Lessons Drawn from UNESCO Projects in Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Senegal

Fengchun Miao
Mark West
Hyo-Jeong So
Yancy Toh
Publication Date

UNESCO (Miao, West); Ewha Womans University of Korea (So); National Institute of Education of Singapore (Toh)

"[T]eacher capacity building for mobile learning is likely to become increasingly essential as a growing number of educators and students, including those in poor countries, buy and use mobile phones."

This report draws lessons from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) projects implemented in Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Senegal between 2012 and 2014 to help solve the twin challenges of teacher supply and teacher quality, using mobile technology. All countries participating in the UNESCO projects have yet to achieve universal basic education for children, and Nigeria, Pakistan, and Senegal face the most severe deficits. UNESCO's aim was to both test an overarching concept - can mobile technology support professional development? - and understand, at a local level, what elements contribute to the success and failure of individual projects implemented in unique contexts.

The projects were developed in the context of the fact that Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 and the corresponding Education 2030 Framework for Action reflect an awareness that student learning is determined first and foremost by the quality of classroom instruction and, by extension, the readiness of teachers to provide relevant and effective lessons. When considering different strategies to bring teacher development to scale at minimal cost, especially in economically poor countries, UNESCO kept returning to a simple but increasingly prevalent technology: mobile phones.

  • Many teachers in developing countries already have them.
  • Mobile networks now cover large areas of the world.
  • A mobile device offers an interface and functionality that is understandable to most teachers and other non-technical users.
  • Mobile phones allow teachers to connect with other educators, elicit feedback, access services, and forge and join online communities.
  • Mobile devices provide a portal to training and other services at times and places that are convenient.

As the report goes on to detail, even some of the perceived advantages of mobile phones proved to be elusive in practice: Not all teachers knew how to use mobile technology; mobile networks were less reliable than initially assumed; getting teachers to actively engage with new services was often a struggle; paying for teachers to access specific mobile content was logistically and technically complex; operating systems and other technical specifications varied enormously; and mobile technology changed so quickly that educational services developed for hardware that was relevant when a project began were not as relevant when the project ended. But these setbacks did not cause the projects to fail; nor did they fully overshadow the potential of mobile phones to reach and support large numbers of teachers.

The bulk of the report includes one chapter focused on each of the country projects, which is organised around the following headings: educational context; project focus; objectives; mobile learning ecosystem; teacher training; key results; and lessons learned and recommendations. But prior to those chapters, a situating section explains that each project employed a different approach to support the work of classroom teachers and expand their capacities. All four pilot projects aimed to facilitate teacher learning and knowledge exchange through mobile networks and hardware. What all projects shared was mobile learning content developed to assist primary school teachers. UNESCO and its partners also worked to ensure teachers understood how to access the content. The project outputs were also broadly similar and included: mobile phone utilities; short training courses designed to help teachers to use mobile phones for capacity-building; and digital platforms to facilitate teacher collaboration and peer learning. The solutions were designed to be accessible to teachers with limited technical knowledge and easily scalable within a given country.

External evaluators sought to measure the uptake and use of the content as well as its impact as reported by the teacher beneficiaries. The project evaluation involved a collaboration between three parties: independent evaluators, UNESCO, and NOKIA. The projects were monitored and evaluated using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. The evaluation tools sought to measure teacher perceptions related to: changed information and communication technology (ICT) skills; changed frequency of ICT use; changed attitudes regarding using ICT for teaching and learning purposes; changed subject matter and pedagogical knowledge; changed teaching and communication practices; and perceived impact of the intervention.

A concluding chapter shares findings running across the four country projects. Selected project impact findings:

  • Contrary to the notion that educators are tech-phobic and resistant to change, in all four projects, the participating teachers were enthusiastic to experiment with "outside the box" approaches to teacher professional development.
  • Teachers wanted more training. The range of tech troubles also cannot be underestimated, which require on-site and virtual support.
  • Teacher use of ICT increased substantially as a result of the intervention, which led to them reporting dramatically improved ICT skills. This is noteworthy, as teacher digital literacy is crucial for mobile learning (as reported in the World Bank's World Development Report 2018).
  • While teacher pedagogy was not formally measured by the project evaluations, in all countries, teachers reported increased learner participation in the classroom, especially in Pakistan and Nigeria.
  • Although mobiles have been shown to enable peer-to-peer learning amongst teachers, no clear increase in communication between teachers was found. The report notes that more attention could have been paid to encouraging this type of communication.

Selected project lessons learned:

  • Mobile phones appear to provide a viable means to expand access to professional development opportunities. As the report notes, this is exciting because it means that an increasingly widespread technology offers a vehicle to support teachers living in areas where traditional capacity building opportunities are scarce.
  • Access to mobile phones should not be conflated with a mobile learning solution. An ecosystem approach is needed, including compelling content, institutional partners, extensive teacher training, ongoing project support, communication campaigns, and buy-in from education leaders.
  • Consistent and well-curated educational resources appear to be hallmarks of effective mobile learning content. The report describes how the UNESCO projects seemed to work best when they provided teachers with discrete, well-organised, and sequenced packages of learning resources that established clear learning pathways. Highly interactive content is not always needed or appropriate.
  • Mobile learning solutions carry significant costs. Digital is not always cheaper, not only regarding the tech itself, but the complementary activities. For example, the teacher training workshops proved to be the most expensive and logistically complex aspects of the four country projects.
  • Mobile learning solutions for teachers have numerous limitations and are not yet substitutes for traditional and evidence-based teacher training and development. While mobile phones offer much potential for professional teacher development and support, they also come with limitations such as small screen sizes that limit interaction possibilities. Tablets and laptops overcome some of the barriers but, even for them, mobile learning solutions should supplement rigorous teacher training programmes, not replace them.

This final chapter also includes recommendations intended to benefit future efforts to support teachers with mobile technology. Selected recommendations:

  • Ensure institutional-level support and investment; the mere presence of mobile technology does not provide adequate foundations for large-scale initiatives. Mobile learning initiatives, especially those seeking to have national impact, require buy-in from the highest levels of ministries in light of their complexity.
  • Provide appropriate and agnostic mobile learning tools. Teachers should be able to access mobile learning solutions from different devices with different operating systems and from different network operators on platforms that are free and open. Integrating new technology with existing investments is also important. Institutions should further strive to maximise opportunities for teachers to model mobile learning resources and practices to students. A teacher who can connect a phone to a projector is able to demonstrate utilities that are increasingly accessible to students and others in the community.
  • Enhance access to mobile networks. Future interventions may wish to establish partnerships with outside organisations or telecommunication ministries to expand mobile networks and ensure end users are able to access learning content from school and community locations. A practical idea to help teachers stay connected to mobile networks is to let them select their own mobile carrier, because they tend to know which networks provide the most reliable coverage in their areas.
  • Support teacher training and continuous development for mobile learning. Ideally, teacher training for mobile learning will be integrated into mainstream teacher credentialing programmes and constitute a pillar of professional development efforts. Policymakers and school leaders should also consider "phasing" the use of technology; teachers in the UNESCO projects reported that transitioning from using mobile technology for personal professional development to using technology with learners represented a major jump and required commensurate training.
  • Build strong and sustainable partnerships. Educational institutions should work to build partnerships with organisations, including those not normally associated with the education sector, such as telecommunications companies, to support and sustain mobile learning projects.
  • Invest in high-quality mobile learning content. UNESCO allocated a substantial proportion of project funding to create content that was easily accessible from mobile phones. Tellingly, content that was built from scratch for the projects in Mexico, Nigeria, and Pakistan was better received than the content deployed in Senegal, which had been repurposed from a separate initiative in South Africa. Feedback from participants showed that content designed to address specific teacher needs, unique to particular contexts, was most effective. Asking teachers to create mobile-friendly content requires extensive training and appropriate incentive structures. Quality controls are needed to assure the value and appropriateness of content regardless of its source.

"It is UNESCO's hope that other organizations can use the lessons learned in Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Senegal to continue leveraging mobile devices to assist teachers and, by extension, improve learning opportunities for students around world."


"10 Key Takeways from UNESCO Supporting Teachers with Mobile Technology Report", by Steve Vosloo on December 18 2017. Image credit: ©UNESCO/NOKIA | ©UNESCO/Pakistan project