M-Learning in Africa: Lessons in Adapting

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One of the projects I've been working on is a Global Snapshot conference in which teams have been capturing comparative data about e-learning and m-learning around the world. I've been working on researching Africa in particular. Someone asked what ETS might get out of this, and there are several answers.

Mobile Tech

The most immediate answer is that we are learning a lot about the potential for using mobile devices as a content platform and a communication tool. We've been very excited with the potential of smart phones like iPhone, Droid and Blackberry, but the truth is that the U.S. and Canada are woefully behind the rest of the world, even places like Africa and the Phillipines.

In these places, SMS is one of the cheapest and most reliable forms of electronic communication. In many places, it's common for people to have multiple phones (one for family, one for boyfriend/girlfriend, one for buddies or work). On the other hand, in places like Africa laptops are extremely scarce. Few residences have the capability for the Internet, much less access to a computer. Online courses designed for the PC means travelling to a campus lab. Being able to access materials over mobile makes online education portable again.

Since mobile tech is ahead of the curve outside the U.S., so are the m-learning projects. One is a m4lit (http://m4lit.wordpress.com/) from South Africa which published a teen novel over the mobile phone, one chapter per week at a time. The goal was to improve reading ability in English, but also literacy in the Bantu language Xhosa (another language used in the project). Spreading out downloads over several weeks reduced the file size and increased the sense of anticipation - nothing is quite as compelling as a serial narrative.

Adapting to Scarce Resources

Another theme in the presentation is the scarsity of resources in comparison to the "First World." Not only are computers lacking, but so are fiber optic cables, iPhones, textbooks and electricity. Making do with less is a constant way of life.

Those on the team who had been to Africa had great stories of adapting under pressure. One person spoke of a team contiuing a talk even after the electricity had killed their PowerPoint presentation. Another showed a photo of a wireless hub attached to the ceiling with a coffee can. It's not that Americans don't adapt (I've seen our custom podiums), but it's at a different level. When our PowerPoint dies, our instinct is usually to panic, not expect it as normal.

Another interesting trend was how many institutions worked together, even across national borders. One person commented that they were ahead of us, maybe the rest of the world in leveraging joint resources. They've built OERs, online universities and even buy broadband together. There's plenty of internal politics and conflict, but the understanding seems to be that the benefits really outweigh the problems.

An Intangible Lesson

A lesson I keep coming back to when I examine other cultures is that there really is more than one way to build a community. I don't want to minimize the severity of the issues of Africa including the prevelance of AIDS, civil unrest in many regions, environmental crises and a post-colonial legacy.

But the fact is Western technology is not cruicial to a functioning society. It's the ability for a community to build a culture that works for them. A society with less than 24 hours of electricity could work if you plan properly. So can one without PCs but lots of cheap phones. Even here in the U.S., alternative technology eco systems can be built - not everyone in every demographic is convinced that iPhone is "the Way."

Ultimately, a new technology works best when the community feels a sense of ownership and control. Teens migrating to Facebook or MySpace was a decision they made and it feels natural to them. But for an older adult, being asked to join Facebook may feel oppressive, becuase it's an alien technology. Some people may find they like Facebook just fine, but others may always feel a little resentful that they couldn't use the alternate tools they were used to. Change happens to every community, but it doesn't have to happen in the same way.

A story I keep in mind is of a Mexican community speaking an indigenous language. They had always rejected the need to use writing since their oral culture was quite satisfactory for them - especially after they added a loudspeaker to transmit announcements to the village any time. It wasn't until they heard a neighboring community was getting writing that they decided to bring in a linguist.

I'm glad the language is being written of course, but it's probably more important that the community didn't feel inferior that it hadn't happened before. They were willing to wait and adapt what they needed from the outside when it was the right time. It's also important for us to understand that cultures without writing can be functional and have been for thousands of years. Maybe we can use technology to adapt to orality too.

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