The education system can be upgraded with the use of mobile technology

Mobile technology holds an exciting future for education. The technology is ubiquitous, cheap, easy to use and – best of all – loved by kids. But the truth is that the revolution mobile technology can unleash goes deeper than just “kids”. It’s an area that has remained largely underexploited for an anachronistic social reason - until recently, academicians and education administrators believed that a mobile phone was a distraction that students could do without in class. That attitude is changing. The day isn’t far when the first thing students will hear in class is, “Are your mobile devices on?” from their teachers because mobiles will become an intrinsic part of delivering education.

Before exploring the exciting and futuristic possibilities the technology can unlock, it may be worth looking at the transformation it can bring about in a country like India. Imagine for a moment an uneducated farmer in Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh whose child has been to college and now dreams of doing an MBA. Can the child explain to the parents what an MBA is? It might be difficult to do so. Or, imagine a plumber in Mumbai who has been to high school, has heard that people invest in a stock market, but can’t understand exactly how to invest in stocks. Or a small storekeeper in Chennai who has heard on TV that Libya has seen sweeping changes thanks to Twitter but can’t figure out what Twitter is. What all these people need is a little “education”.

Some possibilities

Now let’s look at the solution: an enterprising company can locate native language bloggers who can write tiny 10,000 word books on these subjects that the farmer, plumber and store keeper can understand. They can then get the books read out in the local language – Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, etc - and transfer the audio books to mobile phones for a small fee of two to three rupees over Bluetooth when they go to get their phones recharged. The audio book is delivered over an app that has Digital Rights Management (DRM) as a key component. The buyers listen to the book at leisure on a device that they already own and which is always with them. Entire libraries of such educational books – even for the completely illiterate can be created, fulfilling a deep need for education.

Notice the change in players that the model brings about in terms of content creator, distribution channel, distribution platform and consumer. None of them were part of the education environment or the value chain in the past. But for a country like India, the bigger point is this: mobile technology can reduce the gap between those who have access to education and those who don’t.

Changing the system

Obviously, the more exciting front is what the technology can do to existing educational processes. Mobile technology can be used to solve a variety of issues facing education. Teacher truancy is a real problem in remote locations. However, mobile technology can ensure that students don’t miss class as teachers can deliver lectures from wherever they are, administer oral questions, etc over a mobile video link.

The cheap, reliable – plus, simple to use – mobile capability is ideal for locations where power is a constant problem and running larger computer systems, even desktops with web cams, could pose challenges. At Bangalore’s Seshadripuram First Grade College, the authorities distribute cheap handsets to students and use them to administer multiple-choice tests, record attendance, etc. The system creates tests, administers them, tracks results and evaluates students. This is just one example of leveraging mobile technology to enhance formal education. It’s applications in areas like continuing adult education, professional skills-related education, hobby classes etc is infinite.

Mobile technology can be used for a variety of other purposes on campus: to send a message to parents that their child has been missing class; send reminders to students about fee payment, exam schedules, returning library books etc; report and prevent bullying on campus using imaging and texting tools; alerts for incidents of violence on campus (such incidents in the West are forcing educationists to consider the mobile phone as a friend rather than a foe). Several colleges across the world have begun to manage their communications with fresh applicants over a mobile channel. Today, academic testing for Graduate Management Admission test (GMAT), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and Medical College Admission tests (MCAT) are available over the mobile.

The day is not far when Mobile Assisted Learning for the Millennials will combine voice recognition, GPS, multimedia and text in uniquely different ways. School students may go for a field trip and point their camera-equipped mobiles at objects – such as flowers, the Taj Mahal, the Mumbai Stock Exchange – and have image recognition technology and Augmented Reality (AR) combined with GPS data assist them in identifying those objects, providing them with detailed explanations, drawings, current status and more about the objects. Even audio and video commentaries and analysis of what they see on their mobile screens is possible. Students will use the phone’s capabilities to record their observations, collaborate with other students and submit their assignments.

Thanks to the popularity of app stores, there is going to be an explosion in new learning tools and content. The complexion of education – what is delivered and to whom, how and when it is delivered and the cost at which it is delivered – is going to see dramatic change. Educators need to invest their time and energy to understand what mobile technology can do to revolutionize education and embrace the new possibilities that await students.

(THE AUTHOR IS MANAGING DIRECTOR, INDIA, RESEARCH IN MOTION)

(This article was published on July 5, 2012)
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