in classrooms or workers in factories or businesses is considered a loss of productivity. Mobiles can provide ‘performance support’ at the work place, to reinforce impact of traditional training.

If conceptualized well, mobile learning can provide attention-grabbing audio and video materials, practice lessons, quizzes and other interactive materials to reinforce quality of learning and help students to meet learning standards at their own pace and at their own convenience. It can provide digital versions of textbooks, reading materials and other information that is available on the go. It can be a tool for on-the-job information, checklists and other resources. Trainers can use it to poll for feedback, to track effectiveness of training at the work place. The mobile is invaluable in carrying market and career information for employment and job changes.

However, it is important to recognize that the mobile cannot totally substitute mainstream education and training or offer quick-fix solutions. But it definitely has great potential to accelerate the pace and depth of spreading education and training and in delivering innovative methods. For widespread benefits to be realized, active policies and strategies need to be in place. Most countries have not actively incorporated mobile learning into their ICT for education policies. UNESCO has argued for explicit policy guidelines for mobile learning. (  Developing countries will do well to harness the power of the mobile juggernaut for education and training.