According to a recent UN report, current figures for mobile phone adoption are over 100 per cent for developing countries. Perhaps more surprising is that penetration stands at 58 subscriptions per 100 people in the developing world, spawning micro-enterprises (Reuters, 2010)
As alluded to in previous sections it is the context and existing infrastructure around innovations and technologies that define use. In developing countries, without existing copper cabling whether due to lack of funding or banditry the choice is a stark one between mobile phone or continuing disconnection.
Just as developing nations do not necessarily have the follow the same trajectory through an ‘industrial revolution’ period that already-developed nations have traversed, so the changed context leads to a difference in mobile device use. Instead of ‘catching-up’ with the West, Africa (for example) wants to leapfrog it. An example of the latter would be mobile payment systems, common in Africa but still evolving in the West (ReadWriteWeb, 2010). As Niall Winters explains, context is key:
“Determining how to support African mobile learners in their own socio-cultural contexts is a significant challenge and remains under-researched. Simply put, not enough is known about how phones can be productively used in education and training in these contexts.”
Graham Brown-Martin agrees, pointing out that we need apps ‘from’ Africa rather than apps ‘for’ Africa. The primacy of mobile devices with 3G connections in that continent is demonstrated by their exponential growth compared with the linear growth of traditional, fixed DSL lines. Mobile devices, with backlit screens and access to online resources, become a necessity rather than a luxury when it comes to learning (infoDev, 2010). The importance of mobile devices to developing economies is outlined by Ford Leinonen (2010:196):
Contrary to trends in the developed world, where PC and Internet connectivity is almost ubiquitous, mobile phones are currently the most important networked knowledge-exchange technology used in the developing world. From a developing country perspective, features such as limited or no dependence on permanent electricity supply, easy maintenance, easy-to-use audio and text interfaces, affordability and accessibility are the most important considerations for using mobile phones as potential learning tools (Masters 2005; Mutula 2002; Stone et al. 2003).
Another area in which context makes a big difference to the mobile learning landscape is Australia. In a similar way to Africa, the large distances and related infrastructure issues have led to a focus on mobile devices. The opposite is true of the context in Japan, with small houses, a population concentrated mainly in cities, and strong mobile culture resulting in world-leading smartphone ownership. Such hardware development and innovation, however, does not necessarily translate into a sustainable interest or expertise in mobile learning.
As regards the USA, ordinarily a powerhouse in all things technological, it still ‘lags behind’ according to academics in the field despite overtaking Japan in 2009 as the overall biggest market for mobile learning (Ambient Insight, 2010). Scandanavia continues to be somewhat of a hotbed for mobile learning, especially through Nokia-funded projects (http://www.nokia.com/corporate-responsibility/mobility-in-society/education).
It is the UK that has, over the past few years, been at the forefront of mobile learning initiatives. The Mobile Learning Network, MoLeNET, an LSN-funded programme, provided “technical and pedagogic advice and support, materials development, continuing professional development, mentoring, facilitation of peer-to-peer support, networking and resource sharing, research and evaluation” (http://www.molenet.org.uk). Despite funding and supporting 104 projects and reaching around 40,000 learners and over 7,000 members of staff, the future of MoLeNET is (at the time of writing) unclear. Some have criticised it as focusing too heavily upon the technology itself and an alignment with ‘home access’ initiatives rather than transformative learning but Lilian Soon, for one, believes that without MoLeNet, learning and teaching in FE would not have “moved on from the chalk and talk, hurdled past some of the didactic use of VLEs and engaged learners in mobile learning activities.”
It is clear that context is key when it comes to worldwide mobile learning initiatives. Whilst there are lessons to be learned from global programmes, each country and indeed each institution continues to have its own unique enablers, barriers and communities of practice.