Tuesday, June 8, 2010

eLearning Africa 2010, mLearning is gaining momentum

1778 delegates from 78 countries attended this year’s eLearning Africa in Lusaka, Zambia. The conference included 60 sessions in 10 parallel conference stands, 4 plenary sessions and 20 pre-conference events.

One of these pre-conference events where dedicated to mLearning. Is was lead by Niall Winters and Yishay Mor, London Knowledge Lab, UK and Caroline Shakwei Sawe Mbindyo, AMREF, Kenya . The aim of the workshop was to provide participants with the capacity to design mobile learning activities. The focus was on how to how to support the integration of mobiles into practice and personal support and guidance for learners.

The number of activities related to m-learning had increased compared to eLearning Africa 2009. During the 2 days of the main conference 3 sessions was dedicated to mobile learning and some other sessions included presentations about m-learning.

Comments about some of these below:

One of the parallel sessions the first day was called: “Showcasing Mobile Learning in Africa”. The first presentation was made by Steve Vosloo, Shuttleworth Foundation, South Africa . He presented a project called m4lit, mobiles for literacy.

The title of the presentation was “The Cellphone Is the eBook Reader of Africa”. The inpiration for the project was from Japan where they have books on phones. About 70 % of mobile phones in SA have Internet possibilities, however many phones are very simple, often 128 pixel screens.

The IM-system MXit is used for distribution of short novels. Each novel is divided into short chapters, about 400 words. The readers have the possibility to make comments on the novel and discuss and "vote" about the content. The novels are appreciated by the readers, and the usage statistics in impressing.

In the project "Incorporating a Mobile Interface in a Blended
Learning Programme for Mathematics Teachers"
Ingrid Mostert, Stellenbosch University, South Africa Moodle, the open source learning management system Moodle with a mobile interface, was adopted as the programme’s learning management system.

Although the majority of teachers still access the LMS via a computer, incorporating a mobile interface made it possible for certain teachers to take part in discussions who would otherwise not have been able to. Various adaptations will be made to the blended learning model. "Firstly, more specialised training will be given during the residential course where teachers will be shown how to access Moodle from their cell phones and will clearly understand the different types of communication that Moodle can facilitate (personal messages, chat session and forum discussions). Secondly, if possible, teachers will be assisted in downloading Moodle’s mobile client onto their cell phones. Thirdly, scheduled chat sessions will either be between smaller groups or will have a specific topic. Lastly, the way in which the LMS is structured will be made even simpler to make navigation easier."

Ritta Vänskä, Nokia, described another SA-project where MXit was used, in this case for learning of 10:th grade math. MXit was combined with learning material in Moodle.

In phase one the system was tested in 6 schools and 280 learners and now in phase two in 30 schools and almost 4000 learners. The evaluation results from the Phase 1 showed that the usage of this kind of service among learners is very popular and according to the research this kind of learning method really impact learners’ attitude toward mathematics, and showed how learners are doing maths exercises 24/7, also during their holidays.

The next session was about “Improving Mobile Learning Environments”. The session focused on showcasing “a range of smart and low cost solutions that have been implemented to improve mobile learning environments.”

The project ICTBITES was presented by me. In the ICTBITES project mobile phones was used both as communication tools and as media players for in-service teacher education. The mobile phones empowered the students, the complete material for three academic courses was the hand of the students, and they used the mobile phones for reading e-mails and search for information on the web.

The last presentation in the session was made by Robert Pucher, University of Applied Sciences Technikum Wien, Austria and was called “Utilizing Low Cost Mobile Phones for mLearning.” He emphasized some of the well know, but sometimes not so often mentioned, keys to learning, repetitions and emotional involvement. He presented a project where simple audio files are used as supplements to learning materials in traditional courses. Students can download these files to most mobile devices and listen to these files at any location or while on the move. Listening to such an audio file can be efficient repetitions way to memorize learning material.

What is “appropriate technology” for learning? John Traxler, Learning Lab UK made the first of the presentations during the second day in the session "Mobile Learning"..."how can mobile phones add real value to the student’s learning experience?”

John Traxler discussed what is appropriate from a number of different angels. In his abstract he mentions that “education systems and institutions have seldom developed their own sustainable, scalable technologies anywhere in the world. It is unlikely that any parts of Africa will be any different”. Instead one has used “have used technologies for purposes for which those technologies were not intended or designed or sold.”

He also mentions that “Seeing sustainability at a national level in these terms is by no means easy because it probably implies the kind of ‘big government’ that would characterize the UK or Sweden but not the US or South Africa, the kind of ‘big government’ prepared to commission and then evaluate evidence and then change policy and allocate resources. In countries with ‘small government’, sustainable educational technology is in the hands of businesses or social enterprises, and the mechanisms to support and sustain initiatives are different and less obvious.”

Paul Birevu Muyinda, Makerere University, Uganda, presented “A Model for Mobile Learning Adoption and Implementation in Africa (MLAIMA).

Maja Braun from Germany's international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, presented information about their educational radio programmes, which now also will be distributed over the net, possible to access with a mobile phone.

Is it difficult to from the presentations at eLA draw conclusions about where m-learning is heading in Africa. One trend seems to be to "use what is popular among the youth" like the MXit program used in some projects. Another trend is integration with the popular open source learning management system Moodle, used several of the projects reported. Use of audio files was mentioned by some.

Some other reflections, the discussion about where and for what purpose m-learning, and specially mobile phones, are an appropriate technology I think should be continued and widened. Mobile phones have several characteristics that are different compared to other media for learning like TV, radio, computers or books. Mobile phones are immersed in the daily life of the user and "always on", familiar to many more users than computer systems.

But mobile phones are not the best learning tool when you would like to work with and compare material from different sources, the screen is to small. Learning with mobile phones might create a high cognitive load. They are not very good tools for typing text, but good tool if the input is voice or one can use the camera.

Also there are several aspect of mobile learning which are different in e.g. rural Africa from Europe and US. Some of the problems often mentioned when discussing e-learning in Africa like accessibility problems, power problems, band width / Internet infrastructure problems, affordability problems, low availability of PC’s and limited knowledge how to operate PC’s and computer networks. Some of these problems can be addressed by m-learning and usage of mobile phones.

More studies should be made evaluating these special m-learning characteristics, in a general learning applications and in African context!