#04 media
Volker Lichtenthäler

Learning on the Move. The Smartphone as Teacher

In the middle of the century before last, the railways developed into a means of mass transit. The first machine-powered "travel rooms" were designed according to existing models and it took a good 100 years to make the switch from compartments to saloon coaches. Anything else would have been too much too fast for most train passengers as the 19th century was drawing to a close.

The situation is similar today for outfitting classrooms and seminars spaces. Setting up virtual rooms in which learners move around, where people meet and exchange ideas, and information and teletutors or moderators are there to provide assistance, is a real challenge. New creative ideas logically require that teaching, learning and communications materials are designed to suit these spaces. How can a textbook chapter be divided up into units that can be absorbed, contemplated and reflected upon with respect to one's own situation and needs on a mobile phone display in 10 minutes in the din of a busy railway station? Mobile devices like mobile phones or tablets allow access to a medial space that is associated with fun and entertainment, the rapid perusal of an array of pages, and multi-media effects. How is it possible to integrate individual learning experience and habits into this space without running the risk of conservative design causing new methods of generating and transferring knowledge and transforming that knowledge into decision-making skills and responsibility to be lost? How can we promote communal and community learning using the full spectrum of opportunities offered by the medium and technology-supported methods? And how can we sufficiently take intercultural aspects into consideration in a very heterogeneous learning community scattered all over the globe?

Capacity development projects as guinea pigs

These new learning spaces cannot be designed at a drawing board and educational concepts and theories still need practical testing. The furniture has to be shifted and repeatedly rearranged and the tools tested and adjusted. Learners' experience, their encounters with the space need to be analysed and explored and incorporated into further development. But are capacity development projects in development cooperation suited for such testing, in particular because the infrastructure and technology is often lacking in developing countries and the rural areas so important for sustainable development are almost impossible to reach?

It is widely accepted that knowledge is the key to development and in our globalized knowledge community only advanced training will allow us to drive and support innovation and sustainable processes of development. The continual improvement of the expert, methodological and social qualifications of people from our partner countries and the transfer of comprehensive skills for problem solving, change and implementation are central to the work of the GIZ E-Learning Centre. The question of whether new learning materials should be employed in capacity development in international cooperation is therefore no longer really subject to debate. For one, the cost savings are immense, allowing the most efficient use of the limited funds available to development cooperation: no more travel costs for experts, content is easier to adapt and adjust. For another, learning content can be used by participants at any time - even after a programme ends. So to a certain extent, this form of capacity building contributes to overcoming the "digital divide".

Mobile internet spreading fast

Without a doubt, the internet offers many people access to information and services who, without technology, would be excluded from such knowledge and the opportunities it provides due to their living conditions. Digital technologies are therefore already an important factor for development, and mobile technologies are increasingly playing a decisive role. According to current estimates, mobile internet use will pass desktop use as early as 2014. This year alone, more than half of all searches will be conducted using mobile devices. The use of the mobile internet goes well beyond operating email programs and search engines. Yet the objection is still often raised - especially in Africa - that the internet is an "elite medium". A look at the absolute user numbers however, such as 5 million in Nigeria, is enough to put the phrase "elite medium" into perspective. The effects of knowledge multipliers and NGOs whose work is strongly based on the internet should not be underestimated, nor should the importance of the informal sector that is springing up around the internet. One example of the dynamic growth in microeconomics that emerges from or rather develops around broadband access are the so-called LAN houses in the emerging nation of Brazil. Usefulness has also been detected in specific areas, such as health, catastrophe prevention and, of course, education.

iPhone showing giz-menue (Foto&Style/foto-style.de)

The failure to focus on poverty in Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) projects has also been criticised and there are still no scientific studies on the effects of ICT4D, though William Easterly himself in his otherwise biting criticism of development cooperation singles out an internet project as an example of the new global knowledge community. Application, however, is still often problematic, since infrastructure elements, such as the electricity supply, or basis skills, such as the ability to read and write or knowledge of computers, in other words "e-learning readiness", are lacking.

The example of digital financial services

Digital financial services are a good practical example of the importance of mobile technologies for development. Even in remote rural areas, mobile electronic banking services offer a way of paying bills and completing other financial transactions although there is no local bank branch. Kenya is one of the countries paving the way here. Mobile phone networks and mobile phones allow banks to offer a range of services cheaply and attract new customer groups. In India, Pakistan and in the Philippines as well, many service providers have set up mobile money transfer projects. In Indonesia, the GIZ works with the Central Bank of Indonesia to support "mobile banking". As part of this project, a "mobile banking group" was founded to serve as a "think tank" for rural banks and exchange experience with other expert around the world. In health there are also many promising examples of the use of mobile technologies in supporting rural, inaccessible regions, such as hotlines for midwives, or mobile phone diagnostic tools in areas of low population density and island states. New mobile learning media are particularly interesting for supporting learning processes: m-learning.

Global Campus 21®

Via the Global Campus 21® learning platform, the GIZ is contributing to increasing access to knowledge and education in developing and emerging countries. The GC21 E-Academy makes the GIZ's online courses and training programmes accessible to a large number of experts and decision-makers throughout the globe. Although the topics covered address practically all areas and pillars of the sustainability triangle, management topics play the central role. The "Management Skills Group" (MSG) is a forum, a "community of practice", open to all successful graduates of the E-Academy courses in particular, but also to decision-makers and managers from other programmes and partner organisations. The focus here is on global "South-South exchange". The members of this online community all have, as a rule, prior e-learning experience and are often very enthusiastic. A link to an m-learning platform would be the ideal extension of this forum, as it would allow use of the mobile internet and offer more flexibility to members who travel a lot.

Although comparable in their functionality, the websites designed for use on the mobile internet are not based on a social network or Web 2.0 applications. They draw more upon Global Campus 21®. The secure virtual learning and communication room in the "Management Skills Suite" will be retained to promote free and relaxed exchange. The objective is to have users expand the existing content in the form of so-called "knowledge nuggets" suited for mobile devices, creating "user generated content". "Knowledge nuggets" present micro-content on management topics, tools and techniques, small knowledge building blocks and multi-media files. This process does not, however, simply operate automatically and uncontrolled, but rather with caution and supervised by moderators and project managers from the GIZ E-Learning Centre.

"Rapid learning"

It is certainly possible that the leap from the careful implementation of new learning media in blended learning scenarios and the curricula of educational institutions to the implementation of m-learning will happen like the spread of mobile telephones in East Africa: By quasi skipping one step in the development of the infrastructure, in this example the laying of telephone lines. As e-learning in the 90s was shaped by the fact that while technology was booming, didactic concepts, content and users' imaginations could hardly keep up - catchword "content is king" - we still find ourselves in a phase of m-learning that, while it is characterised by an explosion of iPhone apps, is hardly developing in a goal-oriented way. Similar questions to those which arose during the development of e-learning, such the need for a specific eDidactic or open-source approaches in countries in which many cannot afford iPhone apps, are coming around again. The GIZ M-Learning Portal was therefore consciously not developed as an "app" but as an optimised mobile website for the most common browsers and operating systems. Individual elements, such as learning games, audio files and documents, can simply be downloaded and used offline.

Of course, in this context, the problems mentioned above regarding the "e-learning readiness" of participants play an important role in planning and design, as do issues of connectivity in isolated regions, limited bandwidth and restricted wireless capacities that hinder access to learning materials on the internet via smartphones. On the other hand, this project is precisely a reaction to the fact that increasing numbers of people access the internet and communicate with others using a variety of ever-changing mobile devices. The availability and rapid further development of mobile devices such as smartphones, PDAs and handheld computers in developing and emerging countries is very dynamic.

Practical applications

The practice-orientation of capacity development projects and training measures with respect to the direct linking of content to the professional day-to-day of participants is one of the most basis didactic principles of the E-Academy's work. The focus in on practical applications for the knowledge and skills learned to improve decision-making abilities and responsibly in turn aids in the transfer of content into participants' living and working situations. Logically, then, the cultural and professional context of participants is the focal point of the didactic and technical design of the new mobile learning and networking platform. M-learning is particularly well-suited for strengthening the individual responsibility of learners for shaping their own learning experience. It offers users even more flexibility with respect to where, how and when they learn and communicate than the online courses on Global Campus 21®. Users can spontaneously respond to learning materials, for example, by creating and attaching photos or audio recordings with a smartphone.

To date most projects have shown that m-learning is particularly useful for informal learning environments and that it works best in connection with existing systems. The use of mobile learning in capacity development is not intended to replace existing courses or programmes, but rather to support their sustainability. This is precisely the approach of the new design: It concentrates on management aspects, and as such promotes the transfer of knowledge and practical work skills. Although a team of moderators kicks off discussions or holds virtual conferences, and tutors are likely to be used occasionally, this platform follows a participatory approach to learning. In this sense, the GIZ functions primarily as a "content factory", offering learners and participants content and supplying the technical infrastructure in addition to developing graphics and interactive elements, including the visualisation of complex concepts, metaphors, contextualisation and scientific insights. Of course learning here has a great deal to do with communication and is understood as a process and activity that leads to a change in a person's perceptions and actions, their attitude, and cognitive and psychological abilities. Which is why learning cannot be "electronic" and the term m-learning is a bit misleading. More accurately mobile learning is not an independent learning concept and plays a supplemental role instead.

M-learning complements entire learning concepts - and more

However the mobile platform, the virtual learning space, does differ quite radically in some aspects from existing face-to-face or technology-supported learning scenarios:

  • Spontaneity: Users can respond quite spontaneously, without classrooms or wired computers.
  • Freedom of movement: Learners can freeze a moment in time and reflect on it later since a mobile phone is practically always available and turned on.
  • Learning experience: Different learning styles and types can be addressed via different media and methods. Interactive playful multi-media elements can be incorporated, for example, to make use of the "game image" of this environment.
  • System personalisation: Organisations should not focus entirely on developing custom-tailored content for their own approaches, as has and continues to be done in e-learning. They should instead try to introduce new instruments, new possibilities for mobile learners or, more accurately, learners in motion. In this sense, mobile applications can also support "empowerment" and "ownership" above all as a way of "promoting 'self-will' and acting on one's own authority and responsibility. Empowerment brings courage and releases personal might to take action governed by one's own responsibility." (see: www.ifad.org). To return to the analogy of the compartments and coach-like structures in trains immediately following the invention of the railroad: "Mobile travellers" should play a large role shaping their learning spaces. What the next generation of mobile, hybrid or ubiquitous learning systems will look like is still completely open. But whether the "Management Skills Group Online" scenario discussed here will prove effective will reveal itself in the near future.

Tips for further reading

Ally, Mohamed: Mobile Learning: Transforming the Delivery of Education and Training, London 2009.

Bryant, Anthony: WIKI and the AGORA: "It's organizing, Jim, but not as we know it". In: Development in Practice. Basingstoke. 16, 2006.

Kleine, Dorothea; Unwin, Tim: Technological revolution, evolution and new dependencies: What's new about ICT4D? In: Third World Quarterly. Basingstoke. 30 (2009) 5. pp.1045-1067.

Learning in the global era. International perspectives on globalization and education. Ed.: Suarez Orozco, Marcelo M.. Berkeley: Univ. of California Pr. 2007.

Podlacha, Günter: We are creating a global network. In: D+C Development and Cooperation. Frankfurt a.M.. 34 (2007) 4. pp. 168, 169.

Seibold, Balthas; Kalhöfer, Winfried; Wauschkuhn, Markus: From snowball to avalanche. In: D+C Development and Cooperation. Frankfurt a.M.. 36 (2009) 1. pp.37, 39.

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