Thursday, February 20, 2014

UNESCO Mobile Learning Week: Global Initiatives Abound

I spent the last two days attending the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week (UMLW). It has been a while since I have seen so many black and pin striped suits in one gathering. The rare academic in attendance was often identifiable by not having on wing tips. As one might expect, this was a global event, with representation from every continent (perhaps excepting Antarctica), developed and developing countries, industries, governments and teachers - lots of teachers.

The theme of this year's UMLW was "Empowering Teachers With Technology" and I was privileged to hear about initiatives and policy from Chile to Ghana to Pakistan and beyond. Languages abounded, along with excellent simultaneous translations in many of the presentations. I learned a fun piece of international vocabulary when a Portuguese speaker, who offered to speak in Spanish, apologized in advance to the translators if he slipped into "Portagñol". 

So many fascinating projects ... for example, I heard from a Palestinian speaker about coordinated use of SMS for teacher professional development in 5 countries across the Middle East (Gaza, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon) by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). They are working with curriculum contextualized for each country and coordinated with regard to policies. As you can imagine there are interesting challenges to overcome.

It became crystal clear to me this week just why mobile devices hold such promise for assisting in tackling some of the world's fundamental problems (poverty, illiteracy, health care etc). Although (to cite a revealing statistic) 774 million people around the globe are illiterate, (the majority of whom are in a few countries in Sub-Saharan Africa), mobile phones have deep penetration among these populations. Mobile phones also have greater connectivity and reliability than Internet connections obtained though more traditional sources. 

Literate and semi-literate people want to read on their phones. People also want to learn on their phones. I heard plenty of data (which I'll skip repeating here) about how people want to learn on their phones - feature phones no less. Many of us may grumble about reading on a 2" feature phone screen, but it turns out that millions of people around the world regularly read entire books on these tiny screens. Not only this, but 2/3 of those who are illiterate across the globe are women, and as I learned in my "How to Change the World" MOOC, providing equal opportunities to women for improving their lives has a direct economic effect on their entire family and community.

Thus, the many ongoing creative projects using feature phones - from delivery of informational, motivational and instructional material via SMS, to customized pedagogical videos. There is a lot going on with tablets as well. There were interesting conversations about which to use, why and when.

One of the over riding themes of the UMLW was how to go from the promise of technology to the expected outcomes. Pretty much everyone in these rooms, as well as most of you I suspect, does not need to be sold on the promise of technology. But many of you, as the attendees this week, have been around long enough to also clearly understand that technology in itself does not solve problems and produce sustainable change for the better.

Whether coming from an education background, development and aid background, or policy leadership position there was repeatedly stated concern for finding ways to perform capacity building and creation of sustainable empowerment of teachers. We heard from those in the trenches all the way up to corporate executives and government ministers. In my next post I'm going to pick up on the policy theme and share some additional observations from this week.

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