The potential use of the cellular
phone already in the pocket
of many school-going children
is an enticing prospect for those
looking to improve the quality
of education. This is especially
true in a country where
the school-leaving qualification
program has a pass rate of
only 60 percent.
January + February 2009
Ostensibly, this project is about using a mobile
chat service (MXit) as an educational tool.
However, as we develop and reflect on the project,
we realize there are more general lessons for others trying to make effective ICT interventions in
the developing world.
Conceptualizing the Internet. For most of our
users, MXit is the Internet. They have no notion
of sophisticated Web applications and browsers; if
it isn’t accessible through MXit, it does not exist.
If you are trying to reach users with a new service, then we suggest you look at the ICT they are
already familiar with and use that to give them
a hook into the new system. It may be they use a
system similar to MXit.
Local market forces. Within South Africa we have
relatively cheap data plans that are accessible to
pay-as-you-go customers as well as customers on
contract. On current plans, users can access data
at 8 cents/Mb. Most customers can therefore conduct all their communications for a few cents per
day! It may be that other countries have similar
low-cost data plans, or perhaps there are other
low-cost ways of communicating—for example,
populating voice mailboxes with information in
response to an SMS query.
The many handsets problem. Anyone who has
tried to do a wide-scale deployment of mobile
applications will know the headache involved in
trying to write software that will run on any platform. Had we attempted an intervention in the
school on our own, it would have been cheaper to
buy the students identical handsets rather than
invest the programmer time to create software for
every handset the students have. Fortunately, we
could leverage the MXit infrastructure already in
place. Again, if MXit is not available, then it may be
worth seeing how much you can achieve with, say,
a WAP interface before going the painful route of
creating your own client software.
The first new bot was the multiple-choice bot,
which not only asked questions related to the subject but also provided feedback on both correct and
incorrect answers. When the student answered
correctly, he or she received further information
expanding the concepts behind the question; an
incorrect answer prompted an explanation of why
the answer was wrong.
Following up from there, we decided to expand
the service by introducing equation-solver, dictionary, and Wikipedia bots.
With the equation solver, students were able to
type in a quadratic equation to get a step-by-step
guide on how to solve that equation. The dictionary and Wikipedia bots are essentially reference
services; both allow students to follow up on words
or concepts they do not understand by using MXit
as an interface to online services.
The bots lend themselves well to content-based
subjects. At present we are using them in information technology and mathematics, but we have
not attempted to introduce bots to support other
subjects. Rather than attempt this translation ourselves, we have instead been working with other
teachers to empower them to create their own bots
to support the teaching of their subjects. Our hope
is to create a suite of bots that will be accessible to
anyone using MXit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jakkaphan
Tangkuampien is working on his Ph.D. in computer
science at the University of Cape Town, South
Africa under Gary Marsden. He also teaches the
subject of information technology to high school
students. His research interest is in exploring the
potential of mobile devices in education in the developing world
where computing devices are not as readily available.
© 2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/0100 $5.00