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Substantial research involving mobile tablets, and specifically their use in building literacy skills, has been conducted over the past decade. The Dev4x team has compiled this document to summarize the research underpinning the development of a new Dev4x Mobile Adaptive Learning Platform.


Primary learning devices in a remote Ethiopian village

An eight-month trial in Ethiopia by a team of researchers led by Cynthia Breazeal, who directs the MIT Media Lab's Personal Robots group, showed the educational progress made by children in a remote village through apps on tablets. The tablets were in active use for up to 6 hours every day. Watch a 17-minute video about the OLPC tablets in Ethiopia to see how children started to understand letters and words without any formal schooled instruction.

Dev4x has reviewed the data from the Ethiopian trials to understand which activities were appealing to the children, as per the diagram below. The most popular app,Tinkrbook, was developed by MIT researchers. This app acted as a visual dictionary between images, sounds, and words, and was a clear favourite with the children.

The Dev4x team has noted a pattern in Tinkrbook and other popular educational apps like Scribblenaughts; the appeal to children is linked to the level of autonomy and creativity available within the app. Having their choices are reflected as a leader of the unfolding narrative is highly engaging.The snapshot images automatically captured during the trial show children forming small study groups around a single tablet.  Images collected throughout the trial also showed parents supporting and encouraging children. Sugata Mitra’s work in self-organised learning environments explains why children chose to form these small groups. In this TED talk, entitled “Build a School in the Cloud”, Sugata provides details on how children spark ideas off each other when collaborating. For a further explanation of how children can learn without formal ‘expert’ teachers, please see this Dev4x blog post.


Mobile devices as supplementary tools in education

Other projects around the world have explored the use of mobile devices to supplement traditional learning:

  • In rural India, advances have been made in English as a Second Language skills using learning games on mobile tablets. The study,“Improving Literacy in Rural India: Cellphone Games in an After-School Program”, recommended that learner profiles and performance records be kept on a central server so any device can be used by a student and they can resume play at an appropriate point. Researchers saw that children responded best to games that used rules and game mechanics similar to local traditional games played by children. These are valuable lessons for the Dev4x team as it guides our understanding of a variety of learning environment.

  • A foundation literacy app , OneBillion, developed in Malawi was tested by Nottingham University. In this case, the apps are used by individuals yet it taught UK pupils 18 months of maths in six weeks:

What was so incredible was that in both countries we saw the same gain. One week of working on the iPads for 30 minutes a day [equalled] three months of formal education. 

  • Mobile Learning has huge potential in developing countries which often, surprisingly, have good 3G and 4G Infrastructure. A surveyof African students and teachers in Ghana found that more than half of the respondents would like to use their mobile phones and technology in learning.  The same study suggested that students can bring their own devices to classrooms as 84.7% of students had mobile devices with them. Major Tanzanian cities, like Arusha, have 4G throughout most of the main city areas.
  • The use of SMS on basic phones is being used for educational purposes in Kenya by Eneza Education. Children can text a question and receive a response from a tutor. Children can hire a page of a textbook for the night and read it on their mobile device.
  • A review of cell phone use for education in the Philippines and Mongolia, where children have been using m-Learning since 2003, noted that the asynchronous nature of messaging caters to the tendency of Filipinos to be non-confrontational in their communications. Synchronous learning (computer-based learning that is not temporarily or spatially constrained) gives students a chance to think about an answer before it is submitted to the group for peer review (Harasim ,1990). For some students, the ability to take one’s time and give a confident answer will make a crucial difference to their learning (McConnell, 2000), just by allowing them the chance to participate freely.
  • Trials of tablets in outback Australia have shown that touchscreen mobile devices are more intuitive than desktop computing and build on strengths in visual storytelling and closely connected communities.  Extending the use of familiar social media spaces into educational use was very effective.  In one learning activity, the tablets were used to take photos of weeds and add captions which was, obviously, more engaging than sitting at a desk reading about weeds.  Despite their dusty, rough conditions the tablets were still usable after two years.  
  • In the United States, the project, learning with Elmo, has demonstrated the effectiveness of video streaming and mobile phone messaging to assist pre-literate children to have a deeper understanding of letters.
  • The Quest to Learn School in New York is testing a new curriculum developed by a community that brings together students, educators, game designers, curriculum specialists and parents. The use of technology is enabling different communication modes, more flexibility, and a diverse array of resources and activities.
  • In New Zealand, an entire school district has achieved substantial improvements in student performance through the use of Chromebooks and social blogging and a strong pedagogy of Learn > Create > Share. It was encouraging to see that young boys showed great gains in literacy when the focus switched from exercise books to micro-blogging.
  • New global online spaces like and offer a new way of looking at learning paths. Children choose skill quests and earn badges. Thrively offers activities based on your passion and strengths. A portfolio is provided to keep a record of your achievements and share them with your friends.
  • The Northern Beaches Christian School, in Sydney, Australia, has pioneered a small-group based approach to learning using laptops. The lesson plan is a matrix of activities based on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Each group has time to research and prepare for a presentation. Teachers move between groups and act as facilitators.  Their first required change required was to redesign the physical space to accommodate classes of up to 150 students. Then a cultural change was put in place through a different pedagogical, and finally a virtual space was added to the mix.
  • In Australia, Aboriginal learners have embraced tablets for learning. (See Case Studies) In the Northern Territory, horticulture students used the devices to take photos of weeds and then matched them to names when back in the classroom.   In South Australia, Australian Aboriginal Health Workers enjoyed online learning games via webinars. They noted that distance alleviated some of the culture barriers to being in a face- to- face session with strong eye contact from a non-Aboriginal facilitator. In New South Wales, a group of young teenage girls, with generally low literacy, were highly engaged with using Google Nexus tablets and instantly wanted to purchase one for further learning.

Two modern Self-Organised Learning Environments (SOLE): Minecraft and Loombands

In late 2006, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) released a major report, following a summit between the FAS, the National Science Foundation, and the Entertainment Software Association.  The summit examined the question of whether computer and video games can help strengthen education and prepare children for twenty-first century jobs.  The FAS report concluded that gaming, in combination with new models of learning that break old paradigms, can strengthen education and prepare children for twenty-first century jobs.

Since 2006, and the rapid growth of the video game industry, a new type of SOLE has emerged through the Minecraft and Loomband communities.  One started with a dad making a simple Loom band to entertain his daughters and the other was designed by Notch, a Game Designer who, thankfully, never read any educational theories on what children can and cannot do. Children between 4 and 14 years of age are immersed in their own world of creating, sharing, and teaching each other.

A Digital Media Class at a Vocational College in regional Australia has been a testing ground for Self Organised Learning Environments based on a Gamification Framework developed by Natalie Denmeade, a core member of the Dev4x Team. The class has changed from high levels of apathy, anxiety and resistance, with around 10% completion rates, to a vibrant learning community with primarily autonomous happy students who voluntarily submit and publish their work. They work in guilds and houses to provide opportunities for self and peer assessment as they build up portfolios for formal (expert) accreditation. Deadlines were removed, and multi-levels of Certificate III, IV and V work in the one room as a simulated workplace. End of term surveys showed a positive increase in attendance, participation, and motivation. Completion rates increased to over 60%. Most importantly, learners are now defining their own learning goals and working independently in Self- Organised Learning Environments.instigating their own learning paths.

These concepts of tapping into natural motivation of young people to form self organised learning environments have been brainstormed by key members of the Dev4x team and continue to evolve.  In collaboration with Diana Sharp, PhD, the principles have been adapted to introduce basic literacy skills.Timothy Young has recently joined the team and is bringing a wealth of knowledge from his Masters of Science Thesis, where he compared online group learning to face-to-face group learning. Leading Game and Gamification Designers have provided feedback to the Dev4x team. Along the way, cultural advice has been sought from people representing: South Africa, India, Tanzania, Malaysia, and Pakistan who will be the first focus group for Dev4x.


How can you help make this happen?

In the United States, and other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries across Europe, efforts are being put toward closing the gap in educational outcomes in different socio-economic groups. The 2015 report on technology use in OECD countries recommended that a new approach is needed:


Ensuring that every child reaches a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than solely expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services.

The Dev4x team intends to create a Mobile Adaptive Learning Platform, informed by past research and lessons learnt. The first phase of the Dev4x project is to create a virtual world that encourages children to form SOLES.  The prototype being developed is based on analysis and deconstruction of the momentum that keeps Minecraft and Loomband SOLEs going for years and spreads them virally. Free resources and apps will be pre-loaded onto devices for the children who need them the most.  A virtual world will act as an user interface for pre-literate learners. The platform will make use of audio, video, text-to-speech, face recognition, and adaptability through artificial intelligence (AI), on mobile devices.

Dev4x is coordinating a crowdfunding campaign to help make this vision a reality, possibly in partnership with one of the world’s leading Educational Game Design companies, Strange Loop Games.  Be the change you want to see in the world. Be a part of this world-wide effort. “Education is the most important tool in breaking the cycle of slavery… breaking the cycle of child labor and education are two sides of same coin,”said Satyarthi in a panel discussion about the role of women in working towards Sustainable Development Goals. Offline mobile learning is a rapid way to embrace the untapped potential of young girls who are often excluded from education.

We would gratefully accept any contribution you make towards this to project.

Crowdfunding to launch 28 October


Mobile Learning Trials

Malawi app 'teaches UK pupils 18 months of maths in six weeks'

Improving Literacy in Rural India: Cellphone Games in an After-School Program

Measuring Up Online- Aboriginal Health Workers

Expanding DigiLink through Mobile Social Media Northern Territory

Deadly Skills - Telling our Stories, NSW Australia

Evaluation of the PBS Ready To Learn Cell Phone Study: Learning Letters with Elmo

Manaiakalani Research and Evaluation




3 Kam, Matthew, et al. “Improving Literacy in Rural India: Cellphone Games in an After-School Program”.Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD) (2009): 139-149. Accessed October 4, 2015.doi:10.1109/ICTD.2009.5426712.

4 Kelly, Spencer. “Malawi App ‘teaches UK Pupils 18 Months of Maths in Six Weeks’”.BBC, September 6, 2014.

5  Pitchford, Nikki, Nottingham University psychology professor.

6  Pederson, Jakob. “Teachers and Students’ Perceptions of the Use of Mobile Technology to Facilitate Teaching and Learning”. Emerge Africa, September 22, 2015.

7 Federation of American Scientists. “Harnessing the power of video games for learning”, 2006

8 Velvet Throne Classroom Gamification Project

9  OECD. “New approach needed to deliver on technology’s potential to schools”. September 9, 2015.

10  Dupere, Katie. “The future of global education relies on better Internet access.” September 27, 2015.