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Posted by on Jun 1, 2011

Mobile leading to freeflow communication; highlighting a stunted populace

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I just returned from Tanzania mostly for the eLearning Africa Conference held last week in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. As always, the energy was palpable and there seemed to be a considerable amount of success stories of pilot projects that had yielded some good results. 

  • Sankore-a nice platform for creating and sharing educational content freely (OERs). Judging by the presentation, it seems to be making some headway. In my estimation, for OERs there has to be some aggregation in terms of a single point of access. Otherwise, the disparate and highly personalized nature of a lot of these resources will results in their lack of use. Sankore seems set to try and 0transform that a bit by developing an authoring service as well as a mechanism for distribution and discovery. 
  • Mobile-not surprisingly, mobile learning as a tangible educational driver in Africa was a clear focus of many of the talks and there has been some fantastic developments in this capacity since the last time I attended eLearning Africa (2008). Dr. Sara Hennessy of Cambridge discussed her recent project in Zambia on supporting interactive teaching with ICT. This video isn’t from the conference itself, but highlights some of her work in this area.
  • Although not specifically the focus of these presentations, parallel increases in popularity of applications like Ushahidi and Frontline SMS have some amazing potential as well for educational use, specifically for networking like-minded communities of interest into tangible learning communities. 

Now, it is no secret that mobile penetration in Africa is amazingly high (several countries just about set to top out at the 100% mark in the next year) and computer ownership (of the PC or laptop variety) quite low. It makes perfect sense to develop learning around this paradigm, to maximize the learning potential of these devices as these are the devices that are most available. With such high mobile penetration rates and presumably a greater networked populace in terms of communication and reference potential, there are subsequent social benefits and pressures placed on existing structures. In my opinion, all too often we overlook the physical/tangible elements of society in terms of the impact mobile technology has on them, but this is a real case of mobile communication/networks placing pressure on existing physical grids and networks. Examples of physical networks in this context are roads and electricity grids, both of which should flow like flight patterns. If not predictably, then certainly consistently. This is more or less what you want, this freeflow of human activity. 

When this freeflow isn’t available or more specifically, when only one element of human activity is flowing freely (communication via mobile), this puts great pressure on the other non-free flowing elements of society (intellectual freedom, physical services, power, grids). The roads in Dar es Salaam in particular were lacking and therefore you have a mobile populace stunted in motion. SMS as communication tool via mobile (even smartphones are starting to make considerable headway into East Africa) allows for the population to network in meaningful (if ephemeral) ways, but that free flow of association and interaction is limited by a physical infrastructure unable to cope with this newfound mobility. What kinds of pressures does mobility place on social structures? First, life in Dar es Salaam as seen from the back of a taxi. 

http://www.flickr.com/apps/video/stewart.swf?v=71377

Hours spent daily navigating short distances are hours lost in terms of productivity, knowledge construction and distribution, and overall general development. People get savvier, but not inherently smarter (or at least not inherently more economically viable) behind the wheel of a car. Unless you are a driver, obviously. The drive is linkage into the network, the combination of work and worker. Idea and actualization. Mobile offers a promise of fluid and free movement yet the infrastructure lacks the ability to capitalize on that. The promise of potential-the means to actualize=bottlenecks of frustration and discontent. Socially, this places pressure on existing authority structures. More attention is placed on the political arena to determine the nature of the bottleneck, why funds diverted for construction are never transformed into a working grid of roads. Why rolling blackouts occur daily and computer labs (as well as hospitals, schools, etc.) run off generators from time to time. Mobile technology provides the ability to not only ask that question but to identify a community that feels the same. A community built on discontent/dissatisfaction. 

This is why mobile is so powerful. Not because it causes fractures in society, but merely places the pressure of a fluid citizenry square against traditional foundations. When something wants to move, it will eventually. So, all in all, a fairly interesting illustration of mobile leading (hopefully) to disruptive change, not only in education but throughout society. Tanzania is heading in the right direction, certainly, but I just hope they use these fracture points as guides for further (level) development.  

 

 

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