15 Tips for mLearning Startups: UNESCO Mobile Learning Week (III)


UNESCO’s recent flagship annual learning event, Mobile Learning Week 2014, ended with a thought-provoking panel on the new waves of innovations and technologies in the field of education.

Learning innovations are occurring at a number of points in the education path – and beyond, such as core technology, content models, business models, learning processes, professional networks, digital platforms and standards. Some innovations are ‘tweaks’ on existing learning content and processes, others are potentially major disruptors.

For mlearning startups targeting schools, here are my Top 15 tips from the panel, in which I participated along with a range of industry professionals.

1. Technologies change at different speeds; match your offering to the relevant target space. For example, the growth of social media and the emergence of blended collaborative learning are fast-growing widespread trends; whereas the rise of data-driven learning, assessment and analytics as well as the emergence of students as co-creators are mid-range trends.

Long-range trends include the adoption of agile approaches to change management, according to Jeannette Weisschuh, Director of Economic Progress Initiatives at HP. The blurring of the boundaries between learning, working and living is also a long-term trend, according to Steve Vosloo, Head of Mobile at Pearson South Africa in Cape Town.

2. Address the unique needs of learners in the 21st century. The need for digital and information literacy is of primary importance, followed by the need to increase employability, according to Vosloo.

3. Offer the full spectrum of personalisation in mlearning. This includes better formative assessment and adaptive learning, along with new models of education such as the MOOC, according to Vosloo. Content can be offered in micro-chunks, and accessed by learners in multiple sequences based on learning style, eg. examples first or theory first.

4. For the K-12 segment, address curricula and tool issues. Key building blocks of mlearning at this stage are targeted computer platforms (rugged, with teacher management tools), classroom networking, teacher professional development and digital curricula. Assessment tools will also need to be mobile enabled, according to John Davies, VP of Intel and General Manager of Intel World Ahead Group.

5. Innovate along various pedagogic models that can be enhanced via mlearning. These include microlearning (eg. KnowledgePulse), gamification (eg. quizzes), place-based learning (eg. GPS-assisted historic neighbourhood walks), blended learning (eg. offline and online digital engagement) and co-creation (eg. crowdsourcing).

6. Address not just the expansive nature of mobile markets, but also their inclusive nature. For differently-abled people, the digital world offers tantalising opportunities to break out of the ‘analog prison’ – such as automatic sign language translator apps on smartphones (eg. Hand Talk from Brazil).

7. Open, open, open. The open movement is expanding from open source tools to open content, open data and other kinds of open educational resources (OERs), and offers new opportunities and growth platforms for startups (see my recent review of the book Open Data Now for some examples).

8. Re-purpose existing content into mobile platforms – or create new kinds of mobile content; other content models include aggregation and curation. This includes helping print publishers migrate onto mobile platforms, or ‘certification’ of apps as appropriate or relevant, or tools for student-generated content.

9. Keep an eye on government regulations in education and mlearning. For example, South Korea’s eSchoolbag initiative offers new opportunities to converge content across school grade levels onto one integrated mobile access platform. Thailand’s policy of One Tablet Per Child (OTPC) offers avenues for tablet manufacturers and content creators.

10. Learn by doing, experiment by creation. Participating in hackathons that bring together educators, learners, publishers, designers and developers can open up new ways of engaging stakeholders, understanding multiple perspectives and unlocking value. This helps startups create, customise and pivot on existing approaches to learning.

11. Practice frugal and combinatorial innovation. While it may be glamourous to always go with the latest technologies, there is still ample room for innovating with the ‘long tail’ of existing and affordable technologies. These include affordable devices (eg. tablets assembled from components made in China), low-cost classroom technologies for resource-constrained institutions (eg. Aptus from the Commonwealth of Learning, School in a Box from SK Telecom Appcessories).

12. Align workflow tools to enable existing processes in learning as well as augment them. Examples include Quipper School, Ustad Mobile, Eneza and One2Act – which offer open source course creation tools as well as ways of automating realtime polling. The data streams and statistics in such settings can also be mined. The activity metrics from student performance in digital environments opens up a range of datasets for analytic visualisation and interpretation, and can help near-term assessment of content engagement and long-term assessment of learner performance.

13. Leverage wearable technologies to explore new kinds of learning. These include wearables to monitor health and activity indicators and thereby adopt a healthy lifestyle at an early age, or improve sports education (eg learning how to map and alter running patterns in races).

14. Tap augmented reality for applications requiring multiple views of domain objects. For instance, AR browsers along with digital architecture maps can help teach history via describing the various phases of construction of ancient monuments; they can also be used to describe and understand ailments during biology courses.

15. Track the co-existence of multiple generations of ICTs in education (ICT4Ed): CBT, elearning, mlearning and now wearables and SMAC. Maybe the fourth generation will even include mind-reading technologies via sensor helmets? Now that’s another story altogether!

And as this event itself has shown, startups and innovators should track the growing range of conferences and awards recognising mobile startups and developers in education and learning. These include the MobileMonday global awards, WSA Mobile Awards, mBillionth South Asia Awards and YourStory EduStars.

As examples of startups who have won some of these awards, Trusanga offers analytics of learning paths; Divi Learning Solutions has tools which can be used in tuition environments; CATapp offers test preparation for dreaded exams such as CAT; Creya Learning helps students manage projects; Project Noah has apps for learning about wildlife in a collaborative and exploratory manner; and WildChords offers apps to learn about playing musical instruments in a customised manner. See also my earlier articles on the innovation showcases and categories at the Mobile Learning Week for more examples.