mLearning in Africa: Lessons from the m4Lit project
Steve Vosloo, Shuttleworth Foundation, Cape Town
m4Lit project is about mobiles for literacy, a
project set out to explore the viability of using mobile phones to support reading and writing by youth in South Africa.
South Africa has an excellent mobile infrastructure, with good mobile coverage and relatively cheap mobile data plans.
Most people in South Africa do their reading at school, but 51% of homes have no books at home, there is no leisure in reading. Thus, reading activity is really low, which has a negative impact in literacy as a whole.
The project created Kontax, a
mobile novel (m-novel) was written and published in September 2009 on a mobisite and on MXit. The story, called Kontax, was published in English and in isiXhosa. Readers were invited to interact with it as it unfolded – teens could discuss the unfolding plot, vote in polls, leave comments, and finally submit a written piece as part of a competition for story sequel ideas.
The project got more than 63,000 subscribers, +28,000 aged 11-18 and 27,000 aged 19-24. That is a lot of youngsters, but not all of them where. On the other hand, not everyone read the whole story, but only 17,200 did, of which +7,000 teens. Nevertheless, this are astonishingly high reading figures for South Africa.
Most digital writing takes place on mobile phones, but it tend to be short, like SMS.
Most reading took place on mobile phones or on paper.
Word-of-mouth was the main channel by which people came to know about the project.
The isiXhosa became very popular, especially in relationship with the presence of the language in written literature in South Africa.
The pilot project became Kontax 2, Kontax 3, Kontax 4 and then Yoza, a mobisite that brings content (literature) to mobile phones. Even Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet, on the public domain) has been uploaded to the site for it to be read on a mobile phone.
Some topics (youngs, romance) work better than others on mobile phones. And we find that people do comment on the works and even enter in a “dialogue” with the characters of the novels.
- Mobile is a content monster. People wait for more content to read.
- Mobile content is instant. And people will participate, comment, engage in conversations.
- The readers never sleep, they connect at any time to the website. Content is read anytime, anywhere.
- The platform matters: to create one’s own platform is hard. It is better to use someone else’s platform that has already caught in the market.
- Interest is difficult to maintain.
- Audience is fickle, fans are loyal. Fans left lots of comments and spent many time on the stories.
- When reading becomes “snacky”, it is hard to make it sticky. You’re waiting for the bus, you read; when the bus comes, you quit reading: you have to take this context into account.
- You might end up with something you didn’t expect.
The economic sustainability of the project is definitely an issue. Either you partner with a funder, or you embed your project in the educational system so that, in mainstreaming it, diffusion becomes more easy and straightforward.
South Africa is book poor, but it is mobile rich: Africa’s e-readers use mobiles as their Kindle.
- What are the effects on non-English mother-tongue speakers?
- To what extent will teens allow “us” to occupy “their” space?
- Who is excluded from the mobile Internet?
- When reading becomes “snacky”, what does it do to concentration abilities?
There is a distance and conflict between mobile literacies and school literacies. This needs to be explored and better understood because mobile literacies are so pervasive in young peoples’ lives(Walton, 2010). What do we do with this?
Q: Was there any criticism for having people with their eyes stuck on a small screen? A: Not at all.
Emma Kiselyova: When the project is over, what’ll be next? A: The main goal now is looking at sustainability options. These options range from other sponsors, ads in the stories, etc.
Gardner Campbell: What is going to happen with the generated content? A: Everything is online and it is available for everyone and under an open license.
Q: Wasn’t it possible to stablish agreements with book publishers? A: It seemed that their tempos were really slow. Q: But, nevertheless, now that the project has shown success, a second contact may be advisable. A: Maybe, but there still is the issue of affordability of content. For now, content has been freely available on the net. If it’s put behind a paywall, audience may decrease dramatically, and the goals were not making money, but contributing to increase literacy.
Interesting round of comments on “texting literacy” here. On the one hand, some people state that young people underestimate their own literacy or their own language skills. On the other hand, there is also the debate whether “texting” can be applied anywhere and whether there is a need to teach the critical skills to be able to tell when this text-speak is appropriate. Personally, I’ve always thought that e-mail and SMS is not written language, but transcribed oral language. We should address the issue from this standpoint of view.