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Technology

Attaining university degree is now just a smartphone away

A student uses her laptop computer at a department store in Beijing.  E-learning has been overtaken by mLearning, thanks to the availability of mobile phones and the ease of use, especially among Kenyan youth.  Virtual classsrooms and virtual classes are now only a mobile phone away. AFP
A student uses her laptop computer at a department store in Beijing. E-learning has been overtaken by mLearning, thanks to the availability of mobile phones and the ease of use, especially among Kenyan youth. Virtual classsrooms and virtual classes are now only a mobile phone away. AFP 

Forget about worrying how you will beat heavy traffic to make it to an evening lecture, there is an affordable learning system that can give you the same learning experience as the physical classroom.

A mobile phone learning application dubbed mLearning is the latest undertaking at the International Leadership University formerly referred to as Nairobi School of Theology targeted at allowing students to follow lessons from the comfort of their mobile handsets.

Similar to e-learning that largely embraces computers, mLearning students can make flexible payments for their courses and download video clips of lessons, take tests and interact with other students in a virtual classroom.

The development of this software began two years ago by David Rodgers, an American PhD student with input from the University.

“We were involved in every step. We felt it is important that we advise him on what we expected the software to offer,” said Emmanuel Bellon, the vice chancellor.

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The first pilot of the software was done using the informal training programme at the University.

Students taking the Leadership Training for Christian Leaders programme were introduced to the software and given a chance to access learning from their mobile phones.

At least 34 students undertaking the course used the software for three months from September last year.

The pilot ran together with a group of 23 students taking the same course but attending physical classes at the university.

According to Zach Okere, an IT technician at the university, 60 per cent of the students who attended physical lessons completed the course compared to 100 per cent of those under the mLearning pilot.

“What we noticed is that students who physically came to attend lectures rarely made it through all the classes because of busy schedules and heavy traffic. Those who used the mobile phones had an easier time as they could comfortably access all quizzes and only needed to turn up at the University for the final exam,” he said.

Second pilot

The second pilot followed early this year, this time encompassing more proposed features. For example, there was need to test if it was possible to load the entire course into the system and only allow students to access content for the courses they have paid for.

Also, it tested if the lessons would allow students to have breaks of at least 15 minutes after which they would attempt quizzes and send short messages with their answers to the server.
“These are additional features that we got after the second pilot. Now the school community shares the interface and students interact with each other, access only lessons they have paid for and get fast results of their quizzes,” added Mr Okere.

The software also has the option for students to pause the video, take notes using the mobile phone and roll out the notes after the end of the lesson.

Mlearning has not yet been popularised in Kenya and is just catching up after e-learning that took a while to gain acceptance.

“Many developers are now turning to mobile phone applications of course due to the fact that mobile phones are more widespread than computers. It makes business sense where one wants to get many customers for his software,” said John Waibochi CEO of Virtual City Limited.

The University’s decision to turn to the mobile phone was informed by the fact that mobile phone penetration is large in Kenya as compared to accessibility to computers especially in the rural Kenya where some of their students come from.

In addition, the fact that mobile phones are easier to carry as compared to computers makes it more convenient for the learners.

Android application

The software is built on Android technology. A student wishing to take training through mLearning needs to acquire an Android phone which currently retails at lows of Sh8,900 locally.

The phone is then configured to the system and upon registering for the classes one can access learning content from the phone.

The model that has proven quite cheap to administer for the university as the server is operated from the mobile phone as opposed to e-learning with computers where huge investments go into acquiring and securing servers.

“All I need to do is ensure that the phone is charged so that it does not go off and result into a backlog of students’ submissions,” said Mr Okere.

With its official launch earlier this month, mLearning is currently a choice model for 35 students undertaking informal courses at the University.

Plans are underway to ensure adherence to guidelines from the Commission for Higher Education before the same can be open to undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

The software is customized to a specific institution. The University holds an agreement with Mr Rodgers who owns the software and he can only sell it to another institution after it has been changed to reflect the specifications of the new buyer.

As concerns security of the software, “Security depends on how much the developer has done to secure the system not on whether it is using computers or mobile phones,” said Mr Waibochi.

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