Continuing my US trip, after Speechtek in New-York (see my previous blog post), I spent some time at the office in Boston, lots of time in my bed too thanks to the NYC cold!, and finally ended up in Washington DC for the USAID symposium on Mobile for Education for Development (M4Ed4Dev). This event was organized by Tony Bloome, from USAID, who helped me a lot during the organization of the W3C Mobile Web for Social Development Workshop in Sao Paulo Brazil in 2008.
This event was very well organized, and there were very interesting presentations (see the agenda). The event was organized around three themes (Literacy, System Strengthening, and Evidence & Scaling Up) with lots of breakout sessions. This allowed small group discussions, and therefore a very participative event.
In terms of attendance, there were about 120 people, and to the best of my knowledge, all the experts of m-learning that I am aware or. It was a very good opportunity for networking.
In terms of content, there was a wide variety of approaches presented, some are more in line with my own thinking (see my previous post about it), some are really far away. For instance, I’m still surprised to see experiments and initiatives based on deploying new devices to children. I hoped in the past that the failure of OLPC would have stopped that kind of approaches. It seems I’m wrong. I still don’t understand how such a concept can scale well. It is not, IMHO, a money problem, but all the logistics, training, maintenance, renewal aspects that are problematic. On the other hand, I was also quite surprised to see a majority of presenters focusing on low-end phones and not on smartphones.
I was also very impressed by a couple of initiatives around literacy using voice technologies. E.g. BBC Janala in Bangladesh. It seems that lots of people in the room were more aware of the potential of voice compared to other places I’ve been talking about m* for development.
Apart from being an interesting conference about m-Education, the aim of this symposium was to explore the constitution of an alliance on this topic. I think we just started to touch the subject, and haven’t really made substantial progress. But I think it is really worth investigating further. We had the last half day dedicated to explore the potential roadmap of the alliance. I have mixed feelings concerning the output of this session. I believe there is definitely a strong need for a more coordinated effort and community building. It is essential to have more discussion and awareness of initiatives happening in different regions of the World, to know what are tools and technologies that have been tested and are reusable, etc. That said, there is a need to convene a broader community. I’ve the impression that there were far more people with an education background than people with a mobile background. This should be definitely balanced. It is really essential to understand the potential, constraints, applicability and requirements of the different technologies available through mobile. The way you deliver content using voice has nothing to do with using SMS and nothing to do with Mobile Web. I believe this has a huge impact on the way you built your content, and on the conception of the content. The content is not independent of the medium used to deliver it. It is also critical to understand the local context. Mobile Web and IP connectivity is not an option in lots of African countries. But if you are in South Africa or in Indonesia, all teenagers, independently of the socio-economic category they belong to, have Web-enabled phones. Capturing what is possible and what is not in a given place is essential for the success or failure of an approach (from the technological perspective, from the business/sustainability perspective, etc).
Part of the things that surprised me is related to the fact that lots of people consider mobile only as a new delivery channel. I’ve seen quite a lot of presentations with the same approach: e.g. we had a TV program, a radio program, and a web site, now let’s also have a mobile approach. Instead of considering mobile as a new delivery channel, it is really interesting to investigate how mobiles can enhance other channels rather than replace them. Mobile brings individual interactivity, so this is a new functionality, not only a new channel. I haven’t seen any investigation in that direction.
Finally, I’m less convinced that the alliance could have a lobbying role as it was mentioned, like discussing and dealing globally with operators. Despite the fact that the trend is to have big operators operating in numerous countries over the World (e.g. Vodafone, Orange, Telefonica, MTN, Tigo, etc), my own experience, when it comes to money and deals, is a local decision. So it is very unlikely that any decision of preferred deals would happen at a global level. I even think that using mobile connectivity for education, or for development in general, is more a matter of regulation (i.e. requirements as part of the license, or as part of the objectives of e.g. the universal service fund when it exists) than commercial deals.
All in one, I really enjoyed these two days, and this is a very promising ground for a future more integrated community. This was the first step, and I’m looking forward to participating in the next ones!