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Not Just for Students: Mobile Teacher Professional Development

By Mary Burns / March 2015

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It is an image we know well—a learner, head bowed, eyes fixed intently on the screen of her small mobile device, fingers dancing nimbly across the tiny keyboard. "Chien," says the voice on her device, showing an image of the French word for dog. Our eager learner carefully spells out the letters in French—c-h-i-e-n. "Oui! Correct!" announces the mobile learning program. Our learner grins with pride…

For most readers, the above scene is familiar, even prosaic. Every day in schools across North America, Europe, or Australia, students interact with some kind of mobile device—usually a tablet or a smart phone—and a rich array of apps that target literacy or numeracy or instruction in some set of key skills.

But the learner described above is not a student. Our learner, "Miriam," is a teacher. She lives, not in North America, Europe or Australia, but in the poor, landlocked African nation of Mali. She is not using a touchscreen Android or iPad tablet or smart phone, but rather a very basic $40.00 phone, which gives her access to a set of pre-made audio files. Her goal is to learn a language (French) in which she must instruct, but which she does not speak.

Almost reflexively, when we think of mobile learning and its users and beneficiaries, we think of students. But across the globe—particularly in some of the world's poorest countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—mobile learning, primarily via low-cost cell phones, is an emerging and increasingly important vehicle for the instructor's professional development. Like online professional development for teachers in wealthy contexts, phone-based professional development provides teachers in poorer contexts with access to information, experts, experiences, and resources that would otherwise be unavailable—because of geographical constraints, lack of skilled teacher educators, and scarce professional development opportunities. Indeed, for billions of the world's citizens, including its teachers, computers and the Internet are still unaffordable and out-of-reach [1].

Low-Cost Phones

For many of us, mobile phones are smart phones; these mini-computers combine all the features of a standard phone (voice) with all the standard computing features—texting, web-enabled browsing, multi-touch screen capabilities, and mini-applications—tailored for mobile devices. But outside of wealthy countries, and wealthy people or regions in poor countries, smart phones are scarce (in India only 6 percent of all mobile phones are smart phones) [2]. Most of the world's citizens use an array of low-cost mobile phones—ranging in cost from $20 to $80 USD—primarily to send text messages (SMS) and secondarily for voice calls [1]. As these simple phones continue to drop in price, and voice and texting become even cheaper (thanks in part to so many free messaging services), mobile phone ownership can be found across all socio-economic groups. The two areas of the world where the growth in cell phone ownership is highest—sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—are also the two regions with the most acute teacher-quality needs [3]. This rate of growth in mobile phone ownership ideally means anyone with access to a phone—regardless of race, caste, gender, geography, or socioeconomic status—could access resources and instruction if these were available.

Mobile Teacher Professional Development

Given these developments, in the last few years education providers have begun to leverage the phones teachers already own—and know how to use—as low-cost substitutes for computers to provide teachers with instruction and resources. Most of these mobile phone initiatives build on the most common functions of phones—text and voice. Below I outline a few examples of how mobile phones are providing teachers with resources and instruction within the context of sub-Saharan Africa.

Content Delivery. Teachers in low-resource environments often lack access to the most basic materials—a curriculum, teaching guides and books. South Africa's Ministry of Education distributes its national curriculum to teachers in rural areas via a secure digital (SD) card, which is a high-capacity memory card. For example, teachers in South Africa and Mali can access mobile novels ("m-novels") that can be read to students, teaching guides, and lesson plans via SD cards.

One of the most well-known content delivery programs is Bridge IT, which operates in 10 countries across South America, Africa, and Asia. Teachers can use video-enabled mobile phones to peruse an educational video catalog and order videos via SMS. Videos are downloaded to the teachers' phones, which they then connect to a television and play the video for their students. The download also includes text-based teaching guides, which can be viewed on the phone. Teachers can access various techniques, for example, asking open-ended questions and summarizing. Worldreader, which is a non-profit dedicated to promoting literacy in the developing world, offers a mostly free library of 11,000 digital books and texts via mobile devices. One of Liberia's largest mobile phone companies, Cellcom, has pre-installed the Worldreader app on its latest phones and is providing customers with free data transfer.

Language Instruction. Across sub-Saharan Africa, teachers must deliver instruction in a "national" language they may not speak—French, English, Xhosa, or Portuguese. Many other teachers may lack the ability to read or write in any language. In such cases, mobile phones have proved to be especially suitable for language learning. Skill builders (e.g. Education Development Center's Stepping Stone platform—the same tool "Miriam" used to learn French), simple educational games, math drills, and even the use of the alphanumeric functions of phones have been shown to successfully build the literacy and numeracy skills of adult learners, including teachers. Research from Niger suggests mobile phone-based literacy learners score higher on measures of literacy than students in standard, face-to-face literacy classes, even six months after the end of classes [4].

English in Action (EIA), a joint project between the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the governments of the United Kingdom and Bangladesh, may be the most well-known phone-based language instruction program. EIA targets the English-language competencies of 25 million people, including 100,000 teachers. The core delivery system of English instruction is an SMS-based program; teachers can access hundreds of English-language audio lessons, audio-visual files, and quizzes, all aligned with the national English textbook. Content is updated weekly and is differentiated so learners can follow the course at their own speed. The mobile phone lessons recognize the learner's phone number and pick up where the learner left off the next time they call in. While preliminary, research has documented significant improvement in teachers' and their students' English language competencies [5].

Just-in-time Professional Development. Many parts of the globe—south Asia, central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa—suffer from acute teacher shortages. Here "teachers," especially in rural areas, are more likely to be teenage girls with some secondary education. These young teachers, frequently not much older than their students, are ill-prepared to teach and often have little to no support.

Interactive Audio Instruction (IAI), developed by Stanford University in the 1970s, uses one-way audio to reach two audiences (students and their in-class teachers). It consists of a series of audio programs, based on the national curriculum, played during class time. The audio programs, via an audio "teacher," offer a series of structured learning episodes in which students are prompted to sing songs, participate in individual and group work, answer questions, and perform certain learning tasks. IAI is "interactive"; the audio teacher speaks to students and students respond to prompts and interact with materials and with one another at the audio teacher's prompting. The audio teacher also guides the classroom teacher—for example in how to set up groups or call on boys and girls equally. This "dual audience direct instructional" approach—teaching students and teachers simultaneously—has a robust body of research [6, 7]. showing both improved learning outcomes for students and improvements in instructional quality for teachers.

IAI audio files have traditionally been pre-loaded on iPods or CD-players. Increasingly, however, professional development providers are switching to mobile phones connected to portable, rechargeable speakers to play IAI programs. In addition to holding hundreds of hours of recordings, phones can also store text-based teaching guides and teachers can SMS or call a free number for support from colleagues or a tutor-something other hardware, iPods or MP3 players, cannot. Thus, low-cost phones serve as a teacher's personalized, all-in-one professional development toolkit.

Coaching and Support. Across many parts of the globe, simple phone-based social networking sites (like MxIt or Facebook Zero), SMS, or free messaging apps provide teachers with access to in-service professional development or to a community of colleagues who share ideas and provide support for teachers living in rural or remote areas. For example, "Ask Dr. Maths," a South African SMS tutoring service, based on call center-like functionality, provides students (mainly) and teachers (increasingly) with math tutoring as needed. In numerous projects across Zambia, Malawi and Madagascar (with funding from the U.S. and France), teachers use their phones to study video examples of good teaching practice and call in to a free number where they conference weekly with teachers in their professional development cohort, or use SMS, a Twitter interface, or free messaging services to connect with one another and with their professional development provider. Though limited, research from such phone-based teacher coaching programs suggests, in some cases, mobile phone support, combined with face-to-face instruction, can be as effective for teachers as face-to-face instruction and support [8].

As the examples above suggest, mobile learning can be a professional development lifeline for teachers who lack access to the Internet, to resources, to colleagues, and to formal professional development opportunities. The "killer apps" of mobile phones—voice and text—though basic, can be powerful tools for teacher learning and teacher support. Furthermore, mobile phones are accretive—meaning new modalities (social media, video, and, increasingly, apps for low-cost smart phones) can be layered onto old modalities (voice and text). Taken together, this means mobile phones can provide a variety of learning opportunities for teachers in poor countries in ways that online learning cannot and other forms of technology—radio, TV or video alone—do not.

Caveats and Concerns

As with all technologies, when discussing mobile phones for teacher learning it is important to temper hope and enthusiasm by acknowledging some of the weaknesses that accompany mobile professional development. First, though this is changing, there is limited research on mobile technologies for learning. Most of what does exist focuses on how teachers can support student learning with mobile technologies versus how teachers themselves might actually learn with such technologies.

Second, though ownership is exploding, it is not ubiquitous. In some of the world's poorest and most strife-ridden places, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, mobile infrastructure is still poor and mobile ownership is often limited to capital cities. Similarly, for all the excitement about mobile phones, in sub-Saharan Africa for example, ownership is still concentrated in urban areas and in a handful of countries—Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa.

Third, when it comes to optimal technology tools for learning, phones still do not quite measure up to computers. The phone's small screen can make interacting with, and processing of, information difficult, and its operating systems limits the kinds of learning activities and features that are so easy to do on computers. This is changing as ownership of low-cost smart phones continues to increase.

Fourth, as with all technologies, we need to bear in mind that technology has a dualistic nature—offering opportunities for learning that might otherwise be unimaginable, while at the same time constraining and circumscribing that learning. The danger is we become so enamored of the tool that we privilege only the types of learning it allows. A greater danger is that the technology itself becomes the professional development—rather than fitting technology into the greater corpus of professional development. A focus on text messaging and transferring text-based content via SD cards—as is often the case with mobile learning—means mobile-teacher professional learning runs the risk of being reduced to fact-based or rote learning versus procedural learning focusing on improving instructional skills and behaviors.

Finally, the fact that mobile phones can offer support to teachers that is both cheap and scalable represents an opportunity—and also a threat. A lot of phone-based learning, all things being equal, is not as ideal as face-to-face or even online learning. It is better than nothing. But "better than nothing" cannot be a defining ethos for teacher professional development, especially for teachers with the greatest needs and the least amount of professional formation. Phone-based professional development is a tempting intervention because of its reach and cost. But where other options are available, mobile phones should not replace more proven forms of professional development and support. We need to guard against a reductionist vision of learning that conflates teacher professional development and support with little more than text messages, phone calls, and audio snippets—versus sustained face-to-face interaction with colleagues, materials and experiences.

Mobile phones offer promising pathways to professional development for teachers who are otherwise beyond the reach of face-to-face or online learning. They offer teachers opportunities, resources, and experiences that can complement, but should never supplant, the basic principles of good professional development. Ultimately, best practices in teacher learning must still drive the design and delivery of professional learning experiences for mobile phones—understanding how adults learn, the types of learning experiences teachers need to help students attain learning outcomes, and providing ongoing support and resources to teachers who work in difficult and challenging contexts.

Names have been changed.


[1] Pew Research Global Attitudes Project. Emerging nations embrace Internet, mobile technology. 2014.

[2] Mirani, L. Developer markets: The poor will go from copying new technology to creating it. The Economist. Nov. 18, 2013.

[3]Burns, M. Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, models and methods. Education Development Center, Inc., Washington D.C., 2011.

[4] Aker, J.C., Ksoll, C. and Lybbert, T.J. Can mobile phones improve learning? Evidence from a field experiment in Niger. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 4, 4 (2010).

[5] Walsh, C.S. E-learning in Bangladesh: The 'trainer in your pocket.' In IADIS International Conference e-Learning 2011 (July 20-23, Rome). IADIS, Lisbon, 2011.

[6] Ho, J. and Thukral, H. Tuned in to student success: Assessing the impact of Interactive Radio Instruction for the hardest to reach. Education Development Center, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2009.

[7] Evans, N. and Pier, D. Interactive radio usage and its impact on grade 1 and 2 teachers and students: Midterm study of the Appui Technique aux Éducateurs et Communautés (ATEC) Program, Madagascar. Education Development Center, Inc., Washington, D.C., 2008.

[8] Pouezevera, S. L. and Khan, R. Training secondary teachers in rural Bangladesh using mobile technology. ICT in Teacher Education: Case studies from the Asia-Pacific region. UNESCO, Bangkok, 2007.

About the Author

Mary Burns is a senior technology specialist and professional development specialist at Education Development Center (EDC). A former teacher for 10 years, she has more than 25 years of experience in education in online, face-to-face and blended modes of teacher professional development. She has worked in five continents designing educational technology policies, programs, teaching teachers and students how to teach and learn with and through technology, and researching and writing about effective instructional technology use. Contact her at [email protected].

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