Mobile Africa puts on e-L plates

John Traxler is an expert in using mobile technologies for enhancing and extending education. He is based at the University of Wolverhampton and recently spent two months working as a visiting scientist in South Africa.


Mobile phones are no longer just an annoying source of background noise on an overcrowded train. Today, they and other personal mobile technologies such as media players, digital cameras and GPS are making their way into the classroom, the laboratory, the field trip and wherever else people want to learn, indoors or outdoors. And the phenomenon is not limited to affluent countries; developing countries in Africa want a slice of the action too. John Traxler is Reader in Mobile Technology for e-Learning and Director of the University of Wolverhampton’s Learning Lab. He was recently appointed as a visiting scientist at the invitation of the South African government at their Meraka Institute in Pretoria. He spent two months in the country looking at how pilot projects involving mobile technology in education could be expanded to a national level.


“We were exploring the notion that the mobile phone is Africa’s computer. People in the UK and Africa are working on that idea as the mobile phone has all the appropriate hardware, it is just a case of having a keyboard and the software so that it stops being a phone and becomes a computer,” John says.


John presented lectures at universities and offered advice to members of the Meraka Institute about developing mobile learning initiatives on a larger scale and encouraging investment from national government. He travelled around the country to cities such as Cape Town and Pretoria, but also visited remote rural areas where projects were adapting and exploiting mobile technologies to improve the delivery of vital services. “One of the main problems is that South Africa is a very big country with extremes of affluence and poverty, especially in rural areas,” he says. But mobile learning has been identified as an effective means of taking learning to individuals, communities and countries that were previously too remote, socially or geographically, for other educational initiatives. John saw a number of pilot initiatives which take advantage of the opportunities for learning offered by portable technologies. One scheme involved using a audio Wikipedia technology. Children send a question via a text message and the technology looks up the answer on the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. The children then receive a phone call and the answer is spoken to them, via the audio technology.


Another project is Dr Math, which enables children to receive maths advice via a system similar to SMS messaging.


Like many countries, there is tension between the gadgets that children own and want to use and the teachers’ need to be in control. John explains: “The teachers feel uncomfortable with technology that they are not in control of and they are perhaps not that good at using. The children are happy with doing maths on their phones, but the teachers aren’t.”


Although there is some technology, and pilot schemes have been carried out in schools in South Africa, there is little research capacity.


This was another area where John was able to help, as his role at the University is entirely research focused. He carried out field work to develop ‘Living Labs’, communities where ideas using mobile technologies in priorities such as education, entrepreneurship and health could be piloted. One of these was a remote rural orphanage, while another was within a community consisting of a HIV/AIDS clinic, maternity ward, nappy factory, bakery, cafe and car wash in the area the size of two football pitches. Initiatives here focused on providing access to the internet for education, something which is taken for granted in developed countries, and access to online medical services for data storage and analysis.


For John, it is the serious issues of literacy, HIV and AIDS, infant mortality and preventable TB in South Africa where efforts in mobile learning must be focused.


The use of mobile technology is still a relatively new area, and not everyone will yet be aware of it. But John has been researching the subject for eight years and says there has been a notable increase in interest and information in the last two years. And crucially there is more money being spent by government and education organisations on developing mobile learning.


For John, the future of mobile learning will centre on collaborating with other areas of southern Africa on similar programmes with small community enterprises. He has already worked with farmers and primary teachers in Kenya, midwifery students in Tanzania and a university in Cambodia. But in wider terms, John sees his role as supporting and developing the global mobile technology research community, which continues to grow and evolve.


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