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Mobile devices for learning in developing economies

In a fast changing technology landscape, mobile devices have evolved to become full-fledged computers. Penetration of mobile devices is supposed to hit about 70% by 2012. Given the functionality, penetration and pricing of mobile devices would there be a need for OLPC (One Laptop per Child) type projects? Is the mobile device a better way to reach and teach children in developing economies?

Mobile devices are already being used to increase access to literacy in rural areas. The MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) project initiated by Dr. Matthew Kam from U C Berkeley (in 2004) aims to educate children in rural areas by providing educational games on mobile phones. The learning experiences are game-like and much more appealing to children [1].

Replacing the laptops with mobile phones is not that easy. The phones do have their drawbacks. As pointed out by Corey Doctorow, adding software to most phones is difficult if not impossible [2]. OLPCs were also meant to be completely open. Students could learn and quickly build software that addressed their needs. Another problem is the network usage costs associated with cell phones which users many cannot afford to pay.

However, some vendors (Google, Apple) are lowering the barriers for developers to put together applications that run on their platforms. In addition, they provide the developers with a channel to distribute/sell the software. It should be noted though that these phones might still not be within the price range for the target communities.

Network usage is applicable only for applications that use the network. There could still be useful offline applications that do not access the network. For new applications, we could have download pods in central locations from which the software can be downloaded. Of course, we need a mobile phone with large enough memory. However, if using mobile devices leads to demand and development of network infrastructure in rural areas that would in itself be a big win. It would be interesting to have a concentrated effort from all device manufacturers to provide platforms where such OLPC type applications can be quickly developed and deployed.

References
  1. http://www.millee.org/
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/jan/13/one-laptop-per-child-cory-doctorow

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