The Potential for Learning by Mobile

by chrissy

I’ve recently noticed increasing amounts of attention being paid to the potential for mobile applications to facilate various types of learning.  A PBS Kids study, recently presented at the Games for Change conference in New York, found that one iPhone application, Martha Speaks, helped kids to improve their vocabulary by 31 percent.   It’s not surprising that people are starting to think more about how the iPhone can be used for learning, since, as this NY Times Gadgetwise article points out, “one of the added benefits of the iPhone is that children find it absolutely mesmerizing.”

This mesmerizing factor is not as true of the low-end Nokia, black and white phones found in most of the developing world. Yet, there are some researchers interested in mobile learning that are still hoping to reach underprivileged communities who do not have access to smartphones.  One example, The Playpower Project, recognizes that the mobile learning applications can be both fun and cheap, and therefore is aiming to develop a $10 platform to reach ‘the other 90%.’  Playpower is one project of a research group based out of Carnegie Mellon University which is working with many partners to promote literacy and learning by leveraging mobile phones.

Creating successful mobile learning applications for the developing world requires first, a recognition that mobile is fun.  The discourse around ICT4D can sometimes forget that technology will first and foremost be used for entertainment (see Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory.)  This should be embraced, not resisted.  When I was in Suriname conducting field research for UNICEF Innovations, we found that in communities where young boys had cell phones, they were often using them to look at “naughty pictures.”  While it is easy to cringe at this fact, it is also easy to see it as an opportunity: children are already learning to use mobile phones to access information and share it with their friends.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much information besides naughty pictures that a kid in Suriname might find interesting to access on their phone.  When other information is available, it is shared in the same way, as we found with another teenager using his phone to access Wikipedia (in English.) Which brings me to the second key point for mobile learning, the creation of localized content.  The truth is, even if Apple decided tomorrow to give out free iPhones to every low-income person in the world, literacy rates or general learning would not increase.  That is because applications developed for the iPhone, such as Martha Speaks, are only available in English and, even if translated, apply only the cultural context of American children.

It is extremely exciting to think of ways that mobile applications can help increase learning for kids and adults alike.  However, these benefits will not extend to the developing world until we commit to build low-cost, locally-relevant applications for communities outside of the current iPhone market.