The social (studies) network: Africa's cellular education revolution

Africa is the fastest-growing market for cellphones in the world, and they're increasingly being used to power the continent's educational breakthroughs. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Two young women check out the photo of themselves with the Mandela statue on their cell phone at Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, outside of Johannesburg, South Africa.

A version of this post originally appeared on the author's personal blog. The views expressed are his own.

For a continent that has historically been largely unconnected via land-based telecommunications, mobile telephony uptake over the last few years has been nothing short of a revolution on the African continent.

In 1995 there were an estimated 600,000 mobile phone subscriptions in Africa. A decade later this number rose to 87 million and in 2012 it was estimated that there were 735 million mobile subscriptions on the continent. This makes Africa currently the fastest growing and second-largest market for mobile phones in the world. 

For the first time in its history, large numbers of Africans can communicate with each other over distance, receive information, and access services via mobile devices. As a result mobile telephony has significantly impacted the way people communicate, socialize, play, pay for things, and interact with their governments.

These connections also offer an opportunity for education.

Mobile technologies are being used to distribute educational materials, support reading, and enable peer-to-peer learning and remote tutoring through social networking services.

A tangible example of this is Mxit, Africa’s largest home-grown mobile social network. The South African technology start-up not only allows its young users to stay in touch by text chatting, it also facilitates live tutoring for mathematics homework. Dr. Math on Mxit, a project launched in 2007, has helped more than 32,000 school-aged children work through math problems by connecting them with tutors for live chat sessions.

While the mobile revolution is taking off in Africa, it must be noted that the mobile landscape is spread unevenly across and within countries on the continent. Some areas have good mobile broadband in place, while in others access is unreliable and limited to basic services such as voice calls and SMS.

To have a real impact on education, mobile learning initiatives must – and do in Africa – cater to a range of technology contexts.

An example is Nokia Life, an information service with more than 70 million subscribers in India, China, Indonesia, and Nigeria. In Nigeria its popular information channels deliver exam preparation tips for middle and high-school students, health education aimed at families, and English language learning. The service has traditionally used SMS to deliver the content. Nokia Life+, launched in late 2012, uses mobile data to offer an improved content experience. As mobile data connectivity infrastructure improves, additional services will come online across Africa.

However, the barriers to fully realizing the potential of mobile learning in Africa are often complex and significant.

For instance, while prices for mobile usage have dropped, they are still too high for many Africans, who spend on average of 17 percent of their monthly income on mobile phones and connectivity plans. In comparison, people in North America and Western Europe spend under 2 percent. Additional obstacles include a shortage of local-language content, low levels of literacy that make mobile learning difficult and a low numbers of smartphones and digital tablets that could enable richer mobile learning experiences.

School or district policies that ban mobile phone usage are another hindrance. Still, despite the challenges, which are increasingly being addressed, mobile learning, either alone or in combination with existing approaches, is supporting and extending education in ways not possible before on the continent.

The past decade has seen a surge in the number and types of physical devices that can support digital platforms. Where it was once possible to categorize devices into three broadly delineated “classes” – mobile phones, tablet computers and desktop computers – the lines between these devices have shifted and blurred, and today technology that fits comfortably in a person’s pocket or handbag can open a plethora of educational opportunities previously restricted to stationary technology.

Small devices are hardly limited in terms of power. A high-end smartphone has the same computing power and many of the same multimedia functionalities as mid-range desktop computers that are 20 times as large. Additionally, high-resolution touch screens, intuitive operating systems and applications designed specifically for use on small screens have mitigated, if not eliminated, many of the disadvantages of mobile technology versus traditional desktop computers.

As mobile hardware and the networks that support them become more powerful, more dynamic and more affordable, the mobility of these technologies offers new options for teaching and learning. Education studies have historically conceptualized technology as existing in two separate spheres – at schools and in students’ homes – but this dichotomous view is changing and does not fully describe how many young people use and conceive of technology.

Today, learners are likely to have technology with them constantly, either at home, at school, on public transportation, at work, even in bed. Technology use is no longer, to a large extent, geographically constrained.

The widespread availability of information technologies has also sparked important societal changes, and these changes are beginning to ripple into education. People are rightfully asking what easy and instant access to these devices means for education.

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