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Finding Inspiration in Developing World Mobile Learning: Success Stories and Lessons Learned

An astounding 79 percent of people in the developing world had a mobile phone subscription at the end of 2011, more than the percentage with electricty. As more people in developing countries connect online, children are harnessing the power of mobile devices to learn with impressive results:

  1. The test scores of girls living in an insecure region of Pakistan saw a dramatic rise after they began using SMS to communicate with their teachers from the safety of their homes, with their parents’ permission, during school breaks. After four months, the percentage of girls who achieved an A level on literacy examinations increased from 27 percent to 54 percent. Likewise, the percentage of girls who achieved a C level on examinations decreased from  52 percent to 15 percent.

  2. Teenagers in book-poor, cell phone-rich South Africa devoured two mobile phone novels (m-novels), making them mega hits. In just seven months the two stories were read over 34,000 times on mobile phones. To put this in context, a book is considered a best seller in South Africa if 3,000 copies are sold.

  3. Children in Ghana showed marked improvement in their English test scores after receiving Kindles preloaded with children’s stories, Ghanan folk tales, and local sports news.  The video below explains more about this pilot project’”which is expanding into an effort to bring digital books, including text books, via mobile phone to even more isolated places in the developing world.

What are you doing with mobile apps and digital learning?

While there are many extraordinary examples of technology ushering in amazing results in developing world classrooms, there are also other less-publicized examples of advanced technology failing because teachers and students were not familiar with it, schools lacked the resources to maintain it, or local educational methods could not adapt to it. A recent Brookings Institute report on bringing technology into the classroom in the developing world contains seven principles for smart use of technology in education. These principles are a good read for educators in the developed world as well.

The seven principles are:

  1. Educational problem first. Start with an educational problem that needs to be addressed and then assess, which, if any, technology is best to do the job. In other words, do not start with an impressive or trendy technology and then try to integrate it into your curricula. That’s a recipe for deploying technology that is not the best for the problem at hand nor the most cost-effective.

  2. Added value. If technology is to be deployed to address an educational problem, make sure it will add value to other areas, such as expanding educational access and opportunity; improving student-, teacher-, and school-level outcomes; or back-office activities.

  3. Sustainability. Be sure to carefully consider how the technology will be maintained over time. This includes factoring in the total cost of ownership, the ultimate relevance of the technology to the particular location, access to appropriate infrastructure, and your human resource capacity.

  4. Multiple uses. Where possible, select a technology that can be used for multiple purposes. This will enable more students to benefit from the technology as well as justify the high start-up costs.

  5. Lowest cost. When many different types of technology can solve the educational problem needing to be addressed, other things equal, it is best to select the least expensive option.

  6. Reliability. Before deploying a technology, make sure you have the capacity to maintain it. Assessing the reliability of a technology includes making sure you have access to necessary requirements, such as electricity or Internet connectivity, adequately skilled staff and maintenance personnel, and sufficient budget to update or upgrade the technology.

  7. Ease of use. Technology should be easy for your students to use. The impact of excessively complicated technologies can be small, especially when extensive training is required for students and teachers to learn how to operate them. Meeting students where they are (i.e., harnessing technologies and websites they are already using) is often a better solution.


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