By Michael Tambo and Honorine Kaze
November 2011
For years, the question of what to do with learners and cell-phones in schools has been problematic both for parents and Government.

Maurice Nkusi has found the solution.

He has initiated a project on mobile learning, focusing on the adaptation of mobile phones to provide access to teaching, learning and assessment resources in order to enhance learning processes for students.

Nkusi, who is the Head of Instructional Technology for the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the Polytechnic of Namibia, is introducing a new approach in the country’s education sector through his research on the topic: How can mobile phones be adapted and adopted to provide access to teaching, learning and assessment resources to enhance learning processes of the students?

In this project, he is working jointly with a Polytechnic of Namibia’s distance student and Environmental Youth Officer from the Usakos Multipurpose Youth Center of the Ministry of Youth, National Services, Sport and Culture.

Mobile learning refers to “any sort of learning that happens when the learner is not at a fixed, predetermined location, or learning that happens when the learner takes advantage of the learning opportunities offered by mobile technologies. In other words, mobile learning decreases limitations or geographical barriers in teaching and learning “while on the go” with the use of general portable devices.

According to Nkusi, the system implemented in this ‘M-learning’ research project is complex but very user friendly, especially for users who have never attended online training. The system being implemented performs adaptation based on the device and user profiles. The system therefore works on both PC and mobile platforms. “In this research, I monitor the underlying multidimensional adaptation framework, which had been used to develop the prototype mobile learning system. The prototype implementation uses Extensible Markup Language (XML), Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL) and Document Object Model (DOM). The database used is Mysql 5.1 and its main role is to hold dynamic components while the interface in between the content and the user is made of user-friendly framework, having web 2.0 features developed using PHP 5.2 and applying both Ajax and XSLT (XSL Transformation).“

The framework uses the model-view controller (MVC) architectural paradigm and it is implemented via the front controller for cross modular functionality purposes.

This development comes at a time when a number of national strategic documents and policies have recognized the need to develop ICT within the education sector. The strategic plan for The Ministry of Basic Education (2001-2006) has been “to manage and use modern information technology to communicate and share information,” whilst the National ICT Policy stipulates that, “It is critical to emphasize training of teachers who will teach ICT related subjects and the ICT strategy for The Ministry of Higher Education (draft) aims “to increase the nation’s ICT skills”. Lastly, the vision 2030 talks of “Integrating ICT education and training into the education system.”

Nkusi has decided to use what he refers to as ‘the poor approach to see in which way such equipments such as simple mobile phones can help people gain learning material.’

“The topic of my research is timely and very important and my aim is to find innovative processes to address the out-of-school youth dilemma concerning provision of skill development. I want to build a model where mobile phones should contribute to provide instructions on teaching and learning, taking in consideration contemporary methodologies and pedagogies.

“In this research, I intend to find out how mobile technologies can enable skills development among the youth in the category of NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training). One of the objectives of this research is to develop a model which permits youths to get access to quality training materials without attending classes or workshops in order to cut costs related to transport, accommodation, meals, etc. Such costs hinder the implementation of skill development programmes for out-of-school youths.”

As the project is also targeting those out-of-school youths who cannot continue with their school education, mobile learning allows them to learn from their respective homes using wireless Internet offered by local mobile operators.

“Participants in this project will lean from their homes and will attend virtual classes using mobile devices. Using such technology, many youth members can be trained in a shorter period of time where applicable. By so doing, I will be able to measure the impact of mobile phones in teaching and learning.

I intend to allow those students without access to computers at home to be able to access learning materials just like any other privileged students across the globe,” says Nkusi.

Nkusi has decided to use cell phones because of their accessibility, affordability and availability to the majority of people in Namibia, especially the youths. In Namibia, mobile devices have access to a broadband, which makes Internet connectivity available and affordable. The penetration of mobile phones in Namibia is a great phenomenon.

The country has 3 major mobile phone operators namely; Telecom Namibia, MTC and Leo. MTC alone has 1.7 million subscribers. The remaining is shared between Telecom Namibia and Leo which implies that the majority of people have access to mobile phones.

“Mobile phones are widely spread all over the country, including the rural areas. The fact is that it is a challenge to provide computers or laptops to all children in Namibia due to the cost involved for purchase, maintenance and training.

“Mobile phones will be used to complement other models already implemented in the country,” says Nkusi, adding that the challenge is how to transform such gadgets not to be considered only as communication or entertainment tools but also as teaching and learning tools.

According to Nkusi, the future of mobile phones in education is bright but it all depends on strategies and choices taken by educationalists in Namibia.

At the moment, he has started the ball rolling with the first course on mushroom cultivation that is usually offered by the Usakos Multipurpose Youth Centre using the face-to-face approach. Nkusi transformed the face-to-face course into an E-course where by participants learn online for three weeks and take about four to five weeks to achieve their projects.

Participants use only their mobile phones to access content, do their assignments, communicate with their tutors and peers for collaboration and to engage in various activities. Participants also use their mobile phones to submit assignments and participate actively in online discussions, search for information through the Internet, etc. Their end products will be published on one of the popular social networks, Facebook, for e-portfolio purposes.

“Namibia is a big country with dispersed communities. We are trying to develop a model where different communities can access the same content, at the same time and share their experiences using affordable mobile phones. The mobile learning (M-learning) system that we are implementing has social network features that facilitate communication and collaboration among students under the supervision of the course tutor. This approach provides youths with skills that will help them develop themselves in terms of livelihood skills and in one way or another creating employment opportunities for them..,” he explains.

He further notes that the Ministry of Education has various programmes to integrate out-of-school youths into vocational education and training. The challenge is that there are not enough vocational schools to absorb the huge number of school leavers. Nkusi added that, the model they are researching on if found viable, will greatly add value in technical and vocational education and training (TVET). The model should also be used in formal school systems, especially for remedial teaching to help learners with learning difficulties or learners with special needs. More researches will be needed to explore various potentials that mobile learning can offer in education and training sectors.

The introduction of mobile learning according to Nkusi, will also provide an alternative workable solution to the problem of textbook and computer shortages in various academic institutions. This model being researched on will definitively break or extensively reduce the digital divide among communities and schools.

“What we are observing in this research is amazing. Young Namibians that failed Grades 10 and 12 are busy learning and gaining skills. They are so enthusiastic and can work until very late during the night. Some of them told me that they are so busy that they don’t have time to move around and do nothing as that was before joining this programme. The system developed helps to monitor students’ attainment to tasks and provides useful statistics such as when and what the student is busy doing and for how long,” he says adding that they are using textbooks in their schools which are expensive to buy and difficult to preserve due to their usage by younger readers.

“The challenge comes when the information in those textbooks is out dated or some changes occur in the school curricula. You cannot update printed resources. The only thing you can do is to update and reprint them. This can be done at regular basis due to the cost involved. However, while using technology, content can be updated regularly and students can always access updated information. Mobile-learning is going to supplement and add value to existing prescribed textbooks and in the same line, providing up-to date information and access to additional resources through the Internet,” concludes Nkusi. PF