Mobile Learning Week, Paris

Mobile Learning Week is an annual conference hosted by UNESCO at their headquarters in Paris. It’s been running for the last few years, although this is the first time that Indigo has attended. This year’s conference theme was gender and saw participants from around the globe talk about how technology is reshaping how we think and talk about education, literacy and female empowerment. But is technology revolutionising education, what impact do learning technologies have on women and girls specifically and what could be done better? The conference continues until the end of the week, but here are just a few of the lessons I’ve picked up so far…

1. Active creators, not passive consumers: Several of the talks pointed to the fact that giving people the opportunity to create and not just consume content should, where appropriate, be a part of any education tech project. Indigo grantee, FunDza, for example regularly hosts writing competitions and story challenges that aim to get people writing for pleasure, not just reading what others have written. For young girls, in particular, this offers them an opportunity to have their voices heard and to get validation from others in the FunDza community. It can be a very successful way of increasing confidence and, in the long term, is helping to create a generation of young women unafraid to speak up for themselves, their communities and their rights. Similarly, the ability to create and distribute content gives people the opportunity to shed light on issues not explored by conventional media or educational materials. The Daraja Academy in Kenya, for example, has provided girls at the school with the chance to set up their own online newspaper that allows pupils to explore the issues that matter to them and generate discussion and debate among their peers. Moving from a model of simply providing content to one that actively encourages content creation offers powerful avenues for empowerment and more informed debate.

2. Education isn’t the prerogative of the young: In trying to address the issue of illiteracy, we can’t simply focus on the young. Yes, improving schooling and providing children with the opportunity to access a decent education is critical, but that does not lessen anyone’s responsibility to providing education opportunities for adults. There are many reasons why adult literacy and education receive less attention from development organisations, governments and donors. There are cultural, social and economic impediments and, in some cases, political fears of what a literate, informed citizenry may mean for those in power. All of these factors make it more difficult and costly to provide education opportunities to adults and older women in particular. Mobile technology offers one way of providing lower cost opportunities to a much wider audience than traditional education initiatives and methods. It’s by no means the perfect solution and there is conflicting evidence as to whether technology alone offers an improvement over more traditional methods in terms of learning outcomes, but it has an undeniably vast reach and is often a fraction of the cost of those more labour and resource intensive methods. Technology, then, isn’t some educational silver bullet, but it’s an incredibly valuable resource that NGOs and governments can scarce afford to ignore.

3. Motives and incentives matter: The question ‘why do people read?’ has a deceptive simplicity about it. The fact is that each and every one of us will have subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – differing reasons. Some people may want to read so that they can keep up to date with what’s going on in the world, some may want to be able to access important information on issues of direct concern, others will read primarily for pleasure, while yet more will see it as an avenue out of poverty. Whatever the reasons, we need to have a better grasp of what makes people want to read. Only that way can education and literacy organisations be able to offer relevant, interesting materials. Motives may also vary by gender. FunDza’s research, for example, pointed to the fact that boys often want better reading skills so that they can get better grades at school. Many girls, meanwhile, use the platform as a way of boosting their confidence and self esteem. Understanding these differing motives is an important first step to understanding how any initiative can be strengthened and tailored to meet the needs and wants of its intended beneficiaries. Assuming, simplistically, that everyone wants to read for broadly the same purposes just doesn’t work.

4. Working with or against the system: This is not just a question that concerns education initiatives, but is in fact a much broader question for the whole development sector. The vast expansion of NGOs in the last 30 years or so has created a huge dilemma for those in government and development. The question of whether to work within existing structures – government agencies, state schools etc. – or whether to bypass them as bureaucratic and inefficient is a major challenge that NGOs must almost inevitably face at some point. In some cases, government systems are inefficient and may produce less-than-ideal results, but does that mean that they should be bypassed completely? Or is it better to work with those systems to improve them and provide them with the resources and skills they need to fulfil their tasks effectively? It’s a vastly complex and much-debated issue and there is little room to explore it here, but it was a recurrent question at the conference and one that divides many. It’s certainly something that development organisations and funders need to consider closely when deciding where to allocate precious resources.

These are just some initial thoughts and questions that have occurred to me over the past few days. Doubtless there are many other avenues to be explored and many different perspectives besides…