Mobile News South Africa

Cellphones as learning devices

Over the past 18 months, researchers at the CSIR's Meraka Institute have been working on project MobilED, investigating the positive use of mobile technologies and services for formal and informal learning. This comes amid debates on whether or not to allow the use of cellphones in schools.

The project is funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). In this project, the Meraka Institute collaborated with the Helsinki University of Art and Design in Finland and the University of Pretoria. Schools involved in the pilot include Cornwall Hill College and Irene Middle School. The project will run for a further two years.


"The first module we developed was the audio-Wikipedia - an online encyclopaedia - from which anyone can receive and upload information. Children send a short text message (SMS) with a key word to a cellphone number. In response, they receive a call-back and a speech synthesizer 'reads' an article on the subject. Both the fast forward or rewind functionalities can be used, almost like the old analogue tape recordings," explains Merryl Ford, CSIR research group leader for ICT in Education, Youth and Gender.

"An important addition is that children can also dictate information to the service to add their unique knowledge on a particular subject."

The group is also busy developing an MMS content-addition and-delivery module. All the innovations are being tested in real classroom situations at schools with direct feedback from the children and teachers.

Ford says: "To date, children have used cellphones as communication devices and we are aware of the controversy that currently rages about the [mis]use of cellphones in schools."

Today's high-end mobile phones have the computing power of a mid-1990's PC, while consuming only one-hundredth of the energy. Even the simplest, voice-only phones have more complex and powerful chips than the on-board computer that landed a spaceship on the moon in 1969. Many learners in South Africa have access to these powerful devices.

Learning support tool

"It seems a great pity that our children and teachers are not using one of the most accessible, affordable computing devices in the developing world in more positive ways. We asked ourselves whether innovations around this technology and its applications can ultimately lead to it being embraced as a learning support tool in a school environment."

"MobilED has proven that cellphones can be very useful where there's no other access to information sources. Libraries or internet connections no longer need to be the sole access point for educational information for children," says Ford.

Meanwhile, researchers are still busy probing sustainability models.

"This is part of our investigation: assessing potential business models that will make it a viable implementation in schools," says Ford. In the pilot project, the SMS service costs are being covered by the CSIR project. The idea is to make the facility affordable to all schools in SA.

Asked whether this new tool will not infringe school policies on usage of cellphones, Ford says: "The Internet has resulted in immensely powerful, positive business applications, but is also used in not-so noble applications. While the irresponsible use of cellphones by learners has caused an uproar, we should not ignore the untapped latent applications and benefits.

"Since we live in the new digital age, it is imperative that teenagers are taught life skills for this digital age," says Ford, noting that it is the role of parents and teachers to inform children of the issues that may be faced.

"We warn children at a young age not to speak to strangers - this needs to be translated to the online world too."

Maths on MXit

Ford says one researcher at the Meraka Institute has started a school "Doctor Maths" on MXit - a popular instant-messaging service. Ford says the researcher is offering maths support for high school learners using the chat facility.

"With a reported million school-going children having subscribed to MXit, one can hardly ignore this tool. We know that South African teenagers use MXit on a daily basis, so in order to reach them, we supply the services of a 'doctor' to help them with their school work through this application."

Ford emphasises that the institute does not advocate any particular chat engine and that "Doctor Maths" will be available via other platforms as well.

"I am extremely excited by the results of this pilot project; it has been hugely successful," says Ford.

The project will be piloted internationally by countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, the Philippines and Finland. Interest has also been shown by New Zealand, Mexico, Colombia and Mozambique.

The Meraka Institute is a national research centre managed by the Pretoria-based Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Let's do Biz