2009: A year in review

What did I do in 2009 as the fellow for 21st Century Learning at the Shuttleworth Foundation? For a snapshot, check out the presentation below. If you have more time, read the full post.

I have focused on mobile learning. Why?

  1. In South Africa (SA), up to 100% of youth have access to mobile phones. Access to computers is around 10%. The mobile phone is the technology in the hands of young people.
  2. Enabled by mobile phones and social media like MXit and Facebook, the way young people communicate and socialise are fundamentally changing. Mobiles are driving a “social revolution“.
  3. Most of the time mobile phones are used outside of the educational sphere. At school they are banned (I argue that this is not the right response); in the media, teens are abducted by MXit contacts, or use their phones to make and share child porn. Even the very idea of mobile phones to support teaching, learning and administration cannot be entertained because of all the negativity surrounding them (I have found this in South Africa and in Zambia!)

While the potential for learning via mobile phones is enormous, very little is being done to exploit this — in way of projects, research or policies. As a fellow, I couldn’t just stand there any longer and watch this opportunity get wasted.

The reality is that mobile phones are highly pervasive; they are used to communicate, to disseminate information and to play games; to develop identities and be social; and for creative expression. In learning terms, these are highly desirable attributes. Mobile phones are incredibly powerful — arguably more disruptive than PCs as tools for learning . Of course, there are risks and constraints. But these can only be managed if we seriously engage with mobile learning. This needs to happen inside and outside of schools (in the 21st century, as at all times in history, learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom).

Given the above, I did three things: 1) made some noise about mlearning to popularise it, to challenge perceptions (like that txtng is all bad, which it isn’t), and to offer new possibilities to teachers; 2) created an online space for mlearning related materials; and 3) focused on one particular area where I think huge impact to increase reading and writing can be made: m-novels.

1. Raised awareness of mlearning

I’ve presented at conferences in South Africa, New York and Florida. I’ve spoken to 230 principals in Johannesburg, curriculum advisors in Zambia, and pre-service teachers in Cape Town. I’ve written for the M&G’s The Teacher (SA’s largest teacher focused publication), and Tech Leader and Thought Leader blogs. These blogs invite South Africa’s thought leaders to give commentary and analysis. Together with other researchers, I’ve co-authored a conference paper (mLearn 2009) and a journal article. I’ve written a paper and book chapter related to mlearning. I interviewed teens about their mobile phone use and made videos.

Much of this effort entails putting mlearning in the minds of teachers, principals, curriculum advisors and even parents. We are in the early days of mlearning — but just where on the adoption path is hard to say. It’s difficult to compare it to traditional elearning, where for many years the focus was on providing access to PCs. Mobile phones are already in the hands of people. The focus is on utilising existing assets and providing cheaper access to voice, SMS and data services. This path is about effective use, not uptake.

2. An online resource for mlearning in Africa

I created mLearning Africa, a site for projects, papers and news about mlearning on the continent. This is the first such site on the web — a necessary step to begin connecting the few people and projects in this space.

3. Mobiles for literacy

It is well known that one of the contributors to the low-literacy levels of South African learners is that not enough reading and writing happens at schools and home. 51% of households don’t have any leisure books! Teens are actually reading and writing all the time on their mobile phones, e.g. MXit sends 250 million messages each day. (In the USA, the same has been found: huge amounts of reading and writing, but not formally — rather as IM conversations, SMSes, MySpace posts, Facebook updates, etc.  But they need to be reading and writing longer pieces of text too. Traditional literacy is a requirement for these “new media” literacies.

Since August I have led the m4Lit — mobiles for literacy — project, which has explored whether teens are interested in reading stories on their mobile phones, whether and how they write around those stories using their mobiles, and whether mobiles might be used to develop a love of reading. Read the overview of the project, or for up-to-date news the project blog. I looked at the phenomenal success of m-novels in Japan and wondered, will they work here? With SA’s severe shortage of books, and our teens not reading and writing enough, can mobile phones fill that gap?

To find out, I commissioned an m-novel, and followed how teens experienced it. Kontax is a teen mystery short story, published on a mobisite and on MXit. (Check out the story illustrations and the story launch press release). The story is aimed at 14-17 year olds, and written in English and isiXhosa (a world first for m-novels!) I didn’t just want to tell a story though, I invited reader participation — on the site they could comment, meet the characters, write on their walls. I even gave them prizes for commenting and submitting Kontax sequel ideas.

The m4Lit team researched 50 teens in Cape Town (from Langa and Guguletu) as they experienced the story, and also looked at the engagement with the story from teens around the country. This is what we found:

  • The kids love it! Over 5,000 teens have read the story since it’s launch in September. In SA, a book that sells 3,000 copies is a best-seller. Comparing ebooks to printed books is problematic for many reasons, but in the absence of other comparable ebooks, it is somewhat useful. (Do you have to sell something for it to be a best-seller — Kontax is free, after all? No. Amazon’s ebook bestseller list is based on number of downloads, not sales — there are free ebooks in the list.)
  • The readers like to comment and submit ideas. We received over 300 comments on the mobisite, and over 1,500 sequel ideas on MXit.
  • In terms of language, there is interest in indigenous language stories. Of the surveyed teens, 25% read at least some of the isiXhosa version of the story; on the mobisite, 50% of isiXhosa-speaking users posted comments in isiXhosa; and on MXit, 51% of of isiXhosa-speakers in the Western Cape read the isiXhosa version of the story (estimated). Associate Professor Ana Deumert, a linguist, pointed out: “Given the systematic marginalisation of isiXhosa, the lack of access to isiXhosa literacy in the education system and the dearth of isiXhosa reading material, the uptake should be seen as a success.”
  • From the survey we established that there is a strong correlation between language choice and communication mode, e.g. the teens spoke isiXhosa to someone else “face-to-face” but used English, isiXhosa and txtspk when communicating digitally. In schools, it is only traditional paper-based and oral forms of communication that are practised and valued.
  • From the survey, Dr Marion Walton, an expert in mobile literacies, found that “for most of our target group, digital writing takes place primarily on mobile phones. Computer use is intermittent and seems to rely on public access (school, library) rather than home access. In contrast, mobile phones and MXit are pervasive. When digital texts are created or read, they tend to be short texts on mobile phones – SMS and MXit. There was more evidence of digital reading (browsing the web) on computers than of word processing or other computer-based writing.”
  • For the survey participants most reading takes place on mobile phones or on paper. Other than Facebook, SMS and MXit (46% of what the survey participants read), everything our sample learners had read on the previous day was printed on paper.
  • There were many requests for teens to be able to write their own pieces (poems, lyrics, stories, etc.)

In addition to the interesting research findings, Kontax drew a huge amount of interest from the media, including from the BBC (radio and web), SAfm, Metro FM and Business Day. It also won a Bronze Pixel in the Bookmarks Awards 2009 (the only medal in it’s category).

So, for me two things are important:

  1. Kontax has clearly demonstrated that mobile phones are a viable platform for teen reading and writing, as well as for teens to network around their literacy practices.
  2. Teens are doing their digital reading, writing and communicating on mobile phones; it is crucial to understand and take advantage of this for educational purposes.

This must be exploited in SA. If we can provide m-novels for teens and a platform for them to write their own content, then we will make a profound impact on literacy in this country.

What next?

The question we always ask at the Shuttleworth Foundation is So what? What do we do with the m4Lit findings? I believe the following must happen:

  • More stories must be published … a “mobile library” — where we publish Kontax and public domain titles.
  • Kontax must be grown — more readers and more translations (done via crowd-sourcing) in other South African and international languages. An m-novel with high readership – one prominent success story – is a very powerful way to get other people into this space, like authors, publishers, teachers.
  • Teens must be given a space to write and read and comment on stories, poems, lyrics, etc., via their mobile phones. Fan fiction sites like fanfiction.net have been shown to be spaces for peer-to-peer language and grammar learning.
  • Alignment of Kontax – or any story on a mobile phone, and learner writing around that – with the curriculum, ideally having it used as a prescribed text. There has been an offer from a high school in Cape Town to include Kontax as a prescribed book next year, and with learners writing assignments on it (for marks). In the bigger picture, there is simply not enough recognition within the education system of mobile literacies, despite the striking prevalence of both in South African teens’ lives. This must change.

I will continue to make noise, to put mlearning materials online, and to employ mobile phones for teen reading and writing. SA simply cannot afford the wasted opportunity cost of not doing these things.

5 responses to “2009: A year in review

  1. Pingback: links for 2009-12-10 « Design in Africa

  2. Good job Steve. All the best in 2010…Enjoy the World Cup ;-)

  3. Steve keep doing what you’re doing. Your work will impact on the shape of this country’s future. We look forward to seeing you at TEDxSoweto.

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