Access to the internet and instant availability of information have become the order of the day. And although not everyone has access to Wifi and the treasured resource of uncapped data, mobile internet is becoming increasingly important for education, especially in rural areas.
Even though South Africa might be one of the continent’s leaders when it comes to information technology, data is very expensive. I therefore welcomed Icasa’s announcement that South African data practices will be addressed, requiring cellphone companies to rollover unused data, to notify subscribers about data depletion and to stop charging expensive out-of-bundle rates without customer consent, thus reducing the cost of communication. (Read more)
Effective communication is essential in supporting business and contributing to the economy, but successful communication is a challenge in a country with 11 official languages, cultural diversity, long distances, rural living… and many of these challenges are also true for Africa. Fixed lines are scarce in Africa and with smart phones and data very expensive, feature phones still make out a large percentage of the mobile phones in use. “Feature phones continue to account for a majority share (62.2%) of the region’s overall mobile phone market as they adequately address the needs of consumers that have limited purchasing power and require a reliable long-lasting mode of communication, particularly in rural areas.” (Read more)
For the same reason, 3G phones stay popular despite the availability of 4G models. (Read more). Free, uncapped, basic internet access in the form of a 2G network is advised by advocacy groups Right2Know: “We remain resolute that our right to communicate – to receive and impart information and opinions – is central to our right to know, hence we are now calling for a universal basic uncapped internet access.” And I agree.
Mobile phones and data are important for communication in all aspects of life, but they also bring another opportunity. The dangers of the web is often emphasised and limiting screen time is a topic of conversation among parents, but most of these are first world problems. In poor, rural communities where access to information is a challenge, mobile internet brings a unique opportunity for education. And education is a topic close to my heart.
On the one hand, mobile internet serves the goal of enabling people with information, opinions and views that can shape their thoughts, give them a broader perspective and ensure a better understanding of the world, politics, finance, culture, diversity… Better informed, they are less susceptible and less open to exploitation.
But mobile internet can also assist with school education. It can of course be of added benefit to learners with access to regular schools by recording lectures, for downloading information from the web or sharing information in groups or on platforms. More importantly, however, there is a unique opportunity for learners in developing countries where cheaper mobile devices coupled with a boom in educational app development means access to quality educational media. With minimal landlines and very limited broadband internet, mobile brings learners, parents and teachers the opportunity to share knowledge and to create educational platforms. (Read more)
The opportunities and challenges of mobile internet for education in countries such as ours are, however, closely linked. The World Bank’s research on educational technology for developing countries touches on the following points that are important to keep in mind. (Read more)
While the actual cost of the appliance is an initial stumbling block, getting the service from the device can make affordability even more difficult. This is one of the reasons I feel strongly about free basic internet, even if it is only 2G and even if access is from a cheaper type of phone.
People need to be able to make good use of their device and to get the information they require. Having schools equipped with technology that is not accessible defeats the purpose.
Having the device and knowing how to operate it, is a start. But connectivity can be a serious challenge in the African landscape. Efficient networks are required to utilise the potential of the device. Connectivity does not only refer to web access for content and information but also connections to other users. Michael Trucano‘s article for the World Bank, states: “While schools in some countries are equipped with more broadband capacity than entire countries in Africa in the not too distant past, many communities remain largely unconnected. Many others are chronically underconnected. While important efforts are being made in this regard, connectivity remains a really big issue.”
Considering South Africa’s ongoing challenge with electricity and experts forecasting dreaded load shedding for the upcoming winter (read more), just imagine the challenges of less developed countries. Access to reliable power sources plays a very important role in the “digital divide”. Smart phones, the Cloud, etc. increasingly demand regular access to power and in rural areas, this source may be a solar device or car battery!
Sometimes low cost devices are difficult to use because of poor interfaces and sometimes phones are just difficult to use because they have been designed for another group of people or for different purposes. “It perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising that devices designed in places like Mountain View (or Tampere or Tokyo, Cambridge or Suwon) aren’t always as usable for folks in, for example, rural, low income Asian or African communities…”