This column has been modified for factual mistakes. Please read the correction at the end of the article
Mobile phones have been recognised as a bridge across social and economic divides in developing countries. Now, it is fast emerging as the most democratic device for education - which long excluded the poorest and the weakest in India.
Even with free government schools, there has been little progress in the education sector, as is evident from several evaluation reports by NGO Pratham. Today, those who want to learn English without attending a formal school can download a free-of-cost English learning application from a site called MGurujee. Upside Learning, a Bangalore-based technology solution provider, offers a range of mobile-learning solutions on its website. Of course, there is none for poor children in government schools, but there are many companies who wish to upgrade their employees' learning.
For those at the bottom of the pyramid, Singaporean researcher Matthew Kam developed English educational games on mobile phones as a means to make English learning a reality for 300 poor children in government schools in Uttar Pradesh. Called the MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) project, it was started in 2004.
Why mobile? Kam explains that during his study of villages in Uttar Pradesh, he found two things that ruled out e-learning and computer-enhanced learning. One, electricity was irregular and two, classrooms could barely be locked to ensure the safety of desktops. Also, most housegolds have mobile phones, and it's almost like a classroom in your palm. It will be with the child wherever he goes, thus doing away with the restrictions of time and space, he adds.
Kam came up with vocabulary-building, reading and spelling games. He chose English because most parents he met told him that it was one of the three most difficult subjects to teach in rural schools. He followed this with pilots in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh from 2004 to 2012.
But while Kam is still struggling to get funds to take his mobile learning to a large scale in the poorest states, a private enterprise, MoSPay, has made English lessons easily available at virtually no cost. It is a leading mobile-learning, applications and software company, providing branded content on mobile phones and tablets to the enterprise, institutional and consumer markets.
The company says it has established strategic alliances with leading mobile carriers, handset manufacturers, educational institutions app stores and content providers.
Its flagship product, MGurujee mobile learning solutions, is available with mobile operators, handset shops, app stores, and so on. MGurujee allows free download of lessons from its website, and account holders can also take tests on their cell phones.
The content provided by MGurujee might require improvement - what Kam's efforts are directed at. He researched for months in the villages of Uttar Pradesh to identify games that children could grasp easily in rural settings. He abandoned the first set of games, finding these too western for rural taste. He then gathered a set of 28 local games and designed mobile games that helped children learn new words and sentences.
For instance, he designed a tagging game "Tree Tree", wherein the screen showed three different trees, each associated with a different fruit. The computer-controlled opponent would mention one of these fruits, and the player was tested on his knowledge of what the word meant, and he had to touch the right tree.
Kam wants to design similar learning content for maths and science as well for elementary school children, preferably in states where learning gaps need to be filled badly. The researcher from American Institutes for Research says he is waiting for funds to scale up M-learning in Indian states. Meanwhile, children wait for a teacher who will teach them any time and any place, unconditionally.
In this column, Matthew Kam's name was erroneously spelt, and his nationality was wrongly mentioned. He is currently affiliated to American Institutes for Research and not to Carnegie Mellon University, which he left last August. Kam's efforts are not meant to improve on what templates like M Gurujee attempt. They target different needs and different segments of society.
The errors are regretted.