Archive for 10 December 2010

Language, Literacy, and Rising Mobile Adoption

10 December 2010

The BBC had a good article this week about mobile-based learning tools. The piece doubled as a bit of self-promotion, as it discussed the BBC World Service Trust’s own project, Janala, which uses brief audio lessons to teach English to poor Bangladeshis. The other story is about Nokia’s Ovi Life tools, which has 6.3 million users in China, India and Indonesia, and just introduced in Nigeria. Nokia’s service uses SMS messages to teach English, instead of voice.

Much of the article focuses on the challenge of delivering content that is locally relevant and appropriate. Nokia’s service in Nigeria will use Hausa and pidgin English as available languages of instruction, just as they’ve used 11 regional Indian languages to make their service useful to Indians who don’t speak Hindi. Janala teaches English with a Bangladeshi accent, rather than the Queen’s, and replaced references to “tennis and hamburgers” with references to “cricket and rice.”  All good stuff.

But the question I want to zero-in on here has to do with the different models of instruction: voice vs. SMS.  I don’t want to take anything away from Nokia’s service– if they’re reaching over six million people, with over one million repeat users, they’re creating a valuable service. But around the world today there are more and more people who own mobile phones, and yet cannot read: people for whom SMS is useless.

In most countries, the literacy rate still exceeds the mobile penetration rate, but this won’t be true for long. Take a look at the graph below, which charts the growth rates in mobile penetration in a sampling of developing countries over the past 15 years. South Africa is in there as a fully-saturated market, to give you a sense of what the mature S-curve looks like:

Extrapolate those trends forward to today, and it’s a safe bet that 40-50% of Indians and Bangladeshis have a mobile phone, while the rate in Nigeria is creeping toward 60%. Literacy rates are still higher– India’s is around 66%, Nigeria’s is about 72%, Bangladesh’s is about 53%– but those numbers grow more slowly, at only about 1 or 2 percentage points each year over the past fifteen years. Probably sometime in the next two to three years, more Bangladeshis will own mobile phones than are able to read. The same will likely be true in India and Nigeria within four-five years, if not sooner. 

This should perhaps change the way we think about tools– not just learning tools, all tools– on mobile. If, very soon, there’s going to be a massive market of phone-owners without the ability to read, then how much can we make available by voice, as opposed to SMS? Earlier this year, I wrote about CGnet Swara, a citizen journalism service in Chhattisgarh, India, that’s entirely-voice based. What about banking services? Healthcare services? Even better, how might voice and SMS hybrid services be used to improve literacy? 

(Mike Trucano wrote about one project working on that problem here, and MobileActive.org covered another project here.)