Turning Mobile Phones Into Teachers

The goal was to improve the math skills among at-risk students in North Carolina.. Digital content aligned with the teacher’s algebra lesson plan was created and students were encouraged to learn from each other in and out of the classroom by turning learning into a both a social networking experience and a game on Internet-enabled mobile phones. Not surprisingly, the students’ math scores went up dramatically. The issue now is how to scale such programs globally, a  challenge that will be discussed during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona February 27-March 1. The World Economic Forum is using the occasion of the annual industry meeting to gather key players to talk about mobile education at a private workshop.

The potential is there to turn mobile phones into teachers, classes and libraries, to extend basic education to the millions of children not enrolled in primary school and to accelerate access to vocational training and higher education. “There is a great opportunity here,” says Peggy Johnson, Qualcomm’s Executive Vice President and President, Global Market Development

Qualcomm was involved in the North Carolina school pilot program. .A partnership of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Digital Millennial Consulting, and the Qualcomm Wireless Reach Initiative ( the primary sponsor), Project K-Nect, was launched during the 2007-2008 school year to find out  if 24/7 connected smartphones could play a role in enhancing student engagement and learning. It has been a smashing success.

In classes participating in Project K-Nect, student proficiency rates on a state end-of-term exam increased 30% when compared with classes not participating in the project. And these numbers have not gone unnoticed. Based on positive results from Project K-Nect, the United States Department of Defense Education Activity granted a participating school district $2.5 million to expand Project K-Nect to all algebra I students.

But to move mobile education into the mainstream more applications are needed.  Enter start-ups like Quipper, a London-based company that develops quiz-based learning apps. Quipper was started by Masa Wannabe, the founder of DEnA, a Japanese Internet company that’s now listed on the Tokyo stock exchange with a market cap of $5.3 billion. Says Wannabe: “We’re excited about accessible education worldwide — students in developing regions using affordable technologies to access high-level educational materials. Quipper will change the way teachers and students communicate and open up a new platform, suitable for all levels of education.”  Quipper, which has raised funding from Atomico, the venture firm started by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström, already offers math and English reading comprehension apps and is considering launching a mobile learning subscription service for students.

Another start-up grabbing attention is Dimension U, a web-based, interactive gaming platform and learning resource intended to help students from kindergarten through high school hone their math and literacy skills. Students use the platform to access 3D multi-player educational video games which connect them with friends and allows them to compete and collaborate while learning. The company, which was nominated as a 2012 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer, works directly with schools and has built up an audience of just under a million students in the United States. It plans to evolve into areas such as preparation for SAT college entrance exams, says Nt Etuk, founder and chief executive officer of DimensionU. “We have been approached by folks in India, Korea, Brazil and countries in the Middle East about rolling this out to them and are looking at these opportunities,” he says.

But start-ups alone can not transform education worldwide. It will take partnerships between industry and government. “Across the globe, mobile tools are now changing the way we engage with one another when it comes to acquiring and sharing knowledge,” says Tim Leberecht, chief marketing officer at frog, a global design and innovation firm helping to organize the World Economic Forum’s workshop in Barcelona. “Combine that with the power of social computing and gaming mechanics, and you can envision new paradigms of learning that go far beyond institutional boundaries, laying a long-term foundation for innovation and growth.”

The Forum wants to play a role in ensuring that the potential is realized. 
 “One of the core points of discussion in Davos this year — particularly within the ICT sector — is the transformative impact the mobile platform can play in job creation, skills development and positive socio-economic growth,” says William Hoffman, head, telecommunications industry, at the
World Economic Forum. “The Forum’s efforts in Barcelona are designed to align and galvanize this growing support with leaders from government, civil society and the mobile communications industry. Collectively, the ability to innovate at global scale, and in a manner which is localized and demand-driven, is unprecedented. Our aim is ensure this collective will translate into measurable outcomes.”

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