Can mobile devices change the way we bring technology to kids?

At Kids on Computers,we bring computers to kids that have no access to technology. We’ve frequently debated the benefits of laptops vs tablets vs computers. I think the new devices coming out will soon lead us to phones … and they’ll change the world for kids in developing countries.

Here are some of the new devices:

Small devices like this would help us solve some of the problems we have:

  • Shipping. It’s really expensive to get computers to some of the rural places where we are trying to bring technology. Shipping full size desktops to rural Mexico or Zambia can be challenging from a cost perspective. (It’s also challenging for customs reasons, but that’s a different topic!)
  • Power. Most of the places we’ve set up schools don’t have strong power infrastructures. (Most of them don’t even have telephones.) Not only have we blown power to an entire school trying to turn on just a couple of computers, but we’ve often had to stop our work while we waited for power to come back on. All of the schools we’ve set up are in places with frequent power surges and as a standard practice, they cut power to the whole room whenever they are not using the computers to help protect them. (This has also led to problems. In one school they didn’t realize the importance of shutting down the computers first and they were shutting them down by flipping the power switch to the room …)
  • Cooling. Most of the schools we have helped so far are in warm locations (Zambia, India, Mexico) and keeping a room full of computers cool is tough. Especially when power is not reliable.

So the new devices which would be relatively inexpensive and accessible for people living in areas with less infrastructure, would be terrific. My cell phone has worked in all the places we’ve been so far … being able to give a cell phone with all the capabilities of the web to these children would be a wonderful experience to watch.

Disclaimer: I work at Mozilla.

One Response to “Can mobile devices change the way we bring technology to kids?”

  1. jdc says:

    I wanted to keep this thread alive, especially given that some organizations are moving to Kindles as a way to help kids in developing countries. But, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, I don’t see Kindles or even Ubuntu docking stations passing the sustainability test. In other words, mass adoption seems very unlikely–especially for Kindles. Making purchases online is still a ways off for Mongolians. For one thing, paying for content is completely unknown. For another, they’d need a national initiative to get rid of the literally hundreds of viruses that sweep across networks and make secure transactions very risky for the average user.

    Nearly all my students have cell phones. At some point in recent history, cell phones added music player and blue tooth capability. This means I can give one student a sound file (like an English listening exercise) and it can spread to everyone in the class. In fact, some of my Mongolian counterpart teachers are doing this.

    What the Kindle promises is access to text-based material. I agree that’s hugely important, but what I’d love to see next is HTML (5 or otherwise) become so standard that all phones can at least render a simple web page stored on the phone itself.

    In Mongolia the idea of a “library” is where you go to look at books and maybe open one while in the building–but you don’t actually get to take the book home. So, I’ve experimented with making short and simple web pages out of English text and then using bluetooth to send the page to a student’s phone with the idea of the student spreading the text around virally among her peers. This works about 1/2 the time and depends on Opera being on the device (and bluetooth or a usb connection being available). A few phones read text files, but I have yet to see a phone here handle epub. I’m using my Peace Corps issued Nokia C1 phone–pretty low end but I can read a story on it using Opera (actually, it works surprisingly well as a reader).

    Unfortunately, my Peace Corps phone is still better than a lot of the student’s phones that are made by Chinese companies instead of by Nokia or another major brand name. My biggest obstacle seems to be the large variety of knock-off phones, and I haven’t (yet) cataloged them by feature set. Students also tell me their phones have viruses or at least features that originally worked have stopped working. In all cases, however, I think they can view jpeg files so I’ve been thinking of going back to my earliest days and see if I can still find the tools to generate raster fonts and spit out “pictures” of text text files for students so they have something to read. (Taking pictures of text turned out not to work so well and most of the text I want is already in electronic format.)

    Anyway, it seems all students have a cell phone. If mobile device developers and designers others figure out how to improve the lowest-end devices (Mozilla’s pledge to deliver a reference HTML5 implementation might be great news for knock-off phone companies), that could be an important new way for kids here to access printed material. Offline access to text is critical, but if a Gutenberg file or some other web content were downloaded by one person it could then be shared with many others.

    This could be a game changer and could develop a reading habit that is understandably missing among students here today. Here in Mongolia, few students have phones that can browse the web and very few would pay for web services. For personal phones, it’s an SMS communication world with few actual phone calls, let alone web browsing. But, a lot of music and picture sharing goes on among students, so if other types of content could be reliably delivered that would, I think, make printed books less important.

    Of course, I’m ignoring a host of copyright issues, but Creative Commons, small form-factor Wikpedia pages, and/or copyright-free text would still be incredible resources for many young people in Mongolia.

    John Campbell
    Peace Corps Volunteer
    Choibalsan, Mongolia

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