Last week, I was honored to represent Panoply Digital as a panelist at a high-profile event hosted by the US Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, looking at girls’ education in Africa. The event was part of the Idea Lab series, bringing stakeholders together to promote dialogue and creative thinking around UNESCO-related issues – in this case, bringing together a roomful of high-ranking ambassadors from a number of African countries to talk about the challenges in girls education in sub-Saharan Africa, but more importantly, to talk about the opportunities. The conversation was a dynamic and challenging one, looking at questions of rural / urban disparities, the role of policy, and, for Panoply Digital’s case, the role of ICT and mobile in bringing educational opportunities to girls and women across Africa. I’ve written before about the catch-22 in unequal opportunities to education for girls that affects their access to ICT and mobile, and this certainly generated a lot of dialogue about the need to include ICT in gender policies, and gender in ICT policies, and both gender and ICT into education policies.
One of the most striking questions I was asked that night was about the need for radical change. To quote Guy Pfefferman in the eLearning Africa 2015 report: "what is needed in order to meet the need for skills and employment is radical, not gradual, change". Guy goes on to advocate that mobile phones should become prime instruments of learning, just as across the African continent they have become tools for banking. And so the question the moderator asked me was – do we need radical change, through mobile learning, to shake up girls’ education in Africa?
I pondered this. It’s a complex question. Yes, but also, no, was my answer. On the one hand, mobiles are powerful tools for learning. There’s no doubt that they can offer access to educational opportunities and supplementary learning where no opportunities may exist, particularly for girls. There are massive opportunities for literacy development and reading – a recent UNESCO report found huge numbers of people reading through their devices, and more girls than boys were using their mobiles to read. BYOD has so much potential. A lot of these opportunities have been covered elsewhere (including by me!) so I won’t go into them in too much detail here.
But a radical change, making mobile learning as prime instruments of learning for girls across Africa? It’s certainly needed – but it is achievable? My opinion is that there is so much potential for this to happen, and for mobile to transform learning, but mobile phones are not seen as fundamental learning devices yet. Perceptions of what education is still very traditional across many parts of Africa and Asia – learning and education to many people are in a classroom, with a teacher, with a book, and certainly not through new technologies. There is a need for a big attitudinal shift and perception change amongst the people that matter – not only policy makers, but also teachers, parents and students. I was in Rwanda a few months ago user testing a new mobile education product for rural adults. The response to the service was great, the user journey was working well, and respondents really liked it. But at the end of the user testing, a learner turned to me and said ‘But Alex, we can’t really learn from mobile, can we? I mean, it’s not like in a classroom with ‘real’ learning, is it?’ To me, that was the epitome of the challenge – until attitudes change, we won’t see that radical change. How do you get people to see mobile as a tool for learning rather than purely as a tool for communication? A lot of this has to do with the evidence base – to my knowledge, there are few large-scale empirical studies demonstrating real learning outcomes through mobile. They’re coming – but until we build the evidence base on this, there will be skepticism amongst policy makers, which trickles down into education policies and the learners themselves.
Of course, another point to consider is that mobile phones may represent a radical change in learning in Africa. But is this for both girls and boys? Inequitable access to mobile for girls means that we’re starting to see the same inequalities in the traditional education space being replicated in the mobile education space. Any shake-up in the use of mobile for education in Africa needs to ensure that girls are not left behind.