10 February 2011

Can Cell Phones Push Education?

Claire Melamed writes for The Global Dashboard about her concerns regarding technology and illiteracy, saying:
If (and it’s a quite colossal if), the projections in this graph are correct, then by the end of next year there will be more mobile phone subscriptions in Africa than people who are literate. That’s when illiteracy, and not lack of access to technology, might be the thing that stops people communicating.

You need a minimum of literacy to be able to use a mobile. And if mobile phones become the main way that people access the internet, which may well happen as people leapfrog straight to smartphones, then illiteracy and not lack of technology may become the barrier to internet access too.
I want to play a little bit of Devil's advocate for a moment with Ms Melamed's argument (which I am glad she made).  Yes, there is a gap between literacy and the number of cell phone users and it is concerning that the technology is exceeding the capability of the users.  However, could it be for the better?  Is it possible that by demanding higher levels of literacy that people will 'rise to the occasion?'
I do not have any evidence that will support these questions, but cell phones offer a unique opportunity.  So many have them that there is a need to have a basic understanding as to how to use the phone.  Currently, it is much cheaper to send an SMS than it is to make a call.  For example, an in network SMS for Safaricom in 2009 cost 3Ksh while a call was 6 Ksh/min.  In other words, two SMS equals a minute of conversation.  Many times, it is more efficient to send the SMS rather than make the call.  Also, there might be times when the phone owner might not have enough money to make a call, so they can send a message.  Safaricom even devised a clever scheme which allowed people to send free SMS messages that said, "please call me."

In order to do this, the user needs to have a workable literacy. If smartphones become cheaper and the network competition drives prices down, it is not hard to imagine the proliferation of use.  Not everyone will want to adapt to the new technologies, but some will.  Namely, kids will want to be able to access the flashlight on the phone or listen to the FM radio.  A basic level of literacy will have to develop.

The advancement of technology in cell phones as well as their proliferation means that people will have to catch up.  Being that it is an every day tool, the incentive is obvious.  Yes, education is certainly needed in order to improve the potential for cell phones, but maybe, just maybe, we should not worry too much.

What do you think?  I am personally a bit down the middle on this, but lean towards the potential of technology and the incentives it can create.  However, I make that assessment not based in fact but in hope.  So, please, jump in.