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UNESCO’s 2nd Annual Mobile Learning Week

Mobile Learning is Growing Big Time--in the Global South

UNESCO held its second Annual Mobile Learning Week [1]  (MLW) in Paris recently (Feb 18-22). At the Symposium (Feb 18, 19), there were 350 attendees, representing 30+ countries. The majority of those 30 countries were in the Global South [2]--the politically correct term for "developing nation." Indeed, the conference was positioned as a place for those in the Global South to meet and megashare [3].

"The event aims to explore mobile learning as a unique and significant contribution to achieving the Education for All (EFA) goals of increasing education access, quality and equality." [4]

While the two-day Symposium provided an opportunity to hear what everyone was doing, the third day was reserved for politicians to gather and discuss--by invitation only. The final two days were webinars to reach out to folks not in Paris. Here are a few projects we found particularly interesting:

  • At the whole-country level, Thailand has initiated its OTPC--one tablet per child--program. They are planning to distribute over 800,000 7 inch Android tablets to 1st graders and another 800,000 to 7th graders. And, they say that they WILL BE developing curriculum--but they are distributing the tablets without curriculum now, just to get them out into the hands of teachers and children. Who will be the first to add a comment to predict what is likely to happen with the majority of the tablets--given that Thailand didn't provide curriculum to the teachers when the tablets were distributed?

And, there were many, many, interesting local projects described, e.g.:

  • In Brazil, Martin Restrepo is leading a Qualcomm-sponsored project in a village of fishermen where the children use their feature phones to tell the stories of their parents. The children use still images, video, and recorded interviews with their parents as well as text in those stories.
  • In Nigeria where 80 percent of the food production is provided by small, single-family, subsistence-level farms, developers are creating SMS apps--for feature phones!--in the five major local languages: English, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, and Nigerian Pidgin to help the farmers get information on farming from the government. No surprise: one can better understand what one reads when it is in your primary language; but coding for five languages provides a real challenge to developers!
  • In Malawi, the German government is developing an app to help in the training of midwives since infant mortality is high and hasn't budged in five years--even though money has been spent on the problem. The app will provide the midwives with just in time information.

On the commercial side, there was also interesting drama. For example, Nokia and Microsoft were the #1 and #2 (out of 5) main sponsors of MLW: from renting out the a slew of halls, rooms, walk ways at the World Headquarters of UNESCO to the lack of any registration fee for attendees--it was a big bucks event. Why would Nokia and Microsoft sponsor the UNESCO mobile learning conference? In the U.S., Microsoft and Nokia are nowhere to be seen with respect to mobile learning. Perhaps Nokia and Microsoft don't see the U.S. as their major cellular battleground?

Feature phones can do just about what smartphones can do--at least that's what a vice president from Nokia claims - and they cost 10 percent of what a smartphone does.

  • 90,000,000 (that's 90 million!) people have used Nokia's educational suite of apps [5] (Live, Live +)--according to Bhanu Potta, Global Product Leader--Learning & Knowledge Services, Mobile Phone Services of Nokia during his keynote that opened the conference.
  • The pundits are saying that feature phones are on the way out [6]; perhaps Nokia didn't get that memo?

There was a time when Microsoft was monogamous; remember the Microsoft/Intel duopoly? Divorce city! [7]--now that Microsoft's Surface tablet uses an ARM chip [8]. So, the following headline in the New York Times shouldn't be too big a surprise--except maybe to Nokia: "Microsoft and Huawei to Sell Windows Smartphones in Africa" [9] Like we said: the developed nations may not be Microsoft's major target--at least with respect to Windows Mobile 8. Oh--we forget to mention: the #4 sponsor of UNESCO's 2nd MLW was Huawei. "Curiouser and curiouser!" [10]

We (C&E) had a terrific experience meeting and talking to so many new folks; unlike the vast majority of conferences, where one tends to know most everybody, the number of folks we knew before the conference could be counted on one hand--at best! If you have the opportunity to get outside your home patch--take it. It helps to put a perspective on one's own and very local ups and downs.

A final thought: 100 folks attended Mobile Learning Week 2011; 350 attended Mobile Learning Week 2012. Mobile learning is growing big time in the Global South--how's it doing in YOUR SCHOOL?

[3] Megashare is a good term and an even better idea. In fact, ISTE's SIGML is sponsoring the First Mobile MegaShare Conference immediately preceeding ISTE 2013 in San Antonio. For more info contact: Susan Wells, Co-Chair, ISTE's SIGML, [email protected].

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at