Can mobile learning bridge the rural knowledge gap?

In this digital era, characterized by the rapid development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), illiterate people are at greater risk than ever. Those with less education will find it increasingly difficult to participate in developing knowledge-based societies, thus increasing social division and the digital and knowledge divide (Reimers, 2000). Without an innovative intervention to counteract the effects of globalization and technological advances, the gap will only increase, leaving the most uneducated without the necessary skills to ensure their welfare.

In the highly unequal societies of Latin America, inequality is particularly acute for indigenous people living in rural areas. There are approximately 50 to 60 million disadvantaged indigenous people living mostly in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru (UNDP, 2004).

The Advantages of Mobile Technology

In the past nine years there has been growing interest in the role of mobile devices in meeting educational challenges. Many researchers have pointed out the distinct benefits that mobile devices offer as educational tools. Today’s mobile devices can store and deliver a vast amount of information, including a wide variety of curricular materials targeted at appropriate ages. The rapid innovations and advances in ICT -specifically increases in processing power, memory, and connectivity for mobile, handheld devices- have made mobile devices more interactive and media-rich than ever before (Pea and Maldonado 2006).

Moreover, mobile devices require substantially less infrastructure and electricity, which gives them many advantages over computers. Mobile devices have already reached the most isolated populations and had a tremendous impact on individuals’ lives (Attewell 2005). Research has shown mobile learning devices have the potential to widen access and supplement education in the most remote and underserved areas of the world (Zurita and Nussbaum 2004; Kim 2009). Many have noted that this makes them more apt tools for large-scale impact (Kim, Miranda, and Olaciregui 2008).

Mobile devices also have an advantage over computers with respect to educational content. A key limitation of computer-centric initiatives is the lack of varied and robust learning software applications. The rapid growth of mobile applications (i.e. apps) on mobile phones has greatly expanded opportunities for learning with mobile devices. There are over 500,000 apps available on iTunes and over 300,000 on Android (Schuler 2012).  In a comprehensive study of the educational app, Schuler (2012) reports that: “Apps are an important and growing medium for providing educational content to children, both in terms of their availability and popularity”. Moreover, many apps are able to promote learning in a game-like environment, making them far more engaging than traditional learning pedagogies.

Unfortunately, the influence of mobile phones is often decried as a distraction, leading many schools to ask students to leave their phones off while in class. However, by requiring students to turn them off, schools are missing out on the opportunity to capitalize on mobiles’ computational capacity and interactive nature. This is because there are practically no pedagogical techniques designed to utilize numerous networked mobile phones to support learning in the classroom. Mobile technology can take advantage of students’ natural creativity as a basis for classroom learning rather than executing memorized rules (such as those for solving arithmetic problems). Therefore, we believe that the real power of mobile devices in classrooms is to prepare children to be creative thinkers and active problem-solvers.

As things stand now, mobile learning technology makes sense for children living in rural areas or areas without many resources, including electricity. A mobile learning device that can be mass-produced at an affordable price, along with a solar-cell charger, can be useful even without the actual ability to connect to the Internet. However, since many developing countries are prioritizing the direct installation of cellphone networks in rural areas instead of connecting conventional landlines, we can expect that in the future more and more disadvantaged people in both rural and urban areas obtain the advantage of mobile networks and the information superhighway (Sharples et al., 2005) and increasingly leverage technology for mobile learning.

The many advantages of mobile devices make them particularly apt for supporting student-centered learning. Prior studies have documented how mobile devices can facilitate experimentation in real-world settings, help students collect and record information, and allow learners to share their experiences and information with peers (Looi et al. 2010; Squire and Klopfer 2007). According to Looi “the portability and versatility of mobile devices has significant potential in promoting a pedagogical shift from didactic teacher-centered to participatory student-centered learning” (156).

Although the results of several studies in different Latin American countries are still being gathered, it is clear from an analysis of the information compiled as part of ongoing research conducted in the last five years by Kim (2013) that the following topics need to be considered:

1- Mobile phones offer a number of critical features:
a) Portability: mobile device the size of the palm, or toy-like.
b) Joy in learning: content in the form of short stories, cartoons and songs the children sing together.
c) Ease of use: anyone can learn to operate the basic functions of a mobile learning device in a matter of minutes.
d) Durability: highly resistant to shock and dust.
e) Maintenance: it only needs recharging.

Due to the combination of these features, indigenous children who are in the early stages of literacy find that playing with mobile learning devices is much more exciting than other possible activities in the remote and inhospitable places where they live.

2- In regions that lack structural support (e.g. teachers, school facilities, parents who are literate) mobile learning can be ideal and unique or just another learning option in adverse contexts. In general we can say that one thing is universal in all situations and cultures: learning should be fun, satisfying and rewarding. The joy of learning is a key feature that needs to be incorporated and properly balanced in these applications for young children.

Published in collaboration with WISE, an initiative of Qatar Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Claudia Muñoz-Reyes is an expert in international development and technologies for education.

Image: Men are silhouetted against a video screen as they pose with smartphones. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic.

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