Over three billion people around the world already have mobile handsets. Educational organizations are responding to this new reality by developing new and different ways to capitalize on mobile learning and training for formal and informal education.

Mobile learning, or mLearning, is not a new concept, but its popularity is surging as organizations explore new methods of reaching those who are unable to access formal education. For those taking advantage of mLearning, this approach can enrich classroom learning, assist with teacher training, and provide workplace training to students. Best of all, many of these services require technology that’s already ubiquitous: basic mobile handsets. Two of the most successful projects are based in Pakistan and Mali.

Pakistan: SMS for Literacy

SMS for Literacy, an initiative launched by telecommunication service provider Mobilink, is a leading example of a successful mobile learning project that helps to equip young women with essential life skills. The project has been designed to improve the basic literacy skills of the learners by sending educational messages in Urdu, the local language. In addition to an improvement in the women’s literacy, the initiative also tracked a positive indirect benefit in helping to break down cultural barriers to mobile phone ownership for women—which in turn resulted in a sense of security and increased confidence. The project was launched in partnership with UNESCO and has helped thousands of women increase their literacy and numeracy by up to 60 percent.

Mali: PAJE-Nieta

In Mali, the USAID-funded PAJE-Nieta (Support Project for Young Entrepreneurs) program delivers basic educational skills, such as reading and math, and identifies employment opportunities via mobile phones. Under the project, young people create associations within each village, and the associations then act as a hub for future vocational training and job mentoring. From this hub, participants design community service projects that they carry out locally. The goal is to demonstrate to their neighbors, their family, and their bosses that this program is about more than simply receiving assistance—it’s about showing that the youth of Mali will give back as they move forward.

Sustainability

New technologies always usher in challenges alongside promise, and one of the key issues with mobile learning products and services is sustainability. Discussions around payment, the role of government, and which institutions are key players in the value chain are frequent topics of debate. However, innovative projects have already started to solve the sustainability problem. Some of the most successful are already looking toward an expansion of services, including those in Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Bangladesh: BBC Janala

In Bangladesh, the learning project BBC Janala aims to raise the English language skills of 25 million Bangladeshis by 2017. Since its launch in 2009, BBC Janala has attracted over 8 million users in Bangladesh and received several international awards for its innovative mix of pre-recorded English lessons and quizzes delivered through basic mobile phones.

One of the key issues with mobile learning products and services is sustainability.

Philippines: Text2Teach

In the Philippines, the International Youth Foundation, Nokia, and the United Nations Development Programme combined forces to develop a project to deliver educational video content in classrooms via mobile technology and televisions. Launched in 2003 with Globe Telecom, the Text2Teach program is now in phase three and reached 157 schools in 2011. With an additional 15 schools added to the program in 2012, a total of 557 schools now have access to the technology. Text2Teach has also trained more than 1,600 teachers on the use of the technology in the classroom. The program attributes its success to strong partnerships and community ownership.

From education to employment

Beyond education, there is vast potential for mobile learning to link to employment opportunities.

One example is the USAID-funded Somali Youth Livelihoods Program (SYLP), which ran from 2008 through 2011 to provide training and job placements for 8,000 young people and delivered core program content through mobile technology. Souktel was supported by lead project implementer EDC Inc. By delivering SMS and audio mobile learning and job information services across the regions of Puntland, South Central Somalia, and Somaliland, end users gained real-time access to key information in communities with low web access and limited local media. The comparison of pre- and post-test outcomes showed a positive and statistically significant change in test scores, for both the attitudinal and knowledge-based questions. Participants also demonstrated some improvement in their understanding of the concept of budgeting to manage finances.

In underserved communities like these, access to life-changing mobile tools and resources are helping to bridge the gap between disillusionment and opportunity.