Using Mobile Phones to Improve Educational Outcomes

Despite improvements in educational indicators, such as enrolment, significant challenges remain with regard to the delivery of quality education in developing countries, particularly in rural and remote regions. In the attempt to find viable solutions to these challenges, much hope has been placed in new information and communication technologies (ICTs), mobile phones being one example. This article reviews the evidence of the role of mobile phone-facilitated mLearning in contributing to improved educational outcomes in the developing countries of Asia by exploring the results of six mLearning pilot projects that took place in the Philippines, Mongolia, Thailand, India, and Bangladesh. In particular, this article examines the extent to which the use of mobile phones helped to improve educational outcomes in two specific ways: 1) in improving access to education, and 2) in promoting new learning. Analysis of the projects indicates that while there is important evidence of mobile phones facilitating increased access, much less evidence exists as to how mobiles promote new learning.


Analysis of these projects indicates that while there is important evidence in the developing world that mobile phones impact educational outcomes by facilitating increased access, much less evidence exists as to how mobiles impact educational outcomes by promoting new learning. Regarding increased access, feedback from participants in the Philippines and Mongolia projects indicates the convenience of greater flexibility of schedule that mLearning affords. Likewise, participants in the Bangladesh teacher training program underscored the benefits of being able to stay with their families and in their schools for the two-week training period. The mobile phone-based teacher training program also enabled the Bangladesh Ministry of Education to extend access to quality training in a more affordable manner. Of greatest significance, however, is the fact that, as specifically shown by the Philippines, Bangladesh SMS, and Thailand projects, mobiles can reduce barriers to education while attaining educational outcomes that are, at minimum, comparable to those of traditional educational methods.

The projects also reveal, however, that there remain important issues that must be taken into consideration for future mobile phone interventions to indeed facilitate improved access to education. As participants in the Thailand project mentioned, technological issues such as screen size can remain a barrier to effective mLearning. Technical difficulties experienced in the rollout of the Philippines and Mongolia projects also reveal that the quality of the software and hardware is instrumental to the success of mLearning modalities. Furthermore, language barriers and unfamiliarity with advanced smartphone functions among participants in the Bangladesh teacher training project show that inadequate training can impede the benefits of mLearning interventions. Of particular relevance to the viability of mLearning in the developing country context, the Bangladesh teacher training project demonstrates that the state of mobile infrastructure directly affects the success of mLearning interventions; certain technological functions integral to the project design could not be used in the end because of inadequate infrastructure. Additionally, as the authors of the Philippines project suggest, cost remains a relevant factor. MLearning is not always less expensive for the individual learner, as the mLearning literature might suggest, perhaps due to the fact that most of the mLearning literature addresses the developed world.

The findings of the projects are mixed in regards to the extent to which mLearning promotes new learning. Feedback from participants indicates that mLearning enables learner-centred education, particularly in comparison to traditional distance education models. MLearning provides increased interaction, as demonstrated, for example, by the first Bangladesh project discussed. Several projects also reveal the motivational factor of the immediate feedback that mLearning makes possible. Additionally, participants, particularly those in the Philippines and Mongolia projects, indicated that they enjoyed the appeal factor stemming from the use of a novel technology.

Yet only the Bangladesh teacher training pilot project demonstrates the benefits of mLearning that stem from the facilitation of contextualized, situated, constructive, and collaborative learning. Teacher trainees were able to immediately apply lessons learned within their classrooms, and, in turn, to discuss results of the newly applied techniques with trainers and other trainees. The collaborative program design based around the use of mobiles also encouraged constructive learning via interaction and participation on the part of the trainees. The other projects reviewed do not provide evidence of these supposedly important aspects of mLearning. This is interesting, given that, as previously mentioned, the mLearning literature particularly highlights the value of mLearning in offering this potential. The important findings of the Bangladesh teacher training project, therefore, necessitate further exploration in the context of the developing world regarding the potential impact that mobile phone-facilitated mLearning can have on educational outcomes via the promotion of new learning.

The projects reviewed also produce some contradictory evidence in regards to the benefits of mLearning for those who have not succeeded in traditional educational settings. The Philippines project seems to indicate that mLearning, and the new learning that it facilitates, affords great opportunities for such learners. The India project, to the contrary, seems to indicate that those with a weaker academic foundation are less able to take advantage of the benefits provided by mobile phones and would rather benefit from a more teacher-centric educational approach. Such discrepancy necessitates future investigation.

Although the projects reviewed point to a positive role with respect to mobiles as a tool to either access educational materials or deliver more learner-centred curriculum, future research should investigate the opportunity cost of investing in mLearning compared to the costs and benefits of other investments in the educational sector. It is possible that investments in educational infrastructure and materials, as well as more traditional teacher training, might yield more significant beneficial educational outcomes. However, due to the absence of such comparative studies, it is impossible to tell. Moreover, very little research in the developing world has looked at comparing the costs and benefits of the different technologies used to deliver educational services – traditional technologies like television and radio, or newer ones such as computers and mobiles – in order to ensure that governments have the appropriate information to make wise investments. The current debate about the relevance of the One Laptop Per Child initiative (OLPC, n.d.) for developing countries, for example, has put the need for rigorous studies of the comparative value of various technological investments in the educational sector at the forefront of information systems research agendas.


Originally appeared in: The International Review of Research in Open And Distance Learning -March 2010

Using Mobile Phones to Improve Educational Outcomes: An Analysis of Evidence from Asia

John-Harmen Valk, Ahmed T. Rashid, and Laurent Elder
Pan Asia Networking, IDRC, Canada

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