Category Archives: mobile phones

m-Novels on the rise

m-Novels on the rise is a piece I wrote about m-novels and Kontax in particular for M&G’s Tech Leader.

Most of my spare time has gone into heading up the m4Lit / Kontax project (hence the lack of blog posts here). For now, catch me at that project’s blog.

Engaging low-income markets through participatory media

Last week I presented Engaging a participatory culture at the Accenture South Africa CRM Executive Summit in Johannesburg.

I asked: What does the emerging participatory culture – in which people produce, share and consume content – mean for a developing country like South Africa? To answer this question, I shared my technology experiences from the education, e-government and developmental sectors and offered suggestions for engaging low-income markets through participatory media.

The presentation builds on the one I gave at Web4Dev in February.

The pros and cons of an mhealth cellbook

I posted a short piece about the pros and cons of an mhealth cellbook on Tech Leader.

One textism does not a language corrupt

I’ve been working on a short paper on the effects of texting on literacy (forthcoming soon). Texting — SMS-speak, IM-speak, abbreviated and misspelled words, etc. — is much hated by teachers, parents and linguists who complain that textspeak is creeping into formal writing assignments — which it is. There is evidence — formal and anecdotal — of this happening in schools around the world.

My issue with this is the hysteria that has been created — the sense that a generation of youth cannot speak or spell correctly. The hysteria is based on a small number of actual textisms in essays, no more than grammar mistakes, spelling mistakes or the other inevitable mistakes that learners make when they practice writing.

The focus is on the mistake, e.g. the one textism, and not the 499 good words in an essay. The exception/mistake defines the whole piece. In the same way that when you read a book and notice a typo, you remember it. You make a mental black mark against the author and the editing process of the publishers. It’s wrong that these mistakes get made, but they need to be fairly assessed against the bigger picture of the narrative, the story structure, the characterisations, etc.

AristotleLet’s not create a whole category for texting and regard it as the death knell of English. Let’s not hysterically focus on the small mistakes. Let’s deal with them as best we can, but ask the bigger question: can young people, especially in SA, write long pieces? According to much research, they can’t because they never practice it. We need to get our kids writing, much longer pieces and more often. The few textisms need to be dealt with, but they don’t mean the end of a communicative generation.

As Aristotle said: “One swallow does not a summer make.”

(Image: Aristotle by Jastrow. Public Domain)

Five amazing mobile projects

At the Web4Dev conference in New York I met with the founders, inventors and creators of some pretty amazing mobile-for-development projects. Below are my top five, with some thoughts on how they could be used for education.

Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing Crisis Information Ushahidi
Ushahidi — which means “testimony” in Swahili — is a free, open-source platform to crowdsource crisis information. It allows anyone to submit information through SMS, email or web form, with each submission pinned to a map. The aggregate effect is a compelling visualisation of an event as it unfolds, told by citizen journalists. It has been used to report on the botched elections in Kenya, the DRC and the war in Gaza.

I told Erik Hersman, the White African behind Ushahidi, that it should be used for an alternate reality game with teenagers in Cape Town.

GeoChat supports relief workers after a major humanitarian crisis, when reliable team-based communication is critical but notoriously difficult to achieve. This open-source group communications technology lets team members interact to maintain shared geospatial awareness of who is doing what where — over any device, on any platform, over any network. According to Robert Kirkpatrick, of InSTEDD, it works like this:

  • You register with GeoChat either online, by email, or by SMS.
  • Create a new GeoChat group and invite your team members.
  • Send messages to one another, or share them with the entire group.
  • If you’re mobile using your cell phone, prefix a text message with your location — say your current address, or a latitude and longitude from a GPS – and GeoChat will place your icon on the map for online users to see.

Even those not on the ground, e.g. the support team back at UN headquarters, can visualize the remote team on the surface of a map and interact with them. GeoChat is nearing public Beta release.

GeoChat beta test

GeoChat beta test

For educational purposes, this tool could be used by learners when mapping their community. Or for co-ordinating on-the-ground players, and distance players, during that alternate reality game!

Text to Change
In a pilot project in Uganda, Text to Change — an mhealth non-profit organisation — used an SMS-based quiz to raise awareness around HIV/AIDS. The quiz, which reached 15,000 subscribers, had two goals: i) to collect information, and ii) to promote voluntary counseling and testing (VCT). As an incentive to answer questions, free airtime was offered.

Text to Change The quiz allowed TTC to assess the rate of correct answers within certain socio-economic sectors; this information was passed to UNICEF to inform their interventions. The quiz also resulted in a 40% increase in the number of people who sought VCT. All in all, a very successful project!

Hajo van Beijma and I spoke about how TTC could be used in South Africa (SA) for education. Some ideas:

  • Literacy development: Send out short stories via SMS, e.g. each chapter of the story is five SMSs. Then ask readers: questions about the chapter (to test comprehension) via simple multiple choice or free-form responses, or ask readers to summarise the chapter and SMS it back, or ask readers to write their responses to the chapter, e.g. what do you think should happen next?
  • Learner needs assessment: send out quizzes about what subjects/concepts learners are struggling with, e.g. fractions in Mathematics. Provide this data to the Department of Education.

RapidSMS is an SMS-based open-source monitoring and data collection platform developed by UNICEF’s Innovations and Development team. An SMS submitting quantitative data consists of a keyword followed by parameters, e.g. “User5889 2” could be HIV-patient number 5889 reporting that she’s just taken her second dose of anti-retroviral medicine for the day. Qualitative data can also be submitted — ideal for when polling communities. The RapidSMS interface allows for editing and visualisation of the received data, as well as exporting it for spreadsheets.

As the UNICEF  team, Evan Wheeler, Christopher Fabian and Erica Kochi said in their report on Innovation for Africa, “rather than hiring consultants for monthly visits to hundreds of schools to survey teacher attendance, why not visit once and teach children to send UNICEF a SMS on days their teacher is not present?”

Literacy Bridge

Talking book by Literacy Bridge

Talking book by Literacy Bridge

Literacy Bridge is a non-profit organisation with the goal of making knowledge accessible to people living in poverty. The bet of Cliff Schmidt — it’s founder — is on audio, and so he created the talking book: a low cost, ruggedised audio player/recorder. The device has awesome features, such as simple device-to-device copying (no PC or network needed), audio hyperlinking (e.g. to a glossary of terms used in the audio piece), and slow play for reading practice.

In Africa, many people have low-access or no-access to ICT. The talking book is perfect for empowering this audience.

The conference made it clear that crowd-sourcing, user participation, SMS and geospatial visualisation (mapping) of information are all red hot right now.

Of muppets, literacy and ICTs

Yesterday I met with a team from Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street.

The Workshop develops innovative and engaging educational content delivered in a variety of ways  — including television, radio, books, magazines, interactive media, and community outreach. Taking advantage of all forms of media and using those that are best suited to delivering a particular curriculum, the Workshop effectively and efficiently reaches millions of children, parents, caregivers, and educators — locally, nationally and globally.

Sesame Workshop has been running for almost 40 years and is the world’s largest single educational provider.

In South Africa, Sesame Street is known as Takalani Sesame. The local production — aimed at ages 3-6 — develops literacy, numeracy and has a special focus on HIV/AIDS safety. Through it’s star character, Kami, the world’s first HIV-positive muppet, the show promotes HIV/AIDS tolerance and destigmatisation. Takalani Sesame has also run campaigns aimed at teenage youth and caregivers.

Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))

Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))

The TV and radio shows used to include snippets of all official South African languages. But according to Seeta Pai, Sesame Workshop’s director of international research, this was not an ideal approach: “Research showed that children would tune out a language that they didn’t understand, so it became counter-productive.”

Now each TV and radio show is fully recorded in 9 of the 11 official South African languages. The new “applied language approach” is better because, “educationally, it is sound to give children a cognitive and language foundation in their native tongue,” says Seeta.

So, what were we meeting about in New York? Sesame Workshop, and the relatively new Joan Ganz Cooney Center, have always sought to use media for educational purposes. In the 1960’s, the notion of using TV for education was radical. Today, that same radical approach is needed when we consider ICTs such as cellphones, video games and even modernised versions of the bioscope (as used by Sesame Street in Bangladeshi slums) for education.

Sesame workshop has already run literacy campaigns, aimed at parents, using cellphones (see Learning Letters with Elmo), created a pilot virtual world called Panwapa, has a YouTube channel and a series of podcasts.

But what about Africa? At the meeting we spoke about what possibilities the media and ICT landscape in South Africa, Nigeria and Tanzania, present for teaching literacy and numeracy. Sesame Workshop would like to conduct an on-the-ground feasibility study of ICT access, as well as survey existing educational interventions and content, to inform its future work in these countries.

Future projects could leverage the full gamut of media, including TV, radio, mobile, CD-ROM and even cheap plug-and-play TV games.

The Shuttleworth Foundation will certainly keep the conversation going as it is in line with our desire to focus more on Foundation Phase literacy and numeracy.

Twitter: The good, the bad and need for filtering

This is a repost from Tech Leader.

I first came across Twitter, the micro-blogging service, in 2006 when I was living in San Francisco. Up until quite recently I resisted using it for the simple reason that I didn’t think I needed to. I was also worried about the concomitant information overload and time consumption that Twitter inevitably brings with it.

But then I read How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense by Clive Thompson, who describes it as a form of “social proprioception”. Proprioception is the way one’s body knows where its limbs are and senses the stimuli from its environment.

“That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects and makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity. Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination,” says Thompson.

He writes about the value of Twitter for keeping in touch with friends, family and colleagues. But of course it’s now used to follow people we don’t know personally but are interested in, like Tim O’Reilly. It’s also valuable for tracking trends and events. It’s a form of “meme proprioception”, allowing us to follow ideas as they are being formed by people who think aloud or sometimes just get an inkling of an idea, relationship or interest that someone is developing.

For example, if someone is tweeting about books they’re reading, people they’re meeting and topics they’re exploring — all along a similar theme — then you can safely assume they will be doing something in that space soon. This is all very valuable, especially when following thought or business leaders to sense what their next big thing might be.

When I attended the Web4Dev conference last week in New York, the Twitter stream provided a way for attendees to comment on presentations, and also include non-attendees, in the back-channel conversation. It’s the first time I’ve experienced this happening and I found it useful, especially when someone was critical of what was being said in a presentation. It was also useful because there were concurrent sessions at the conference so I could have a sense of what was happening in the room next door.

I’m now a Twitterer because I see the value of it. But I do worry that at some point the value it delivers will be less than the time it demands and the information it overloads us with. This is where filtering is needed. For example, I followed O’Reilly for only a few days before unfollowing him simply because I don’t want to know about what he’s having for lunch or who he’s going out to dinner with. That information might be important to someone but not to me. It still takes up my time to read all of the unimportant tweets and time is something that we’re all increasingly short of. So if O’Reilly could let us know which tweets are serious (eg “Just gave a keynote presentation on Web 3.0″) and which are non-serious (eg “Just ate my first-ever boerewors roll”) that’d be sweet tweeting. And if someone works out a filtering mechanism that does just that for us, it would be just as nice.

After all, the power that tweeting gives someone is the same as that of Facebook status updates: it just begs for inconsequential or, worse, self-indulgent “loudspeaking”. The same platform is being used to tell the world that you’ve got indigestion from a greasy lunch or that you’ve just written a valuable paper on how mobile phones can be used in education. Further, the same platform is being used to share with real friends and family as well as followers who aren’t friends or family. There is an obvious problem with this.

So, though Twitter is definitely a good thing, we need more sophisticated filtering and aggregation tools to keep it adding value. Luckily its open application programming interface is already allowing people to do that. I don’t think we’re there yet but I’m hoping it’ll happen soon.

(Thanks Steve Song for getting me to use it!)

Ushahidi: crowdsourcing crisis information

At Web4Dev, Erik Hersman, the White African, spoke about Ushahidi, a free, open-source platform to crowdsource crisis information. It allows anyone to submit crisis information through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web form.

It has been used to report on the botched elections in Kenya, the DRC and the war in Gaza.

Crowdsourcing Crisis Information

The next big thing for Ushahidi: how to overcome information overload. Taking all of the SMS reports and filtering the huge amount of data. Since the Mumbai bombings they’ve been working on a project called SwiftRiver, which is focussed on making sense of information received in the first 3 hours of a crisis. There are machine and people ways to filter the information — they’ve chosen the people approach.

The motto of the project: if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.

Assist New Culture Learning with a Mobile Group Blog (ED-MEDIA 2008)

ED-MEDIA 2008 paper: Assist New Culture Learning with a Mobile Group Blog.

Abstract: Cultural shock and adaption are ubiquitously existing problem among the international students who newly arrive in the UK. This research examined a new way of forming online community with mobile devices helping overseas students successfully adapt to the new environment after arrivals. In this pilot study, a group mobile blog, Nottsmoblog, was designed and developed to a group of Chinese overseas students in Nottingham, UK. During the month of this study, each of the participants held Nokia mobile phones for group blogging, sharing their findings and personal experiences about the adaption and discussing within the group blog site. Different levels of cultural awareness were found in the group and people got increasingly awareness and more motivation to learn the local culture through their blogging activities.

Posting to NottsmoblogBlogging through mobile devices — moblogging — provides the opportunity to “capture the moment,” “on the spot.” A mobile group blog, with multiple authors, is a shared space which can create a sense of community between the bloggers. In this study:

  • 12 Chinese students moblogged for 4 weeks directly after arriving in Nottingham
  • They used internet-enabled phones and posted to their WordPress blog via a page customised for mobiles (see image)
  • Most posts were anonymous
  • 239 posts, 184 comments
  • The site received 2,847 hits with 218 login visits and 1,798 site pages viewed

They also created a short video using their camera phones: “A day in Nottingham.” Scenes include: Queuing to get onto a bus, getting onto the bus and buying a ticket. A market scene. A lone protester with a poster — free speech, new to the Chinese students. A funny British post-card — the Chinese girl explains to her friend that in the UK they find self-mockery humorous. Robin Hood museum. Etc etc.

When moblogging the students can send a photo, text and choose a category. Most posts covered the categories: life, buildings, food and traveling.

The author observed (not measured) the following links between blogging activities and thinking skills:

Mobile learning activities Thinking skills
Awareness Inquiry skills
Information gathering Information processing skills
Information transfer Reasoning skills
Information sharing Collaboration skills
Feedback Evaluation skills

Student motivation for moblogging:

  • Sharing experiences
  • Expecting comments

Time and place of moblogging:

  • Needed time to edit and choose photos to upload
  • Needed a place to sit down to upload
  • Asked for new input methods other than text

New opportunity for language learning:

  • Of interest was the unconscious shift in language use of a few students from mother-tongue (Chinese) to English after a few weeks of moblogging

Usability feedback:

  • Poor quality of photos taken by mobile camera
  • Inconvenience of inputting personal logging information

Privacy and security:

  • Students noted the need to keep blog audiences in mind before blogging
  • Students wanted more people to join in
  • There was mutual F2F communication between the students beyond the blog (they did not know each other before arriving in Nottingham)


  • Students are very happy to share their experiences with people not only with the same background but also with people from diverse cultures, including local people
  • Young people are fascinated with the changes brought about by new technology in their daily life
  • The information they captured and stored in the group blog helped them recall their experiences
  • All of them would like to know more people who are in similar situation as them, with the aid of online community

In addition to being useful to immigrants, it could also be used for people moving from rural areas to cities. Businesses could also have their employees use such a service when they are moved between countries. Before moving to Shanghai, a US-worker could read the blogs of others who have gone before her and prepare for the culture shock.


Author: Yinjuan Shao (aka Peggy),  LSRI University of Nottingham, UK

ProBoPortable: Development of Cellular Phone Software to Prompt Learners to Monitor and Reorganize Division of Labor in Project-Based Learning (ED-MEDIA 2008)

ED-MEDIA 2008 paper: ProBoPortable: Development of Cellular Phone Software to Prompt Learners to Monitor and Reorganize Division of Labor in Project-Based Learning.

Abstract: The authors developed a cellular phone application which displays information regarding progress and achievement of the tasks and division of labor in project-based learning (PBL) in higher education. The ProBoPortable application works as wallpaper on the learner’s cellular phone screen, and cooperates with a Web-based groupware. When a learner activates his/her phone, ProBoPortable immediately retrieves the current status of the project from the groupware database and displays the status on the screen. Classroom evaluation was performed in an undergraduate course, which confirmed that ProBoPortable enhanced mutual awareness of the division of labor among learners, who modified their own tasks by monitoring the overall status of the PBL. The sense of learning community was increasingly generated by using ProBoPortable. Moreover, social facilitation encouraged the learners to proceed with their own task due to the presence of others who are mutually aware of each member’s status.

A sense of learning community is important to motivate and stimulate students’ learning in a distributed platform (Palloff & Pratt 1999). ProBoPortable increased this sense of learning community.

In SA, could this approach be used with a product such as MXit?

Authors: Toshio Mochizuki, Senshu University, Japan; Hiroshi Kato, National Institute of Multimedia Education, Japan; Kazaru Yaegashi, Ritsumeikan University, Japan; Toshihisa Nishimori, The University of Tokyo, Japan; Yusuke Nagamori, University of Tsukuba, Japan; Shinobu Fujita, Spiceworks Corporation, Japan