Founder Skill Pill M-Learning
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Mobile learning trends in developing economies

9th Jul 2014
Founder Skill Pill M-Learning
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Gerry Griffin examines the use of mobile learning within developing economies, the main barriers involved and how to overcome them.

In 2012, the International Telecommunication Union published a report which stated that 90% of the world’s population has access to cellular networks. Combined with over 6.5 billion mobile phone users, the ratio of phones-to-individuals is fast reaching 1:1, indicating that, despite often a lack of basic utilities like running water or access to electricity, many still have a mobile phone.

In Europe and Central Asia, populations in the high income bracket see almost 1.5 mobile phones for every person; whereas, in Sub-Saharan Africa just over 50% of the population has a mobile phone. With such importance placed on this device, it’s no wonder it is being highlighted as an excellent tool for increasing education and quality of life in developing nations.

In our experience, as a provider of mobile learning - or 'm-learning' - materials however, we find that mobile devices are better for ‘topping-up’ and supporting pre-learned material, rather than providing the full service, especially in a professional scenario.

Proof that mobile can be an incredible tool in developing economies can also be seen in the prevalence of mobile finance in developing nations. According to Pew Research Centre, in 2013, the worldwide average for mobile phone banking was 11%. At the same time, Kenya’s usage for mobile banking was 68% and Uganda was 50%. Even countries such as South Africa (29%), Senegal (24%) and Nigeria (13%) all had usage higher than the worldwide average.

Skill Pill has been collaborating with Save the Children for several years on a voluntary basis supporting Save the Children’s staff, working both in office and in the field, with custom and library learning materials that aide them in their day-to-day humanitarian efforts. This year we took the opportunity to collate some data based on the usage of Save the Children operatives spread over 11 countries1. We wanted to do this to get a better grasp of the trends emerging around the idea of mobile in developing economies.

Internet access

Based on our research, we discovered that the most important consideration when implementing mobile learning approaches in developing economies is internet access. This can be broken down into two main points:

  1. Infrastructure issues, such as signal reliability.

  2. Commercial issues, such as the cost of data plans.

In many developing countries, data plans are not always affordable and, even if they are, they don’t always provide signal where and when you need it. For most Save the Children employees, signal was almost always inaccessible once outside of major cities, which is where there is the largest need for m-learning materials, as physical access to schools and teachers is near impossible. Likewise, broadband can be equally unreliable and difficult to access with low bandwidth speeds the best one can hope for.

A primary example of issues of infrastructure and cost affecting the success of m-learning can be seen in Ethiopia, where only 1.4% of the population subscribes to the internet. This is the 8th lowest internet subscription rate in the world. The cost, $35USD, equates to roughly three quarters of an average monthly wage in Ethiopia. In addition to scarce internet use, Ethiopia’s mobile subscription rate is only around 22% of the population which, again, is one of the lowest rates on the planet. This is despite the fact that mobile data plans in Ethiopia are among the cheapest, costing just 2 US cents per 1MB.

There is still plenty of potential for Ethiopia though. Over the last couple of years there has been heavy foreign investment in Ethiopian 3G systems and Tecno Mobile Ethiopia are currently developing a cheaper android phone (current smart phones are roughly $275USD).

Despite all the barriers, the Save the Children Ethiopia branch is one of our biggest users of our mobile content. They find the app easy to use and the content easy to understand. They also like the relevant topics offered and find that it is very well designed for use in developing countries.

Content top-up

We found that in order to avoid data charges, the majority of mobile app users in these underdeveloped areas would 'top up' their devices with content in wi-fi areas and then view it offline, in the field. In the overall results we collected from Save the Children, over 90% of respondents stated that they downloaded their content predominantly via wi-fi in urban areas, with the other respondents stating that they downloaded in urban and rural areas equally, which supports the idea that until mobile signal is improved, high quality m-learning will generally only be accessible to those in urban areas.

The technological implication of this is that native apps, which allow the user to access content without internet connectivity, are much more functionally efficient than mobile or HTML-based applications, which depend on constant connection for use.

To summarise, we find that you need to anticipate unreliable connectivity and cater for offline usage in order to match the needs of the users in developing countries. Let’s face it, the app is only as good as the user’s ability to download it and access the information. Once this hurdle is overcome, learning can be facilitated and educational development can take place in the areas where it is most needed.

1 Between January and April 2014 we collected usage data from 400 users for overall data and specific data from 25 users.

Gerry Griffin is the founder and director of Skill Pill M-Learning. He has over 20 years' experience with a broad range of communication specialism. He posts a bi-monthly blog on Skill PillIn March 2012, Skill Pill received an award from the Global Gift Bag organisation in Orlando for their voluntary activity.

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