Friday, June 5, 2009

m-Learning at e-Learning Africa 2009. "Use what is Available!"

"E-learning Africa", a major e-learning event in Africa, this year gathered 1315 participants from 60 countries. 80 percent of the delegates live on the continent. Above is a picture of the conference venue, hotel Le Méridien President in Dakar, Senegal. Below is the "amphitheatre" (photo by Christophe Batie).

The conference included 4 plenary sessions, 60 sessions in 10 parallel conference strands, 21 pre-conference events, some other activities and an exhibition.

During eLA of 2009 in Dakar, Senegal, m-learning got more attention than in previous conferences. (During eLA 2008 m-learning activities were very few, like I mentioned in a previous blog post.) In eLA 2009 two pre conference workshops and two conference sessions were dedicated to m-learning!

One of the pre conference workshops, which I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to attend, focused on development of java applications for mobile phones" Introducing and Teaching Mobile Application Development" and was led by Matt Wilks from Canada.

The other workshop, sponsored by SPIDER, Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions, which I was involved in, had an applied approach. We called the workshop "M-learning for All". On the introduction slides we tried to emphasize that some of the problems often mentioned in connection to e-learning in Africa such as accessibility, power and affordability problems can be addressed by m-learning and usage of mobile phones. In the picture below I am demonstrating learning material on a mobile phone from the ICT-based teacher education project mentioned in previous blog posts (photo by Christophe Batie.)

During this workshop the Bangladesh Virtual Classroom, a combination of TV-broadcasting and SMS interaction was demonstrated by Annika Andersson and Rizvee Bhuyan.

MKFC Stockholm College demonstrated 3 projects using End-to-End e-Learning. (e-learning without physical meetings), below you see Kodwo Jonas Boateng from Ghana Institute of Journalism.(photo by Annelie Östlund)

In the main conference two sessions were dedicated to m-learning. In the first session "Mobile learning: What has been tried" one of the speakers, John Maurice Traxler, Learning Lab, UK, argues that African learners should "use their own devices". On one hand, millions of individual Africans choose, buy and use their own personal mobile devices. On the other hand, institutions and organisations in Africa attempt to deliver e-learning using big scale technologies that require networked desktops in secure buildings with mains electricity, software licences and technician support.

Riitta Vänskä, Nokia, is one the same trail; one should “use what is available”. She described the use of low end mobile phones, SMS, GPRS and the in South Africa very popular mobile phone IM-program MXit. “Mobile Learning for Mathematics” (MoMath) is tested in six schools in SA with about 300 pupils in total. Both browser based IM technology (MXit) and SMS technology are tested in the project. The MXit program offers an API (Application Program Interface) and some applications have been developed to exploit the learning possibilities of MXit.

(MXit is a nice product/system for IM (instant messaging) on mobile phones. Instead of using SMS, packet switching over GPRS or 3G is used. You are not limited by the SMS maximum of 160 characters, instead the limit here is 1000 characters. MXit is programmed using the Jabber protocol. There are gateways to other Jabber based IM systems to such as Google Talk. (I have been testing MXit for a while, my number is +46705513052.)

Also in the session "Mobile learning in Health and Education" MXit was mentioned, this time by Mpine Elizabeth Makoe (in the picture above) from University of South Africa. She is the holder of a grant to investigate the pedagogical potential of using cell phones in enhancing distance learning, and one of the possibilities she found was MXit. MXit can provide a platform where distance learners can be encouraged to work together as a group, to interact between themselves and their lecturers.

Carlos Tsunami (pictured above) and his colleagues had chosen "smartphones" (Nokia and iPhone) for their project "mLearning for Health Care Workers in Low Resource Settings". By using smartphones there is an opportunity to use the virtual learning system Moodle for interaction, and WLAN is used when downloading podcasts with learning material.

Jabiri Bakari (in the picture above) presented the background and the challenges in ICT-based in-service teacher education in Tanzania project, demonstrated in the workshop. . In this project a mid range phone that could run java applications, MP3 audio and Mpeg4 movie clips was selected, in other words, a phone constituting a “middle way” between the more expensive smartphones and the cheapest "voice and SMS phones".

My conclusion from the conference is that there is a growing interest for m-learning in Africa. A growing number of practitioners think it is a good idea to "use what is available" and that mobile phones hold many opportunities for learning, most of these not yet exploited! I think we should market m-learning to e-learning policy makers in a more active way.Today many policy makers still think that e-learning requires networked desktops in secure buildings!

Please feel free to comment on these conclusions (and the blog post as a whole)!