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Can Mobile Learning Bridge the Digital Divide and Learning Gap?

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ICT for learning may be a trendy and popular topic as a blog on this site last week discussed, but the fact remains that children from poorer households are less likely to have access to ICT both in and out-of-school. As a result, they take longer to adapt to using the technology or hone their ICT skills. The Dakar Framework in 2000 warned of the risk of ICT exacerbating existing inequalities and said such technology should serve, rather than drive, education strategies. With no huge changes in access to ICT since those days, this advice still stands. But has the advent of mobile learning moved the conversation along?

How wide is the digital divide?

A girl in Nigeria carries out her homework.

In poorer countries the 'digital divide' is often more extreme as computer resources remain greatly overstretched. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), in Egypt, the Dominican Republic, Nepal and the Philippines, over 100 children share a single computer in primary schools. This is partly because many schools still have no electricity. In Nicaragua, for instance, only a quarter of elementary schools have electricity. In Nepal, only 6% of primary schools and 24% of secondary schools have electricity.

The digital divide is apparent within countries too. In China, UIS shows that the primary learner/computer ratio in rural areas is 29:1, double what was found in urban areas.

Outside of whether ICT is available in schools or not, the digital divide is also found between those who have access to technology outside of classrooms and those who do not.

In Rwanda, where computers have been introduced into secondary schools, the majority of students (79%) were also using ICT out-of-school. However, girls and rural children were less likely to have that same access in their communities, and were left disadvantaged relative to urban boys.

Similarly, studies in 10 Southern California schools have shown that providing a laptop in schools improved children's technology skills, but did not result in higher test scores, or reduce learning gaps between rich and poor. Only when pupils were given access to laptops 24/7 did their learning improve relative to others.

To bridge any digital divide, in Latin America and the Caribbean, various programmes have provided computers to poor children in schools. Yet the GMR 2015 showed that the programme in Uruguay, for instance, did not significantly improve learning. Perhaps it could be induced that this was because these children did not have the same access to ICT out of schools as their wealthier peers.

Can mobile learning bridge the divide?

In developing countries, while less than 20% of the population can access the Internet, mobile phones are accessible to over 70%. Requiring less infrastructure than computers, mobile phones have perhaps the greatest potential for delivering ICT-based learning to the marginalised, and even in fragile contexts. Their key and notable attribute is their power to extend educational experiences beyond classrooms and to enable a wide range of informal and non-formal learning. They are also a far more cost-effective alternative to computers.

But evidence on whether portable ICT devices can support learning is mixed at best

Some projects have shown learning benefits as the GMR 2015 showed, such as an adult education programme in Niger where exercises on mobile phones improved reading and numeracy outcomes significantly more than in programmes without mobile phones. Or the MoMath Project in South Africa, which reached 25,000 learners with mathematics content via mobile phones and led to a 14% increase in mathematics skills.

Likewise, a study analysing a programme where smart phones were provided for additional instruction in the USA demonstrated a 30% increase in test scores by low-income learners.

And radio instruction in Honduras was shown to enhance performance of marginalised groups by up to 20%; an extremely cost effective intervention: it cost only US$2.94 per student in the first year and US$1.01 per year thereafter.

But there are equal amounts of examples where the evidence is fuzzy, and where disparities are not reduced as hoped. In rural India, an after-school programme used mobile phones to support learning for children from low income families. Learning in how to spell common nouns improved, but the gains were greatest for children in more advanced grades who had stronger foundation skills.

In addition, there is as yet no clear evidence that using mobile phones to text or send emails invariably improves literacy skills, even if it is probable that it should increase the demand for literacy skills in the long term.

Perhaps mobile learning has greater potential when viewed from a lifelong learning perspective, rather than in bolstering school performance. The GMR 2012 showed that the approach could have huge benefits for improving livelihood opportunities for young people. Those in rural contexts, for instance, with proper training could use the technology to access information and financial services that can increase productivity and earning.

From this broader viewpoint of education quality, mobile learning should be valued for the role it can play providing distance learning for teachers as the GMR 2013/4 showed. In South Africa, a teacher education programme supplements paper-based distance learning with text messaging. Likewise, in Malawi, battery-powered DVD players and interactive instructional DVDs are used to assist with training.

That the concrete evidence is not yet there to build an undeniable link between mobile learning and education quality certainly does not mean we should turn our back to it. It is vital that innovative approaches are sought and pursued if we are to attain the ambitious new SDG agenda in education. However, it is equally as vital that the importance of not leaving anyone behind is respected in that quest.

Mobile learning certainly makes it more likely that technology based interventions can reach more marginalised communities. However, the evidence does show that it's not yet a sure bet for addressing wider disparities in education. As with any new, fast developing or financially popular topics, extreme care must be taken to ensure that the software and programmes associated with it are targeted, first and foremost, to supporting weaker learners who have limited access to ICT in and outside school.

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