LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. There's a lot of debate about how to improve classroom learning in the developing world. Some people say laptops. But in South Africa, a growing number of education experts is focused on a different electronic device, the cell phone. Anders Kelto has this story from Cape Town.
ANDERS KELTO: It's ten in the morning at COSAT, a science and technology school in the township of Khayelitsha. Students in matching blue uniforms pour into the hallways between classes. As the next period begins, 12th grade student Mlamli Gadi reads a story aloud to his class.
MLAMLI GADI: [INDISCERNIBLE] from the [INDISCERNIBLE], a voice asks me if I want to [INDISCERNIBLE]. It come from a snot-faced kid the size of my younger sister.
KELTO: It's a familiar scene, except for one thing. Mlamli isn't reading from a textbook, he's reading from his cell phone. The students at COSAT are participating in a literacy program created by Steve Vosloo, a fellow at the South Africa-based Shuttleworth Foundation. The project is called m4Lit, or mobile phones for literacy. It's a database of short stories that students can download to their phones. They can leave comments, answer questions, and in some cases, write their own alternate endings. Vosloo says their first story, called Kontax, has been especially popular among teenagers around the country.
STEVE VOSLOO: We've had 60,000 full reads of the whole story from start to finish, 30,000 comments, 10,000 competition entries. So what we really want to do is keep producing stories that are engaging for young people, that are honest about their lives, that are relevant for them, and which they can read, but also interact with.
KELTO: Busisiwe Mashele, another senior at COSAT, says she and her friends enjoy reading the stories on their phones.
BUSISIWE MASHELE: Usually we don't read because we don't want to carry books, big books. Teenagers like to use their cell phones.
KELTO: South Africa has a 100% cell phone penetration rate, which means there are more cell phones than people in the country. And that has a lot of members of the educational community here excited. Lucy Haagan co-directs a South Africa-based mobile learning program called M-Ubuntu. She says cell phone learning is especially promising in rural areas, where an estimated 70% of students have access to cell phones, but books are often in short supply.
LUCY HAAGAN: There is a shortage in the lower-resourced schools and so e-documents or e-books make a lot more sense, and those are perfectly suited to mobile phones.
KELTO: Cell phones also offer important advantages over computers. They're cheaper to buy and maintain, they use less power, and according to Vosloo, they're more widely embraced.
VOSLOO: Cell phones have totally emerged as a bottom-up phenomenon. In Africa, the mobile phone is the iPad or the Kindle. This is the e-reader of choice on this continent.
KELTO: At the De Rust Futura Academy just outside of Cape Town, 11th grader Landri Mouwers watches a video math lecture on a cell phone.
FEMALE SPEAKER: If he pays 250 rand per month for the next ten years, how much will he receive at the end of theï¿½
KELTO: Mouwers says she prefers this type of learning.
LANDRI MOUWERS: I think it's great because if I haven't got something, or I don't understand it much, I just press pause and I go back to where I wanted to be, and then I listen it again until I understand.
KELTO: She can also take the cell phone home with her, and continue studying the lesson there. One other cell phone-based math project, called ï¿½Dr. Maths,ï¿½ connects students with live tutors via text-message. It also offers regular math competitions, with high scoring players receiving free cell phone air time. But there are limitations to cell phone-based learning projects. Reading an entire book or a complicated science lesson on a small device just isn't realistic, say some critics. There are also compatibility issues with students using a wide range of cell phones. And not all countries in Africa have reliable, affordable access to mobile internet. And then there's another problem, says Carlo Keuler. He's a high school math and technology teacher here at De Rust Futura.
CARLO KEULER: If you give the kids the freedom to use the phones [INDISCERNIBLE] and communicate with each other, it won't be long where they would start communicating with each other about other things.
KELTO: Do you think the girl sitting next to me is cute? That sort of thing?
KEULER: That's exactly what they'll be talking about on [INDISCERNIBLE]. But I know, if you give them the chance, they will use it for that purpose.
KELTO: For The World, I'm Anders Kelto in Cape Town, South Africa.
MULLINS: And we've got a video of South African kids learning how to use mobile phones as academic tools at TheWorld.org.