New Metaphors from Old Practices—Mobile Learning to Revitalize Education in Developing Regions of the World
3.1.1 Challenges Associated with the Educational System The field visits revealed that push for educational reform in India is strong. The government has set up a program called the Sarva Shiksha Abiyan (SSA), which translates to "Education for All." This program aims to provide useful and relevant elementary education for all children in the age group 6-14 by 2010. While the SSA is a very positive force in the push for educational reform, it still cannot be held accountable for making the necessary changes to educate India. Despite a utilization of almost 86 percent of its allotted funds, nearly 40 percent of children in the age group of 6-14 remain out of school in India [ 21]. Some other educational reforms are noteworthy—an attempt to introduce the voucher-based system to rural children where the child and her parents receive a voucher that is equal to the cash allotted to the child by the government for the purpose of education. The child is allowed to encash the voucher at any school of her choice, be it public or private. This gives the child the ability to receive the education of her choice irrespective of the background she was born into. With clear benefits like access to education and increased accountability of the schooling system, a program like this emphasizes the value of empowering children across the economic barriers of the country [ 22].
Technology can play a similar role in facilitating empowerment. To quote an example from an NGO working in periurban and rural areas of Bangalore, children in a cluster of government schools were given USB sticks loaded with installation software to particular educational software [ 25]. Each student was allowed the use of a shared computer at the school, but because of the portability of the USB stick could take their work home, and use the local internet parlor to also experiment further and save their work. The software was one that allowed children to visualize complex relationships between objects by drawing them and assigning values and characteristics to them. This helped the children understand complex concepts like the movement of satellites, small physics experiments, and geometry much better than their current educational setup, which was deprived of any laboratories of physical learning tools.
While there is a drive in small isolated pockets to incorporate technology into classrooms to aid educational practices, we learned that technology is sometimes also seen as pedagogically suspect. For instance, the OLPC initiative was rejected by the Indian Ministry of Education, since, it was argued that what is needed is better schools and teachers, not "fancy tools" [ 9]. The problem here is not with the technology itself, but rather in terms of a connection lacking between the role of technology and the problems that need to be addressed within the current Indian education system. Our interviews with the teachers revealed that schools were looking for ways in which students could gain better access to textbooks at affordable prices. At the same time, presence of qualified teachers who can ensure the progress of the students while also reducing the dropout rates was also expressed as an important aspect of improvement.
Programs like the SSA try to incorporate changes at a teaching level. In recent times, a method known as the Active Learning Methodology (ALM) ( Fig. 4) has been adopted, the aim of which is to place the learner at the center of the educational process [ 10]. In this method, which was devised in collaboration with faculty from private schools, the student is asked to start any lesson by reading the subject matter by herself and then creating a visual mind-map of all that she has understood. This way, the student has a visual representation of the lesson to take back and review to cement classroom learning experiences. While this sounds like a tedious and time-consuming process, children are nevertheless able to grasp concepts easily and structure their learnings in a creative manner. This process, while currently static and time consuming, could easily be made dynamic, faster, and archivable with the aid of simple technologies.
The situation is uneven, however. Across the country, government schools are investing in novel educational techniques, and while some are well intentioned and results can be seen by students' participation in classroom discussions, some schools demoralize students with poor teaching facilities and quality of education and the results of that are evident in the high dropout rates of students from those schools. Children across primary schools require a constant support from teachers to encourage them and guide them through lessons, given that most of them come from backgrounds where they have no qualified assistance at home to clarify doubts or monitor their homework. In an average school of 450 students, at the primary level, there are usually a total of 5-6 teachers who teach all the subjects as well as act as class teachers, responsible for individual grades. With this sort of ratio, it is impossible to deliver quality education and much required individual attention to all students at the pace that they can handle, in order to finish the curriculum.
As we observed from our field research, many schools placed an emphasis on peer-to-peer learning, more as a symptom of the lack of teachers than as a proactive teaching method. Older students who fared better than others were put in charge of younger students who needed extra classes after school hours to catch up on lessons or guidance while doing homework. This system was popular among both the teacher-student as well as the learner-student as they both had positive experiences of learning.
The introduction of technology into classrooms at the government school level is minimal. Some schools have been equipped with a single computer and some educational CDRoms that are shown to students in relevant classes. Currently, technology is seen as helping the teaching process rather than the learning process. While children had a basic knowledge of using technology by visiting Internet cafés and occasionally using the school computer, many of them were nevertheless familiar with mobile technology, as there was access to the parents' mobile phones at home.
In addition, the prevailing educational practices in India place emphasis on "literacy." Schools compete to achieve a 100 percent pass rate, and this is usually done by encouraging students to learn lessons by rote. Given the socioeconomic conditions of most of the families who send their children to the local government school, the children are often first generation learners, and hence learning stops at 5:00 pm when the child goes back home. To add to this, resources are scarce and teachers are trained to complete the curriculum without paying too much attention to individual learning styles and areas of interest of the children.
3.1.2 Context of Learning in Classrooms An average classroom in South India in a public school consists of approximately 50 students to a class ( Fig. 5), taught by one teacher battling issues of language, multiple learning capacities, and a lack of supplementary audiovisual learning resources. Textbooks are read out, word for word, and the children repeat after the teacher, thus making the aural-oral component of learning a priority. There is also dependence on paper as a proof of learning—the assumption being that if the student has written down the correct answer, he must have understood the lesson. In contrast to this, younger children in more rural schools use the slate—a personal mini-blackboard, which they use to practice writing. This is a far more sustainable solution, where writing is practiced, internalization is valued, and by erasing and reuse, zero waste practices are inculcated.
The research team found the slate artifact as a particularly salient concept for the design process around mobile learning solutions. See Section 4.1 for further discussion on this topic.
3.2.1 Individual and Group Learning Devices should be designed to address individual as well as group learning dynamics. While the participants focused on creating individual concepts and products, there were active discussions and peer reviews that eventually led to an unconscious creation of an overarching theme for the creative processes. This had largely to do with understanding the immediate environment of the children and creating an awareness of the community. The children were able to identify overarching areas that would benefit from community involvement—such as water wastage, protecting the natural environment, etc., and realized the potential of such a "magic box" to act as a communication link between them and their community. Such an emergence could be a product of the nature of the alternative learning environment to which these children were exposed, but it should also be included as a design consideration for mobile learning experiences. Individual learning should be part of an overall group process that has a common goal, and allow for individuals to share insights with each other at any point and have a means of communicating with each other when not in the same physical environment. Such collective learning experiences could have an influence on how the group of participants as a whole performs while still allowing for individual cognitive processes.
Other e-learning initiatives have also supported such hypothesis [ 15], that increased engagement would lead to more learning, and that either or both of the competitive and collaborative environments would be more conducive to learning. Marsden's work in Shared Mobile Interfaces [ 20] has also explored similar concepts.
3.2.2 Learning without Boundaries In the initial sketches, there were a lot of drawings of natural environments like forests and aquatic life extending even up to the solar system. At the next stage, when the children were asked to keep in mind the context in which they would like to use this device, they started focusing on environments physically close to them. In more than one case, the device was designed to serve as a communication tool or aid to create awareness about certain subjects to a community or to their peers. This suggests that the participants, while still playing the role of content owners and key stakeholders of the product, wanted to use these magic boxes to impart their knowledge within social circles around them.
This immediate creation of a focal point placed the participant at the center of her learning experience, and gave her a sense of ownership and responsibility for the learning process. This also emphasized the notion of taking learning outside the classroom, into environments that the children inhabit and are keen to explore. When the products were complete, the students chose to take the magic box outside into the garden to present their creations. Some of the students wanted to use their ideal device within their community spaces, for example, to teach others about water conservation.
1. Touch—the ability to write and draw on the slate is one of the most important attributes of this product. In the earlier stages of education at the primary level, tactility is one of the most important factors that aid in developing strong motor skills of a child. This can be seen in multiple schools where children use the slate and chalk or pencil and paper to write, draw, and document classroom activities.
2. Small size—the slate is typically of small size and can be moved around, allowing the children to easily shift their position in the classroom, work on the floor, and importantly, take the artifact out of classroom. It should not be larger than the approximate size of an average notebook, and be rugged enough to withstand the harsh conditions of the context.
3. Copresent learning—combination of small size, moveability, and visibility of output implies that the Slate has social affordance. It allows one to easily show the creations to others. It should also be possible for several children to use the slate simultaneously. It should also support near-range peer-to-peer sharing of work to allow children to communicate and have shared displays. Observations about copresent learning are also echoed in the Hole in the Wall project conducted by Intel in 2005 [ 23].
4. Audio as output—the Contextual Enquiry stage showed that auditory input and oral feedback were key to comprehension, especially with languages other than their native tongue. In many classes, oral repetition was used as a tool to develop fluency. In a Mathematics class, repetition served to acquire fluency in number sequences and arithmetic tables, while in English it was for pronunciation. In this observation, the slate was used as a supplementary tool that aided the memorization of what was being discussed orally in a classroom session, as the children would write down what was being repeated. The Slate, integrated with audio will also provide the student with additional practice, outside of classroom sessions. While audio is not a direct characteristic of the traditional slate, it is integral to the context in which it is used. The inclusion of Audio as a characteristic, thus, mimics the context of the use of the slate rather than the slate as an isolated object.
5. Sustainability—The digital medium lends itself easily to this quality, as an application can be designed to allow iterative work and new sessions to be started easily. Delivering and updating learning material can also be made cheaper than the cost of buying new textbooks. We believe that this principle can encourage children to explore and experiment, and have a way to reflect back on their own progress by retrieving past versions of their work. It is also interesting to note that in rural contexts, there was a practiced understanding of zero waste, even at the domestic level. The constant recycling and reuse of resources encouraged children to be cautious of the way in which they used their personal educational resources like books and stationery.
1. The product should allow both for individual as well group learning. Students often share resources like textbooks and learn from each other in a classroom setting. A product should hence support these kinds of interactions. It was also observed that children in more rural contexts had less of a sense of singular ownership toward resources and were naturally disposed to sharing limited resources with fellow classmates.
2. The technology should be usable across multiple contexts, both in formal as well as informal domain. Without expanding to the latter context, it will not be possible to increase the level of motivation that the child has for learning. This would lend the product to the transformative nature of learning. Mobile learning solutions should allow children to explore their environments and have easy means to record their observations. Using the environment as a live classroom for children to spend time in while learning natural sciences could revolutionize the way these subjects are taught in schools, where infrastructural resources are minimal, but handheld solutions like these could transform the practices of understanding the environment through investigation and inference.
D. Viswanathan is with Nokia India Pvt. Ltd., Salarpuria Hallmark, No. 15/3, 16, Kadabeesanahalli, Outer Ring Road, Bangalore 560103, India. E-mail: email@example.com.
J. Blom is with Nokia Research Center, Lausanne, Switzerland.
Manuscript received 1 June 2009; revised 22 July 2009; accepted 25 Feb. 2010; published online 3 Mar. 2010.
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Digital Object Identifier no. 10.1109/TLT.2010.5.