updated 2/22/2012 10:53:53 AM ET 2012-02-22T15:53:53

In this wired world, it's hard to imaging getting through college without a computer, yet many undergraduates in developing countries don't have regular access to one. On the other hand, they do have cell phones. At the Polytechnic of Namibia, only three-quarters of the students have access to any kind of computer and only 29 percent have access to a computer with Internet. Meanwhile, 98 percent of Polytechnic students have a cell phone and 69 percent have Internet access on their phones. So instead of waiting to provide a  laptop for every student  – an expensive endeavor – Polytechnic faculty member Maurice Nkusi wants to develop ways of letting his students read documents, chat with classmates, listen to lectures and receive reminders, all on their phones. 

"The strategy is simple – use available technologies and adapt them based to our needs," Nkusi wrote in an email to InnovationNewsDaily. The cell phone-based curriculum would also help low-income students who live far away from campus and can't afford to commute in every day, he added. 

Getting a mobile learning program started isn't as easy as putting everything on a classroom website that students would access on their phones. The much-smaller screens of cell phones make browsing normal websites annoying. Instead, Nkusi is designing a web-based app for Polytechnic students. 

He's beta-tested an app that teaches mushroom-growing to small-town Namibian kids who failed grades 10 and 12. "Ninety percent of these young people have never used a computer before," he said. The students passed the course and produced their own mushrooms, which they can now sell, Nkusi said. Namibia's Ministry of Youth now wants to create phone apps for an environmental education course and an  entrepreneurship  course for kids who have dropped out of school.

Mobile learning apps are a growing trend in several developing countries, where residents are more likely to have cell phones than computers. In 2010, the service arm of the cell-phone industry group GSMA  published a report  highlighting cell phone-based video lessons in the Philippines, a  literacy  program for women in Pakistan, and mobile math lessons in South Africa. 

People in developed countries are also integrating  cell phones into lesson plans. Call-in museum tours are an example, said Michael Sharples, a professor of educational technology at U.K.-based The Open University. But some of the best ideas are coming out of developing countries, he thinks.  "Some of the really innovative solutions aren't really coming from the U.S. or the U.K," Sharples told InnovationNewsDaily. "They're coming from South Africa, they're coming from Bangladesh."

He added: "What they're talking about in Africa is developing a whole new education economy around mobile devices.”

Cell phone learning apps have their drawbacks. It's difficult to read long documents or compose essays on phones, so they're not suited for deep, reflective thinking, said Dominic Mentor, who studies technology and education at Columbia University in New York City and who was not involved in the project. Instead, phones work well to send students reminders, ask multiple-choice or true-false questions, and allow short chat discussions among students about readings or lectures. For a language class, an app can send students a vocabulary word a day. For upcoming exams, an app can send students review questions and let them share answers with friends. 

So for certain lessons, apps may be second-best to laptops or in-person lectures, but they bring learning to places that have access to neither. "One of my goals is to . . . speed-up the [United Nations] millennium goals 'Education for ALL,'" Nkusi wrote. "Yes, mobile phones can make the magic happen."

You can follow  InnovationNewsDaily  staff writer Francie Diep on Twitter @ franciediep. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @ News_Innovation, or on  Facebook.

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