Teaching with cell phones

Photo caption:Students at Ibhongo High School in the heart of South Africa's biggest township, Soweto. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — In a country where most classrooms lack computers and only 10 percent of the entire population has internet access, it would seem that South African students are being left behind in the digital age of learning.

But South Africa is instead going a different route. Students are increasingly using their cell phones as a learning tool, seeking math help and improving their reading skills through mobile social networking applications.

Take, for example, Dr. Math, a project that connects students with live math and science tutors using MXit, a wildly popular social networking application for mobile phones.

“We wondered if teenagers would use their own personal cell phones, at their own cost, with their own air time, to get math help,” said project developer Laurie Butgereit of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Meraka Institute.

The project began modestly in January 2007 at one high school in South Africa’s North West Province, where posters were put up advertising Dr. Math. Butgereit says that the developers were going to shut down Dr. Math for the Easter holiday but received complaints from schoolchildren in other provinces. Word had somehow spread from that one high school to other parts of the country.

Since then, more than 10,000 schoolchildren have sought help from Dr. Math, including 2,500 users who are now active. “We don’t do any advertising,” Butgereit said.

“There is a real need for math and science help in South Africa,” she added.

University professors report a precipitous drop in math knowledge among students. According to one study, 93 percent of freshman university students lack the math skills necessary for their first-year mathematics course materials.

Students use MXit on their cell phones to ask math questions to tutors, who are active during certain hours of the day and may be fielding 20 conversations at one time using the Dr. Math software.

“From the kids’ point of view, it is one-on-one communication,” Butgereit said.

The Dr. Math project relies on unpaid volunteer tutors, most of whom are in South Africa but some from overseas, since they can tutor from any internet terminal in the world. There is a code of conduct in place since adult tutors are dealing with minor children, and all conversations are recorded and spot-checked.

Butgereit said she hopes to find more volunteer tutors abroad — in particular in the United States — and talks of expanding the program to neighboring African countries.

“We could get a really interesting situation of tutors anywhere in the world helping with education,” she said.

South Africa’s cell phone penetration rate is more than 90 percent, while MXit says that it has 20 million registered users, although not all are active. MXit, however, has negative connotations among some South Africans because of a few high-profile cases of child-luring by pedophiles, a reputation that the Dr. Math project has had to overcome.

“South Africa — and Africa — is book poor and mobile rich,” said Steve Vosloo, a fellow with South Africa’s Shuttleworth Foundation. Vosloo is behind a project called m4Lit (mobile phones for literacy), which uses cell phones to encourage young people to read and write — not as a replacement for books, he says, but to complement them.

“We know that young people don’t read or write enough. At the same time, we know that they love their cell phones,” he said. “So if they don’t read and write enough and are on their phones all the time, then let’s take that as a point of departure.”

The m4Lit project has created three stories — mystery tales following the exploits of a young graffiti crew — that are available in English and Xhosa and can be read on a mobile phone. Promoted within MXit , the first two stories had more than 34,000 reads each. Readers can leave comments and give input into story development.

Vosloo notes that despite efforts to put computer labs into South African public schools, there are still not many computers available. At most a student might get to use a computer for a half an hour a week, and many schools have no computers at all.

Cell phone learning, however, uses the students’ own technology, which is always at hand. According to Vosloo’s research, among urban youth, 90 percent have access to cell phones and around 70 percent of those are GPRS-enabled phones, which are preferred for mobile learning.

“What’s really exciting about cell phones is the sheer prevalence of them,” he said. “The access issue, which is a big one in Africa, is not an issue with cell phones.”

But he adds that in other parts of Africa, the mobile internet landscape is uneven. In South Africa, as well as Kenya and Nigeria, there is good, affordable access to mobile internet, but in many other countries, cell phone usage may be limited to text messaging.

Vosloo said that while mobile learning has “huge potential,” it is still a relatively new phenomenon. More needs to be done in the creation of learning materials that are specifically tailored to cell phones and there also needs to be usage guidelines developed to help schools that might otherwise be inclined to ban disruptive cell phones from the classroom. A shift in perception towards cell phones among educators is also key, he said.

“There are a lot of South Africans who aren’t online in the traditional sense, but who are online via their phones,” Vosloo said. “Just doing social networking on your phone, you are already taking part in the digital world.”