Mobile Technologies for Learning and Development (VII). Matthew Kam: Mobile Phones and Language Literacy in Rural Developing Regions

Notes from the UOC UNESCO Chair in e-Learning VII International Seminar: Mobile Technologies for Learning and Development, held in Casa Asia, Barcelona, Spain, on October 6-7, 2010. More notes on this event: eLChair10.

Mobile Phones and Language Literacy in Rural Developing Regions
Matthew Kam, Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, USA

When analysing what the user is doing with technology, it is very important to have a multidisciplinary approach.

Needs and problem statement: fluency in “power language” (e.g. English), public schools in developing regions (e.g. India) are not succeeding, 101 million primary school-age children do not attend school (36M in South-Asia, 39M in Sub-Saharan Africa).

How can cellphones make education more accessible through out-of-school environments? Can game-like exercises provide an enjoyable learning experience? Can one learn anytime, anywhere without disrupting work?

The project began in India in 2004 with 10 rounds of fieldwork (adding up to more than 12 months of fieldwork). Since 2004 and during that time, there has been several rounds of pilots that included needs assessments, exploratory studies in slums and villages, feasibility studies again in slums and villages, testing, classroom and out-of-school studies and controlled studies.

A classroom study deployed throughout 2008, three times per week, after-school program at a private village school, demonstrated significant post-test improvements on spelling skills, with learning gains correlated with grade levels.

MILLEE project

Another out-of-school pilot study focused on the use of cellphones in children’s daily lives over an extended time. The participation in the study was voluntary. m-Learning consisted in cellphone-based game when “working” in the fields to improve English literacy. It was a task-based language teaching, with an instructional sequence around tasks. Much of the methodology was already out in the market (do not reinvent the wheel), so best practices in 2nd language teaching were analysed and more than 50 design patterns where distilled to be applied in the own project.

On the other hand, it was also analysed what were traditional Indian villages games like, how were they different from existing Western videogames. Thus, 296 game design patterns where documented, identifying 37 non-tribial differences. At last, educational games were designed on purpose and based on traditional village games.

Access to electricity was a major issue, and the average user could use the mobile phone for learning during 2:23h per week. Social environment was also an issue, as some kids had to hide the phones away from their parents or brothers, had maintenance issues, etc.

The average participant covered 46 new words over 16 weeks of unsupervised usage of cellphones. At this rate, each participant is expected to learn 150 words in a calendar year. Benchmark is 500 words, given good learning conditions. The problem is that during the first 8 weeks, the rate of number of new words completed is very high (up to 40-65 words per week), while the rate falls to under 10 words per week for the rest of the weeks. So, the novelty effect has a very hight attraction power, but it ends up fading out.

This project has been now on a scaling-up phase with a Nokia grant that enabled the extension of the pilot to 800 low-income children in 40 locations.

A major challenge for this project is not scaling in quantity, but also in quality, making it advance towards the acquisition of advanced literacy skills. The project is now being designed based on Chall’s stages of reading development. On the other hand, one size fits all approach does not scale, which implies quite a complex deployment strategy.


Ismael Peña-López: Has there any research been made to analyse the fading out of the novelty effect? Any ideas on how to extend it? A: There are two strategies to extend the novelty effect. The most evident one is, of course, to include more and more novelties along time. This is, usually, not economically sustainable, as content production is very expensive. On the other hand, introduction of more and more novelties might be misleading. A second way, which is not actually extending the novelty effect, is to make the games more engaging. This is the strategy the project is taking and that is why a game designer has joined the team to specifically focus in this aspect.

Eva de Lera: Why not using bigger devices/displays that allow for more users at the same time that the tiny cellphone screen? A: There is not really a single approach. There are many experiences on several users converging on a single device, like the multi-mice PC. On the other hand, engagement in language learning often depends on oneself being in charge of his own learning, and being in control of the game. But, yes, definitely, there is not a single path.

Carlos Fernández: Why not using less multimedia-intensive learning games (e.g. quizzes) with lower requirements of adoption and, especially, with lower power/battery requirements? A: This is already done, but it also has a trade-off with engagement, so it is difficult to tell where the balance is.

Q: How far can we go on in m-learning for language literacy? A: It depends. It certainly can go really far, but we should definitely consider (i.e. do not forget) the role of the teacher. Thus, maybe the upper end of m-learning should more be about teacher training rather than direct student education. Talking about individual vs. group activities, the shortcomings are not obvious; sometimes individual use is better.

More Information


UOC UNESCO Chair in Elearning VII International Seminar: Mobile Technologies for Learning and Development (2010)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “Mobile Technologies for Learning and Development (VII). Matthew Kam: Mobile Phones and Language Literacy in Rural Developing Regions” In ICTlogy, #85, October 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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