Four and half years ago, I authored a landscaping report for the GSMA on the current state of mLearning, prompted by the positive uptake numbers of the then recently launched Janala project in Bangladesh. The report led to the mLearning and subsequently mEducation (now called Mobile Learning again!) programmes at the GSMA and eventually evolved to the broader sector Mobile for Employment which covered, learning, employment and enterprise, and sparking deeper research projects with The MasterCard Foundation and Alcatel Lucent. Being opened up to the world of mLearning was personal turning point in my own work and as I embark upon this new chapter with Panoply Digital, in a not unusual topic for us ICT4D folk, I wanted to revisit the original report and take a look at ‘how far we have come’. So let's dive in and assess how far we have come in removing the original barriers for the industry. a. The Business Case is Still Under Debate - The top level takeaways from the report were that it was not clear ‘who should pay’ for mLearning services and learning for personal development where the end user pays were showing the most promise for sustainability. The case for primary, secondary and tertiary mLearning solutions was vastly accepted as being unsustainable.
In a follow up report released by the GSMA, it was found that the mEducation market would be worth $70bn by 2020. This prediction has since risen to $97bn by 2020 according to Africa Brains who are citing information from Research and Markets Vertical & Horizontal Worlds of Mobile analysis. Whilst these numbers are impressive, it’s often not-so-impressive or obvious as to who is benefiting from these numbers. For example, highlighted again in the same Africa Brains blog, during the last 5 years, over 80% of all such investments in mobile learning were in the US market with just 5% in the UK. The remaining 15% took place amongst few start-ups in the Philippines, Australia, Brazil and Japan. Without paying the USD 6,250 for the full report (which I am sure is highly worth it), this leads me to conclude that the products and profits also remain predominately in the US. As afore-mentioned, I think we moved from a ‘who pays’ for the use of the service mentality, however, greater investment in emerging markets is clearly needed.
b. Scalability and Replicability are a Challenge – At the time, mLearning was a plethora of small scale pilots mostly led by academics and researchers. It was found that they were deployed with limited control groups to test a hypothesis and ended once the project funding did, hence funding was seen as a major constraint to scalability whilst localised content was a barrier for replication.
Whilst there is still no clear and accepted business case for mLearning to replace bricks and mortar learning, as an industry our thinking has greatly evolved to shift away from the ‘who pays’ mentality to one where partnerships are key to success and the balance of responsibility is shared amongst the relevant and required stakeholders. Outside of any commercial offerings, some of the leading successes in this field are those who have placed the importance of partnerships at the centre of their solutions and I am pleased to offer an example that I highlighted as a case study in the landscaping. Text2Teach launched in 2003 and still continues to grow today. Using an ICT-based solution to continue to grow through its model of innovation and community support. The project provides selected schools with an ICT package that permit teachers to screen videos which have been previously downloaded on a mobile phone. Content is relevant and local and has been integrated into the current curriculum. In order to guarantee the success and sustainability of the project, Text2Teach adopted a local inclusion approach and developed a cost-sharing arrangement scheme.
c. Handset and Technology Limitations – The key report findings were limited mobile coverage in emerging markets, handset availability and smartphones, handset literacy, screen size and charging.
Mobile coverage has continued to grow and from 2011 – 2013 market penetration grew from 83% to 94% in emerging markets according to the GSMA. This shows a strong level of investment however more than 20 of the countries listed have a market penetration of less than 50%. We can therefore deduce that many countries, often those most in need, lack the basic infrastructure to deliver learning services via mobile. It is almost always true that rural areas are impacted the most when it comes to access. According to the GSMA, handset availability also continues to grow however is likely to be uneven, with lower income groups lagging behind the mid and upper brackets (even with falling device prices). The result of this will be a massive, yet latent, market for mobile-enabled services using apps and the mobile internet. Handset literacy is a contentious topic with several projects showing that intuitive learning is enough for children and youths to navigate effectively enough around new technology to produce learning outcomes whereas many feel that teacher-led training is critical and can never replace technology-led learning. This is debate I am hesitant to enter into suffice to say I sit somewhere in the on fence. And as for the screen size debate, I firmly believe that whilst limitations exist in the type of content that can be displayed, innovation and creativity is dispelling the screen size is too small myth so this is a challenge that I think we have left behind. Charging and access to power is again a bigger challenge than I can tackle and perhaps one that is beyond the scope of most of those working in the field of mobile learning but there are certainly more options and businesses focusing on overcoming this challenge, for example M-KOPA who to date have connected more than 150,000 homes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to solar power, and is now adding over 500 new homes each day.
d. Still an Emerging and Fragmented Market – The original report findings showed that the industry was acting independently of each other and no major large scale project had brought mLearning into the mainstream.
I am pleased to say I think this is the area where I think we can see the most positive change. I recall my first mLearning event hosted by UNESCO in Barcelona in a small room of around 30-something academic-types presenting and pontificating about mLearning and the observed impacts in their a small scale research study (I speak with my tongue-in-cheek as had it not been for some of the leading ‘academic-types’ in this field, mLearning would not exist today). Today UNESCO plays host to their Mobile Learning Week with more than 100 Mobile Learning Week speakers and was co-hosted by UN Women. As well as this, USAID supported the foundation of the mEducation Alliance who hosted an annual event from 2012-2014 with more than 200 attendees. In both these examples the attendees has stretched far beyond the academic community and the partnerships forged both at the events and as a direct result of the connections made shows the vastly different landscape now driven by public-private partnerships. Large scale projects do exist however there is still limited data on their true reach, impact and overall success. Examples such a Nokia Life and Janala which flew the flag for large scale deployments have since been shut down but that has not slowed the market which as mentioned earlier, continues to grow. And from a personal perspective, the fact that people no longer look completely glazed over when I try to explain what mLearning is and instead nod, interested and with a degree of knowledge surely shows that as an industry we have moved forward.
So where do I think this space is moving? Well, it depends heavily on one key thing. You. Well not just you (that would be a lot of pressure) but each and every person with a passion to make change and truly level the playing field in terms of access to education. All the advancements above have happened in less than 5 years and they have happened because people decided to belief or deploy an idea so what’s stopping us from moving further? To end on some age old but true to this day sayings, I really believe that knowledge is power and if we can keep moving towards breaking down the elitist barriers that, in my opinion, still exist around education today, then we will be taking steps towards creating a more equal society for our future generations. And whilst Rome wasn’t built in a day, it was built, and our progress so far shows that we are well on our way to an education-driven empire.
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