UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2016


Now in its fifth year, the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2016 (#MLW2016) has certainly succeeded in raising the profile of mobile learning and its potential to enhance quality education.  While Mobile Learning Week 2011 placed emphasis on the number of mobile devices in circulation, the debate has since matured to examine the impact mobile learning is having on both resource-rich and resource-limited contexts.  This was illustrated in the timely theme, ‘Innovating for Quality’.  The comprehensive format of #MLW2016 consisted of a webinar, workshops, a symposium along with a policy forum, all of which allowed a rich interactive experience to develop.


The webinar that effectively kicked off #MLW2016 impressed in the range of speakers representing a diversity of learning contexts, but also in terms of a live event that enhances inclusivity and engages stakeholders who may lack sufficient resources to attend in person.

Professor Mike Sharples began with a clear reminder that pedagogy rather than technology should inform the inclusion and usage of mobile devices in learning spaces. In some contexts, statistics around the number of devices in the classroom rather than the learning practices they facilitate, still inform the debate. In this context, clear linkages with MLW2011 were still evident.  Nevertheless, as a teacher and teacher-educator, a platform that profiles pedagogy leading technology, helps to raise the profile of technology at the grass roots, where resistance is often entrenched.  I was, therefore, particularly interested in the work presented by Tarek Shawki, in which the focus on upskilling Egyptian teachers to facilitate the roll-out of the Egyptian Knowledge Bank is seen as central to the success of the project.  There are still too many examples of teachers being viewed as an appendage to technology, rather than the central driving force.

I was one of the lucky teachers to have received an interactive whiteboard and unlimited access to the Internet in the early 1990s. There is no doubt that it revolutionised my teaching practice, but in tandem, I also witnessed decreased engagement levels of students, once the novelty wore off. Thomas M. Philip’s (UCLA) contribution resonated with me on a number of levels. Educational equity in the digital age is an area that requires further examination. Philip’s argued that if equity levels are low, the introduction of mobile technology tends to merely exacerbate the problem, thus questioning its validity. As I have personal experience of rising student resentment that their personal space (their own device) was ‘invaded’ by the teaching and learning process, I was interested to hear Philip sharing similar examples of young people in California. There is a clear need to initiate dialogue with young people around issues of space and context, and policy needs to recognise the learner’s voice as the conversation develops.

Day two workshops encapsulated the diversity of learning contexts; attention was given to the growing challenge of supporting learning in conflict areas and working with refugee children. Jackie Strecker from the UNHCR brought us through the complexities of providing Syrian refugee children with a quality mobile education experience. Laura Stankiewicz (creative associates advisor); Anthony Bloome (USAID); Rebecca Leege (World Vision) and Alexandra Galeitzke carried on with this theme generally, as each presenter emphasised the importance of a quality learning experience, despite the complex challenges. As technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see further innovations in conflict areas.

There are still too many examples of teachers being viewed as an appendage to technology, rather than the central driving force.

As business models, both commercial and those aligned with Corporate Social Responsibility become clearer, growing numbers of collaborative projects will emerge and focus on delivering quality education to those currently excluded.  One such collaboration between Ericsson and the Earth Institute introduced us to some of the complexities of delivering quality learning in the context of multi stakeholder partnerships. They spoke at length about how managing multiple expectations while attempting to deliver common objectives is a time-consuming process. It can also be difficult to scale success stories given the specific challenges some projects present as opposed to others.

My final observation relates to inclusion rather than this year’s theme of quality. While public policy may attempt to promote lifelong learning, examples of learning traditionally portray children and young people as the active participants. It was encouraging to see Mrs Valerie Wood-Gaiger (MBE) #learnwithgrandmum talk passionately about the high levels of motivation expressed by older people to learn about technology. She offered practical insights into the benefits of intergenerational learning and encouraged us to reflect on some of the challenges pertinent to this cohort. In an era when lines demarcating divisions of labour were clearly visible, women tend to start from a much lower base then men. Given the poor quality education many received, an understanding of their literacy needs is also required.

In general, I observed a measureable step towards an effective inclusion of mobile technology in quality education for people of all socio-economic levels, ages and genders. It seems education is moving away from techno-driven learning to techno-aided learning designed by sensitive and seasoned teachers. This shift in emphasis may bring success to the drive towards mobile technology in education.

Joanna Norton teaches at the University of the Arts (UAL) London and is currently researching Applied Imagination. @joannapnorton

Photographs Creative Commons

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1 Comment

  • I was at two days of the UNESCO MLW meeting and I found a different thread, by both contributing and questioning on the quality of mobile learning initiatives from the perspective of affordability and sustainability. I felt that we were being repeatedly asked to endorse the proposition that mobile platforms could carry quality educational experiences – with no evidence ever presented that these forms of delivery are scalable, offer value for money, or indeed have a price point. For me, that is a head-in-the-sand approach. Mobile learning can only thrive to the extent that it appeals to the mood of donors and philanthropists, and yields imagery and messaging suitable to drive their funding criteria. A mixed educational environment is a good thing and mobile proponents need to show the quality of their solutions within the same frameworks of feasibility, affordability and value as every other kind of education expenditure is subject to.

    I found that the major NGOs and foundations were receptive to this line of argument, and privately lamented that their efforts in mobile learning were all too circular, merely confirming findings made elsewhere that mobile can be an effective part of the education toolkit, but never taking that insight to the point where it makes impact at significant scale.

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