If We ‘Text’ It, Will They Learn?
Mobile phones have become an important tool for teacher professional development, allowing teachers to reach more students and adult learners.
August 20, 2013 by Mary Burns, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti
10 minutes read
A primary school teacher shows her class a cell phone in Chennai, India. Credit: GPE/Deepa Srikantaiah

Cell phones and teacher professional development

In the avian world, magpies are noted for their fascination with shiny objects with which they line their nests. Those of us in educational technology share a similar affinity regarding technology objects. Currently, the technology tool that shines brightest in international educational development is the mobile phone. As a result, many organizations are lining existing programs for adult learners, students, and increasingly, teachers with some sort of mobile service delivery (for a clearinghouse of some of these projects, see the mEducation Alliance).

This post focuses on two specific categories of mobile phones for teacher professional development in very low-resource environments—feature phones and simple mobile phones—which together comprise about 90% of mobile phone ownership in the developing world (smart phones, essentially mini-computers with an operating system and third-party apps, are more commonly used in wealthier countries and therefore are not discussed here).

The promise of mobile phones for teacher learning

The excitement about mobile phones for teacher professional development arises from three intersecting factors:

First, mobile phones blend old modalities (like audio and text) with new ones (social media and video). This accretive capacity means that mobile phones can provide a variety of learning opportunities for teachers in poor countries in ways that online learning does not and interactive radio and audio cannot. For a quick sample of how the various functions of feature and simple phones can potentially tailor learning for teachers in low-resource environments, see Figure 1. Note that many of the examples listed are geared toward students or adult learners, but could easily be adapted for teachers as I’ve tried to do in the second column of the table.

Figure 1: Ways in which feature and simple phones can support teacher learning

Cell phone feature How these features can support teacher learning Examples
  • Content support (augment teacher’s content knowledge and target “difficult-to-learn” concepts)
  • Lesson plans, books and teaching guides (M-novels)
  • Curriculum delivery
Multimedia (with and without alphanumeric capabilities)
  • Basic education skill builders, simple educational games, math drills, etc. to help teachers learn basic skills/facts
  • Provide alphabetic, numeric, and phonetic guidance to help teachers learn a language or learn basic math concepts.
  • SMS-conferencing with teacher colleagues
  • Ongoing support from trainer/coach
  • Mobile tutoring to help teachers with basic content skills or implementation of new practices
  • Teacher blogs
  • Ongoing support from instructor/coach
  • Conversations/Q&A with instructor/coach
  • Rudimentary communities of learning: Teachers connect with one another
  • Teaching Quality Improvement in Secondary Education (Bangladesh)
  • Connected to speakers to broadcast in-class interactive audio programming
  • Dual-audience direct instructional approach provides just-in-time learning to teachers
  • Teachers can share video examples of a procedure they are trying out in class
  • Teachers can view video examples of desired practice.

Next, unlike online learning, a “top of the pyramid” technology, about which I wrote last month, mobile phones offer greater potential to reach those teachers at “the bottom of the pyramid”—and often in their own language and with localized content. That said, aside from major cities, cell phone access still does not reach the absolutely poorest places—as in most of the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Central African Republic. Nonetheless, over 80% of the new mobile subscriptions added in 2011 were in developing countries (GSMA, 2011), and a majority of those were in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—two parts of the globe with the most acute teacher quality needs.

Finally, mobile phones may be the only educational technology that can attain the ‘Holy Grail’ of sustainability (though initiatives in countries that lack cellular infrastructure will probably still be donor driven). Cell phones can be leveraged for educational purposes, since, like radio and unlike the Internet, many low-resource nations have well-developed cellular networks and infrastructure and many teachers already own and know how to use cell phones. Mobile phones are far more affordable than laptops for poor countries, even factoring in equipment donations. Indeed, the cost of mobile phone ownership has declined to the point that ownership can be found across all socio-economic groups.

Challenges of mobile phone learning

These favorable conditions aside, if we want to use mobile phones well as tools for teacher learning, it may be worth bearing two considerations in mind.

One of the greatest dangers to the success of educational technology—whether TV, computers or cell phones—is the trap of our own inflated expectations. Historically, all technologies have followed a similar adoption and implementation trajectory of hype, hyperbole, disappointment/cynicism, and hope for the next great technology fix. The first consideration, therefore, is to remember that we are in the very early stages of adoption of “mobile professional development” and we should thus temper claims about its impact accordingly. Despite collective enthusiasm about the cost, versatility, scale, ubiquity, utility and ease of mobile phones, the research on the impact of mobile learning is fairly thin, not terribly robust, and not yet very definitive. Noisy claims about the effectiveness of unproven tools often distract us from concentrating on more proven interventions.

Technology is not the answer to all problems

The second consideration concerns our focus on technology solutions to all problems, especially when those solutions are bright, shiny, cheap and portable. All technologies have 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 that 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. 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. But the basic principles of good professional development must still drive the use of this shiny new tool— 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.

[For more information about all mobile technologies for teacher professional development, see the chapter on mobile learning in this distance education guide. For a fuller global overview of mobile-learning and teacher training, check out UNESCO’s Mobile Learning for Teachers series. ]

This is the last blog post of a three-part series on technology-based professional development for teachers in developing countries. Read the previous posts Listen to the Radio… and Learn! and To Improve Teacher Quality, Click Here


Burns, M. (2011). Mobile technologies for distance learning. In Distance education for teacher training: Modes, models and methods, pp. 107-122.Washington, D.C. Education Development Center. Retrieved from http://go.edc.org/07xd

GSMA (2011). African mobile observatory: Driving economic and social development through mobile services. Retrieved from http://www.gsma.com/publicpolicy/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/africamobileobservatory2011-1.pdf

UNESCO (2010). Mobile learning for teachers. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/themes/icts/m4ed/mobile-learning-resources/unescomobilelearningseries/

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