Only projects that work with existing education systems will improve learning and cut poverty, says Niall Winters.
- The mobile phone revolution promises to reduce marginalisation and reduce poverty
- But implementation is key — only teachers can ensure the success of mobile learning interventions
- Projects need to be less techno-centric and give teachers a central role
You’ve no doubt heard of the mobile phone revolution sweeping Sub-Saharan Africa — perhaps mobile money transfer, or mHealth. The hope is that mobile technologies will transform lives by improving health, education, finance and women’s position in society.
However, as knowledge management expert Piers Bocock notes, there is a vast disconnect between the companies that produce and market these technologies and on-the-ground implementers — with the hype perhaps best exemplified by former US President Bill Clinton.
Referring to a 2010 UN report, Clinton stated that mobile phones “are one of the most effective advancements in history to lift people out of poverty”. However, the report was clear that impact depends “on the context and on the environment in which ICTs are introduced and used”. [1,2] Some may ask: what could be wrong with this focus on the mobile phone revolution? Don’t we all support progress?
In short, no.
While innovation is welcome, in some cases, how it is implemented risks increasing — not reducing — marginalisation. I’ll discuss just one example from education: teachers and their role in mobile learning projects in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Let’s begin with a simple question: when was the last time you heard the voice of teachers from Sub-Saharan Africa extolling the virtues of mobile phones in education? I’m not talking about nicely staged interviews — I mean really telling us how their teaching was fundamentally improved.
“It is a mistake to run down teachers’ professionalism to justify technology use in education.” Niall Winters, London Knowledge Lab
Now, a second question: when was the last time you heard that teachers in Africa are not trained properly, are demotivated and that the formal education systems in which they work are weak? My hunch is that you’ve heard much more about this than you’ve heard teachers praising mobile technology.
My concern is that some people use the problems with education systems to justify excluding teachers from the design and development of mobile learning interventions. Teachers’ voices are marginalised. And mobile operators association GSMA (to take just one example) characterises the teaching profession in a way that divorces it from progress and innovation.
The difficulties teachers face are used as a starting point for criticism, rather than as a motivation to address systemic issues. A good example of this is how the technology community has openly welcomed 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra’s work on learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge, even though his approach to achieving this is highly contested among educational researchers and practitioners. 
It is a mistake to run down teachers’ professionalism to justify technology use in education.
Creating an alternative vision
Instead, we need to create an alternative vision that values and prioritises teacher involvement in mobile learning.First, begin by acknowledging that supporting teacher involvement is a messy, time-consuming and resource-intensive process. And commit to it — there is no magic technology bullet.
Second, understand that many teachers in Sub-Saharan Africa work under tough conditions; and build on research that analyses how these affect their teaching. An in-depth 2012 study in Tanzania, for example, found that teachers wanted to improve their qualifications and be respected but were constrained by resource limitations and the demands of daily life, which UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) clearly recognises: overcrowded classrooms, malnourished students, low pay and a high-pressure workload. 
Third, learn from the One Laptop per Child programme. Its uptake in Sub-Saharan Africa was generally judged to have failed because of a lack of integration with education ministries.
It is teachers who will support students with mobile learning interventions and help safeguard success. They need a central role in truly multi-stakeholder partnerships.
Build local capacity
Clearly, more investment in teacher training is needed within — and beyond — mobile learning programmes. Research has shown the crucial role teachers play in designing, developing and implementing education technologies.
Three things need to happen to support a more central role for teachers: reconfiguration of mobile learning projects, an increased use of participatory methodologies and less techno-centrism.
Reconfiguration requires a level of self-reflection. We know that many mobile learning projects are funded by sizeable donations made under corporate social responsibility budgets.
This often means a central role is played by the non-expert funder, not the teacher. If corporate funders stepped back, teachers would have more space to take on the more central role required.
However, this enhanced role cannot be supported without appropriate methodologies. Participatory approaches in development go back at least to the early 1970s and are still used in various ways — including giving a voice to marginalised people in the debate over the post-2015 developmental goals.
There is a vibrant Human-Computer Interaction for Development community that promotes user-centred approaches to technology design, use and evaluation. In my own work over the years, including in a current project for training community health workers in Kenya, we extensively use participatory approaches to help design and develop mobile learning interventions.
The idea that techno-centrism or even solely content-based solutions can address important educational challenges by themselves must be dropped. Research shows they can’t. 
The path to success is clear: the risks of increasing the marginalisation of teachers — and by extension students — can only be ameliorated by understanding teachers’ practice, co-designing interventions with them and providing them with training.
Projects which work with existing educational systems, not against them, should have priority funding. Only then can mobile learning be seen to work for teachers, for their students and for the alleviation of poverty among those at the margins of society.
Niall Winters is a reader in learning technologies at the London Knowledge Lab at the University of London, United Kingdom. He can be reached at email@example.com
References UN Conference on Trade and Development Information Economy Report 2010: ICTs, Enterprises and Poverty Alleviation (UN, 2010)  Clinton, B. The Case for Optimism (Time Magazine, 1 October 2012)  Mitra, S. Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the Cloud (TED, video posted February 2013)  International Journal of Educational Development doi: 10.1016/j.ijedudev.2012.01.003 (2012)  Winters, N. Why mobile learning on its own won’t solve the access problem (LIDC blog, 13 November 2012)