Is Mobile Learning the Future of Education in Africa?

Accra (GH), May 2008 - If the advantages of eLearning cannot be overemphasized, then the merits of Mobile Learning - mLearning - are revolutionary, opines Fred Kofi de Heer-Menlah from the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA). CHECK.point eLearning asked him about his ideas in the context of his presentation at eLearning Africa entitled "An Investigation into Wireless Technology for M-Learning at GIMPA".

What are the advantages wireless LAN offers Africa?

Fred Kofi de Heer-Menlah: Most of our African towns and their institutions were built without provision for Internet and Local Area Network (LAN) wiring. To date, many buildings are still being erected without these facilities. The most common solution today is to chisel away some walls and floors or to use trunks to lay UTP cables for LANs, an act that destroys the aesthetics of many areas in our towns, campuses, and buildings. They also introduce a host of new problems to the community.

Our telecommunication companies don't seem to plan ahead to lay cables that can be used in future for both voice and data. Many are still using dual copper cables for voice for both metropolitan-area telephones and local telephones. This makes it even harder when we have to put a local area network in place for some institutions. Also when we have to add additional nodes to our local area networks, we have to take out existing trunkings and cables and to lay new ones.

Today we live in a society where there is so much uncertainty about internal processes of organizations: a person can be moved from one office to another quite frequently and sometimes even without ample notice. This frequent moving of personnel often requires wiring of new offices or buildings, and sometimes this work is accompanied by the moving of workstations and shared network equipment. Lots of our African institutions lose valuable productive time during these processes.

The absence of the planning of underground ducts for most of our towns, campuses and, compounds introduces another serious challenge. Most of our building infrastructure development designs and site plans do not make room for ducts necessary to lay telecommunication and other cables. Where some of these ducts exist, there has been so much modification that the documentation of the underground cables is inaccurate or unreliable. Using these ducts usually requires major digging, not to mention the accidental damage to other underground cables. These and other civil works such as water, electricity, and road construction cause lots of damage to our network infrastructure.

Wireless LANs usually help us do away with the problems listed above and place us in the position to adopt change quite easily. A spin off of this is the provision of mobile learning.

To what extent and how can Wireless LAN enhance M-Learning?

Fred Kofi de Heer-Menlah: Currently, most of our LANs are fixed and most eLearning take place in computer laboratories, lecture halls, libraries, and other structures especially constructed for this work. But the acceptance of eLearning by our institutions of learning is so prominent that most of our institutions are running short of such facilities. Laboratory space for eLearning is so limited that many of our classes either do away with eLearning as components of their mode of instruction or just leave it to the individual students or participants to cover on their own outside the normal class hours.

If put in place, wireless LANs used with wireless Internet devices such as laptops could help transform every lecture hall into an eLearning place. This will further move eLearning to mLearning, where the self-paced learning will not be restricted to the laboratories but be possible anywhere within the coverage area.

The nature of eLearning requires us to make it available to our students and participants not only anytime but also anywhere: in the cafeteria, at the recreational areas, in their "hideouts", and wherever they spend their time on campus. The proliferation of the handheld Internet gadgets such as palmtops provides new avenues for our mobile learning. To me, it is a second phase of eLearning that should be planned for while embarking on eLearning in its current state.

In Africa, most of our communities are still rural and usually without basic infrastructure for eLearning. Fixed or land phones are non-existent or next to impossible to get working in such remote and rural communities. The beauty of wireless communication is that with Internet-enabled devices such as laptops with mobile telephone subscription, it is possible to take mLearning - not just eLearning - right into the heart of our African rural communities.

At a workshop for Science, Mathematics and Technology teachers at Tamale in the Northern region of Ghana in September 2007, I demonstrated that with a mobile-phone (TIGO) Internet subscription line running the GPRS/EDGE technology, it is possible to introduce the teachers to the Internet and eLearning at a workshop. Little did I know while talking to them, that this is the technology to take m-Learning straight to the rural areas.

If our African governments will get the mobile service providers to embark on meaningful corporate social-responsibility ventures such as making mobile-phone connectivity to our rural folks - or let's say to provide proper national coverage and not just to the urban areas where they are assured of their sales - the Continent as a whole could benefit from mobile learning, the ultimate form of eLearning, very rapidly.

Please outline the experience you have had to date at GIMPA?

Fred Kofi de Heer-Menlah: We first tried the wireless coverage on campus in 2002 with the aim of covering the core teaching areas. This was being implemented by a private contractor who held his technical design as a trade secret and as such would not divulge much detail. We went through three design phases during my term as IT Manager using omnidirectional antennae, Linksys antennae, and a combination of other makes of antennae, but none of these worked. We could get signals (Internet connection) at certain outdoor areas, but the connection could not be sustained as we moved about on campus or indoors into offices and lecture rooms.

Next, we had a number of companies come in to demonstrate their technology. One such was Wireless Africa, which in a six-month test run brought their own Internet connection and mounted a series of repeater points on campus. This, according to the current system engineer, did work, but a contract had been signed, and so we couldn't put the wireless network to test for our mobile learning ventures. A second school of thought was to have the wireless network integrated with our existing LAN so that they could properly be managed.

We have had two other companies also come in with proposals on WIMAX LAN. One is BATTIS engineering, which also works as C-MATRIX Eng, along the West African corridor. From my interview with their engineer Dela, I found out they did their site survey and proposed a 256-node WIMAX solution to cover a 10km radius scalable to 1024. However, further technical discussions with him indicate that they were working on the angular positioning of their omnidirectional antennae and were sure they could get the system to work within the 5.8 MHz free radio band. However, an MOU to implement their WIMAX system could not be signed, so they also had to put everything on hold.

Our best attempt to implement wireless coverage for our campus is the one that we worked on as a final-year project by Aziz Basheer, whom I supervised. The paper on this work will be presented at the "eLearning Africa" conference 2008 in Accra. We observed interference from other networks, angular positioning of our antennae, and fluctuating signal strengths of our Internet connection as we move around obstacles like walls, rooms, etc. From these observations, we designed a Mesh WIMAX topology for our campus. What we have to do now is to implement this WIMAX LAN.

The interesting thing you will notice in my response to your earlier questions is the talk about the needed wireless-network infrastructure. This is the current challenge, and if we can get it right, then the actual mobile learning will take place. We participated in the African Virtual University (AVU) Computer Science degree program delivered by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne Australia.

In this programme, the network infrastructure was a major problem that made it necessary for the eLearning modes like lecture broadcasts, access to the WebCT server, and other facilities to be scaled down. A mixed mode of CDs and a local WebCT server in addition to the international one proved to be quite a technical challenge with many difficulties and resulted in measures that were not cost effective. No wonder the programme folded abruptly in 2006.

On our own, based on the use of our final-year students' projects, we are using a Free Open Source Software (FOSS) Learning Management System (LMS). We are also investigating designing lessons that can be used on the Internet and on mobile devices simultaneously.

How would you judge the future of M-Learning in this context?

Fred Kofi de Heer-Menlah: To me, M-Learning is the future of education in Africa, particularly for people in the deprived and sparsely populated areas, but it requires our policy makers to be quite informed about the technology and to seek opinions from neutral bodies such as the university lecturers who are not IT vendors and will not be pushing their own agenda. Secondly, I think university lecturers, particularly those in the sciences, technology, and engineering should be encouraged to embark on projects that will add value to lives of the African community as opposed to academic research only for the sake of getting a promotion.

eLearning is already popular and accepted by the general community. When we talk about rural connectivity, the mobile-telephone service providers have technology that can be used to enhance education meaningfully. There are too many "reality TV" shows being sponsoring by these mobile-phone companies. They should be encouraged - or forced - to undertake corporate social responsibility projects that add better value to the African community.

Policies and guidelines should be put in place to direct these mobile phone companies to channel their corporate social responsibility towards mainstream education by committing themselves to champion mLearning with the rural communities as their targets. The current EDGE mobile telephone connectivity can be made available to some selected schools in the deprived communities so that these rural communities can be gradually brought into the mainstream eLearning forum.

For the urban areas, just as SMS messages have now been generally accepted, eLearning is sure to take the form of M-Learning very soon. Maybe public-private partnership (PPP) initiatives can be encouraged in the M-Learning areas, as many of our young folks are hungry for education, but we want to keep them in the rural areas, too. In this regard, the governments will have to provide incentives to make Internet connectivity in our rural areas accessible.

It is my conviction that the technology is improving and that wireless connection is a necessity in most institutions of learning today and in the future. We at GIMPA have recently implemented wireless LAN in our French laboratory and for use at our first satellite campus in the Premier Towers in downtown Accra. African governments need to make concerted efforts to implement wireless technologies to promote M-Learning in both the urban areas and the rural areas.