As a UNESCO Thematic Think Piece (2012) on education and skills beyond 2015 predicted, there will be a shift in education, away from a focus on teaching in a classroom to an increased focus on learning, which happens both formally and informally throughout the day. This concept of a learning experience that spans institutional and home settings, where both information and learner are untethered from fixed time and space teaching, is enabled by mobile technology.
The rise of mobile usage has been spectacular: since 2011, South Africa has had more mobile-cellular subscriptions than inhabitants and a full third (34%) of the population now owns a smartphone. However, mobile usage outside the four walls of the classroom has far outpaced the response of Education, which is now playing catch-up. Outside the classroom, people are connected and mobile, using devices that they have bought and manage by their own volition. Inside the institution, the “computer and e-learning projects have historically been constrained by hardware that is expensive, fragile, heavy and kept in tightly controlled settings” (West & Vosloo, 2013). The former is bottom-up; the latter is top-down, driven by higher-level decision making. When conceived in this way, as the UNESCO Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning describes, mobile learning does not only extend e-learning, it also disrupts it.
As mobile learning reaches large scale for the first time, it is now interesting to see this disruption play out in the context of government- and institution-led mobile learning: a bottom-up learning experience, implemented from the top. Perhaps it is due to this fundamental tension, coupled with the reality that Education systems are resistant to change, that the implementation of mobile learning has seen many challenges.
It is crucial, when implementing mobile learning, to take a considered approach that best utilises its affordances in concert with other technologies and educational practices. There are many technologies that can be employed in the service of teaching and learning, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, mobile phones are always-on and close-at-hand, ideal for immediate and cost-effective reaching of users. Their small screens are not ideal for certain types of content, though, such as illustrated ebooks. Here tablets are more appropriate; their larger displays also supporting easier input and interactivity. Print books, while not interactive, are highly durable, so familiar to use that they do not require training, and do not have batteries that need to be charged.
Three principles stand out from a number of South African education initiatives explored in more depth in the Bertha Centre’s analysis piece that have included a mobile component in recent years:
- Creating a holistic and complementary learning offering
- Following a user-centred design approach that is responsive
- Comprehensive teacher training and engagement
These principles lay the foundation for the continued growth of mobile learning, even as it simultaneously extends and disrupts education practices. Today it is necessary to take “baby steps”, tomorrow the future promises a joined-up learning experience that is tracked, adaptive and personalised. The real power of mobile learning will lie in its ability to deliver such promises at school, on the playground and at home – the full realisation of anytime, anywhere learning.
Camilla Swart is a member of the Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business.
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