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Posted by on Jan 28, 2012

Insights into Mobile Telecoms in Africa: Predictions for mlearning and transactional economies of higher education

Africa Composite

(The above is what mobile for higher education in disaggregated environments looks like at least in my head. A composite community of modularized units. Foundational African map here is by Giacomo Gastaldi from Venice in 1566. This map is from the wonderful Afriterra Foundation. It has been remixed a bit using MacOSaiX)

I have been making my way for the second or third time through “Insights into Mobile Telecoms in Africa” from Jon Hoehler and Andrew McHenry (presentation is below). As far as statistical based reports on the state of the industry type presentations are concerned, this is a real gem for what it states explicitly and what those statistics allows us to believe possible for Africa in the coming years. For those of us in elearning and mlearning, it brings quite a bit of optimism to the discussion of what the landscape will look like in Africa in the near future. For this post, I wanted to make a prediction based on what I see here; feel free to disagree if you think I am way off-base. 

Prediction #1: Mobile penetration and particularly the rise of smartphones will accelerate the disintermediation of African (formal or informal) learning and African higher education. But there is real opportunity there. 

I would like to believe this wouldn’t be the case, but institutions of formal learning (in some African countries, mind you) are already marginalized. There are some exceptions: South Africa, Northern Africa, Kenya. Mobile, with its capacity to circumvent formal structures for learning engagement, will accelerate that process. I see informal learning groups on culturally appropriate structures, similar to what we have seen in mhealth and mfarming initiatives on the continent. I just envision these informal/formal learning groups happening for many other disciplines as well: literature, language, computer science and with accreditation mechanisms to boot. 

One slide in particular led me to this conclusion (and this is admittedly a bit of a stretch). Slide 55, which outlines Africa’s breakdown of Feature phone vs. Smartphone users and what they do. I have always proceeded with mlearning research in Africa under the auspices that it was bad form, even outlandish even, to discuss the potential of smartphones for development. That it was such a pipe dream and not specific to the realities of the vast majority of the user base. And this remains true. Smartphone penetration is still quite low and will remain so for quite some time, but this slide demonstrates what impact they will have should price points for both devices and connectivity continue to drop in the coming years (and assuming governments continue to deregulate). 

By 2016 (from slide 56),

  • 35% of all mobile connections will be smartphones in South Africa
  • 20% for Egypt
  • <15% for Kenya
  • 15% for Nigeria

Those are still low numbers as compared to mobile access overall, but certainly nothing to scoff at. Why do smartphones matter? It is all about the transactional economies created. Monthly, the average smartphone user sends approximately 300 text messages (as opposed to 60 for non-smartphones), uses 1000 MB of data (as opposed to 10), and conducts 20 transactions via their mobile device (as opposed to 1). In this instance, it is the 20 transactions I am fascinated with as the starkest differential. 20 transactions vs. 1. How these transactions break down in terms of activity is important, certainly, and many of these would be financial (once again, mobile as a culturally appropriate technology for money transactions, like M-Pesa et al). But that is a hefty difference in terms of formalized activity. 

What is more important is that many of these transactions represent a circumvention of (or even supplementary parallel to) traditional structures (banks, libraries, schools). There is no reason these transactions have to exist outside of these formal structures, but they do. Higher education should be looking towards establishing a transactional economy as well, of learning in doses based on transactional interactions in communities. There is no reason higher education in Africa (or anywhere) cannot establish a transactional economy via mobile, but they don’t. There is no reason that we cannot encapsulate the ethos and process of higher education by modularizing learning and encouraging collaboraton via mobile, but we don’t. Nobody does that last one, anywhere. 

What is clear is that sub-Saharan’s Africa’s GDP rose by an average of 5.7% between 2000 and 2010 (slide 6) and is expected to rise by 7% annually over the next 20 years. That is ridiculous growth so the lessons being learned here are ingenuity combined with resourcefulness leads to growth. Good on them for this. However, this growth is not largely a result of the efficiency and impact of African higher education (apologies again for the sweeping statements), but rather a resourceful determination to do whatever it takes to see progress. Higher education could serve a valued need here, one of knowledge production and dissemination, of quality assurance and standards, or intellectual rigor and capitalizing on the abundance of innovation taking place on the continent. It doesn’t now, but it could. 

It will take a daring system/nation/region to disaggregate (or to optimally reconstruct) higher education for the purposes of serving mobile users. What is needed is a system that allows for learning communities to form, structure and self-regulate themselves, be acknowledged for the work they are doing, and disseminate their work. There is a cultural precedent already in place for this and there is no real technological deterministic solution necessary. Africa has made do and thrived to some degree with cheap SMS phone and multiple SIM cards. The energy is there, the innovation is there, and there is certainly persistence there. What is missing is a higher educational system that can capitalize on this innovation, systematize it to some degree (without killing the spark), perhaps even replicate successes for certain areas, disseminate this knowledge, and allow society to learn from it. What is missing is this transactional economy of mobile learning for higher education. Africa has real opportunity to be a leading light here (and I fully expect they will be), to demonstrate that institutional doesn’t need to equate to immobile (or sluggish), that tradition doesn’t need to perpetually trump efficiency and process. 

A continent of collaboration and learning communities working towards localized information needs and supported through an accessible, highly mobile, even disaggregated organization of higher education. Yes, this is indeed pie in the sky thinking, but I have no doubt that the restless innovation we see in Africa currently will accelerate an evolving notion of utility. And a discretionary eye will eventually be turned towards the traditional structures of society, including higher education. 

A truly excellent presentation precisely because it is so direct. Certainly had me thinking. 

Insights into Mobile Telecoms in Africa [slideshare id=11227820&w=425&h=355&sc=no]
View more presentations from Jon Hoehler
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