Mark Weingarten wrote an interesting article over at MobileActive.org about the state of m-learning, including skeptical viewpoints and promising results from 3rd-party researchers. Matthew Kam's MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning Literacies in Emerging Economies), one of our 2008 DML Competition winners, did the research on "unsupervised mobile learning in rural India" that Weingarten mentions in the final paragraph below. To read the full article, visit MobileActive.org here.
Has the M-Learning Moment Arrived? By Mark Weingarten
The field of mLearning, or learning facilitated by mobile devices, has been generating growing interest in recent years and months. Outspoken advocates of mLearning, such as the authors of a report recently released by GSMA Development Fund, assert that the increasing ubiquity of mobile phone penetration (especially in the developing world) has the potential to reach more students than ever before. Critics, such as Kentaro Toyama, reply that digital content (mobile or otherwise) does little to improve the quality of education and that the hype surrounding it is unwarranted.
One opinion, shared by skeptics and advocates alike, is that "Technology is only a tool: no technology can fix a bad educational philosophy or compensate for bad practice. In fact, if we are going in the wrong direction, technology will get us there faster. Providing schools with hardware and software does not automatically reform teaching and improve learning. (Education Toolkit for Decision Makers, Planners and Practitioners)".
Michael Trucano, Senior ICT and Education Specialist at the World Bank, echoes this opinion in a recent blog post and acknowledges that there are significant gaps in research on the use of ICT in education. He writes, "I won't try to contend that, at the macro- or system level, policymaking related to technology use in education is 'evidence-based'. With very (very!) few exceptions, it largely isn't." Trucano acknowledges that many policymakers are motivated by a fear of being left behind, as other countries and school systems adopt new tools. This is only magnified in the case of developing countries, where technology-based education may be viewed as a means to provide marketable skills to the next generation.
It is clear that a degree of skepticism around mLearning is warranted. What further complicates the matter is that mLearning can be implemented in a variety of settings, with varying degrees of success. Some efforts are focused on students in schools, others are created to supplement schoolwork, and a number of them are designed to support public education efforts. While large-scale mLearning success stories are few are far between (and are often described by marketing directors, rather than 3rd party researchers), there have been a number of studies conducted recently that are helping to fill in the mLearning research gaps.
One study explored the possibility of unsupervised mobile learning in rural India. Students were supplied with mid-level, java-enabled phones and taught to use custom-made educational applications. The software was designed to supplement English language classes at the students' schools. The study's findings suggest modest gains in language learning among the participants but also note that technical difficulties, culturally defined gender roles, and small sample sizes posed challenges. Interestingly, the researchers pointed out a variety of secondary, social effects from the introduction of the phones and software into the community. "…we learned that our mobile learning games have created a shared context that encouraged the formation of new social ties across caste and village boundaries, which were less likely to have developed otherwise."
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