E-journal of All India Association for Educational Research (EJAIAER)

 

    VOL.20                            Nos:  3 & 4                 September & December, 2008

 

USING MOBILE DEVICES FOR DELIVERY OF EDUCATIONAL CONTENT AND INTERACTION WITH STUDENTS

(AIAER’s  B. K. Passi Award 2008 Paper on Educational Technology)

 

Dharam Parakash

 

BACKGROUND

A decade ago, nobody could predict that there was an insatiable demand and need for communication through telephones in a developing country like India.  The struggle with finding an appropriate technology, investing in it and expanding the existing telephone network was being thought of as a solution to the communication needs that were arising.  Mobile telephone technology, when it arrived was thought to be a luxury and only very few people with deep pockets could use it.  But, as it percolated down to the common man, usage rates went down, mobile devices became cheap and it became a common man’s tool for communication.  With its user-friendly features like communicating from wherever you are, communicating on the move and so on, mobile technology has captured the imagination of the masses.  Many value added services were also provided by the commercial mobile networks for different kinds of communication.  One of the value added services is SMS, an abbreviated form of Short Message Service.  When the commercial mobile network started, it was never thought that such a service could attract user’s fancy and could evolve into a major communication tool.  But going by the revenue generation patterns of mobile networks, SMS has become the most popular value added service with millions of SMS traveling from various mobile devices to other mobile devices, traffic increasing tremendously during special celebrations like New Years, Diwali etc.  Mobile devices with its user-friendly features has also attracted the attention of communication specialists, educationists, advertisers and many more for discovering the possibilities of communication using mobile devices.  Possibilities of communication seem to be enormous as the communicator is able to reach the receiver wherever he or she may be, whatever he or she may be doing.  Keeping in view the above, there were many questions for which there was a need to seek some answers in educational context.  For example, could we use mobile devices for the delivering of some educational content?  Will it be possible to interact with the learners through a mobile device?  Can we go beyond the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ feedback?  There was another aspect of concern, “entering the personal space”.  Most of the users of mobile devices also use them as a personal device to store telephone numbers of their friends, or interesting messages or many other kinds of information.  It is also being noted that lots of users are a bit reluctant to share their mobile devices with anybody because they consider it a personal domain or space. So the question was whether the students or learners would mind the invasion of their personal space and due to this may or may not respond to any interaction question or stimulus provided.    After detailed deliberations with various experts in the field of mobile communication, educationists and psychologists, it was decided to use SMS as the communication medium for the study.   Some other features of SMS which helped in taking the above decisions were: SMS is unobtrusive i.e. unlike a telephone, one need not attend it immediately.  It can be read and responded to whenever the receiver wants to do so. SMS has some characteristics of an E-mail. It can be stored and retrieved whenever you want to do so.  It can also be shared by forwarding it.  

 

OBJECTIVES

To explore the possibility of delivering content (educational in nature) to a learner/user using the mobile platform.

To study various strategies of interaction with the learner/user through mobile devices.

 

TARGET GROUP/PARTICIPANTS

To know more about who are the learners who have access to a mobile device or carry a mobile device for communication with them separate individual discussions were held with various educational institutional Heads, teachers, parents etc.  It was found that generally the students who were studying in Class 9th to 12th have access to a mobile phone or carry a mobile phone with them.  It was also found that there was an inbuilt contradiction in the whole scenario.  Most of the schools had banned the use of a mobile device/carrying of a mobile device in the school premises as they felt it had a very disturbing effect on general discipline and communication etc. within the school. While discussing about the target users, a request was also made to a commercial mobile network to find out whether they had any information about the users who were between the age group of 14th to 17th years.   The mobile network companies, even if they had any information or data, were reluctant to share the same because of the confidentiality clauses imposed on them.  It was also pointed out that most of the mobile devices that are being purchased for children may not be in the name of those children.  The parents could have bought the device for their child in their own name or in their mother’s name.  So Heads of some schools were requested to let the students of Class 10th and 12th (Board Classes) of their school to participate in the study.   After detailed discussions and convincing, Principals of five schools agreed to allow the students of their school of Class 10th & 12th to share information regarding their mobile telephones with us and let them participate in the study.  So a list of 1075 students who had a mobile phone was prepared with the help of the school authorities.  All these five schools were English medium public schools of Delhi and catered to lower-middle and middle class category of students.  The schools helped in creating a database of mobile numbers of the school children to whom educational content would be sent via SMS mode.  One of the school even got the parent’s consent for sharing the children’s mobile numbers for the study.   

 

EDUCATIONAL CONTENT

There was a detailed discussion on what could be the educational content which was being delivered through mobile devices in an SMS mode.  Following points came up during the discussions:

 

*Mobile network operator representatives pointed out that most of the mobile devices which are in the low cost category, can only receive text messages.  Some alpha-numeric fonts could be used.  Graphics like photographs, line graphics, visual icons etc. could only be received by a multimedia ready mobile device only.  Otherwise special multi-media card has to be inserted into a mobile device if it has a slot or provision for that. 

 

*The Principals of the schools and teachers pointed out that to create only text based educational content which is self-explanatory in nature and can be easily understood by the students without any visual support is going to be a tough challenge in itself.

 

*Everybody felt that for the study purposes some content should be created which can reach out to every mobile device whether it is multi-media enabled or not.

 

*During the discussions, it was brought out that most of the students appearing for the

Board Exam are never made aware of study skills formally.  Although, informally, the teachers and parents keep on providing some thumb rules or tips to them. Based on the limitations pointed out by the various participants in the discussion, it was felt that it would be more appropriate if for the study purpose, some content which is not hard educational content but is educational in nature could be taken up.  The receivers (the students) should find that the content is of some use to them in their preparation for exams.  So, it was decided to work on study skills which would consist of various sub-units like self-study, concentration, time management, preparation for exams etc. Following flowchart represents the process and various steps that were undertaken to get the content ready:

 

 

Creating the detailed Study Skill Tips

 

Content ready for Mobile Network Operators

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A two-day workshop was organized in which teachers, principals, school counselors, psychologists etc. participated.  Representative of the mobile network operator also joined in the workshop to appraise all the people concerned of various limitations of this mode of delivery.  The group after detailed deliberations decided as follows:

*Based on the mobile operator’s suggestions and detailed discussion, SMS would be sent initially to the participating student for his/her acceptance to participate in the study.

*The study skills under various sub-units should be sent to the receivers as tips or tip for the day.

*The user could be given the choice of choosing the sub-unit, which he wants to receive tips for.

*In case the user/the student is not sure and wants to check about whether he/she needs to learn about a particular aspect of study skills then self-check questions were also available (Annexure ‘II’).  Self-check questions would help a user to decide about which aspect of study skills he/she needs to go in for.   

*The user should receive only one tip a day and the next tip should go to his mobile the next day.  After receiving all the tips or going through the complete sub-unit he could be asked for the next choice or feedback.

*The possibility of encouraging children to ask questions regarding a particular study skill was also pondered on but was put in abeyance due to various resource limitations and the counselor/psychologist’s opinion that it would be difficult for even a trained counsellor to respond to any such question without knowing more about the background of the child.

*The module and tips on study skills developed during the workshop .

               

MAKING THE CONTENT SMS READY

The group of teachers, psychologists, counselors and principals worked together to get the content ready.  The sub-units of the study skills taken up were: Preparing and writing for exams; Concentration; Time management; Memory; Self-study. As it was felt that one sub-unit and tips given under may be sent for 5-6 days.   5 to 6 tips in each sub-unit were prepared.  

 

To check the suitability of wording and student friendliness of the matter that tips evolved by the group were again field tested with the students of Class 10th in one of the participating schools.  The suggestions and comments received from the students were carefully examined. Most of the suggestions were related to making use of simple language.  Necessary modifications were made in the tips.  Then a detailed SMS sequence was prepared.  For example, the first SMS had to be an SMS which invited the receiver for registering by sending a ‘Yes’ response to a pre-designated number.  Once the receiver sends a ‘Yes’ then second SMS provides list of sub-units with a request to send their choice to the same pre-designated number so that based on their choice further SMS’s start flowing in.   As the whole of this sequence would be required by the mobile network operator for sending the SMS messages automatically, detailed instructions had to be provided in the SMS sequence.  The detailed SMS sequence had prepared for study skills is at Annexure ‘I’. Also while making the SMS sequence, the feedback mechanism was built in to the sequence.  Question like how to simplify the feedback mechanism, when do we activate feedback mechanism etc. were discussed and resulted into the SMS sequence  

 CONVERTING STUDY SKILLS TIPS IN SMS LANGUAGE

As pointed out earlier by the mobile network operator a single SMS message would consist of 180 alphanumeric characters.  This count of 180 characters also includes the blank spaces or the punctuation marks within the text. If there are more than 180 alphanumeric characters in the message then the software for sending the SMS messages will automatically divide the message into two messages.  The receiver’s mobile device would have the compiler software, which would then compile the two messages as one message. It was also felt that a long message may not be read by the receiver.  The work on changing the text started and was a great learning experience.  For example ‘would’ would change into ‘wud’ and ‘could’ into ‘cud’.  Similarly, ‘you’ got changed into ‘u’ and ‘for you’ got changed into ‘4u’.  ‘Diagrams’ got changed into ‘digrms’, ‘before’ got changed into ‘b4’ and so on and so forth.   The effort was to use alphanumeric text in a creative manner so that not only it becomes brief and uses minimum possible characters but also is able to communicate the message.  While going through this exercise and looking at the readymade templates available within the mobile devices, it was felt that using such a language may not create any problems for the young users as they are habituated to such a style of SMS language.  So the tip initially, which was written as ‘think about the overview before starting to read in depth’ was finally sent as ‘think abt the overview b4 strtng 2 read in depth’. 

 

Interactivity

Various levels of interactivity was built into the study at various stages:

After receiving the first SMS, the user has to SMS back ‘Yes’ to start the further flow of SMS.

The user had to choose one such unit out of five units and SMS back the code of the sub-unit to a pre-designated number.

If the user wanted to do a self-check about a particular sub-unit he/she could SMS ‘check’ to the same number and receive ‘self-check’ questions.

After receiving the tips, the user could SMS <feedback> and give feedback through SMS about the tips received.

Interactivity at (ii), (iii) is need based but at (iv) requires an extra effort on the part of the user. 

Getting it to the mobile network operator

Once the sequence and the content was SMS ready, then a detailed discussion about implementing the experiment took place with the mobile network operator.  Wherever possible, in the SMS sequence, detailed and specific instructions were formulated and provided so that chances of confusion or vagueness were reduced minimally.  The whole material was then sent to software developers and backend operators for the mobile network company.  While encoding the whole sequence into the software they had lots of queries like “What do you mean by this instruction?” or “Once the user has given the feedback what happens next?” which were settled through E-mails or telephones.  

 

Revenue Sharing

It was found that SMS to a five digit number which is accessible from all over India is charged depending on the spread of audience from 5 to 6 rupees and the revenue thus generated by sending the SMS is shared between the mobile telecom operator and the organization or the company sponsoring the event or the happening. 

 

In case, six-digit number or normal ten-digit number is used the charges are lower but the revenue sharing between the two organizations continues and varies depending on various factors like audience spread, volume of responses etc.   However, for this Pilot Study a ten-digit number was used and instead of sharing the revenue with the teleco, it was decided that the SMS sent by the user or by the person participating in the study is to be charged at a very low rate i.e. 50 paise per SMS and thus NCERT cross subsidized SMS responses for the purpose of this study.

 

Time Schedule for the Study

Initially it was proposed to start the experiment in mid December 2006 but due to administrative delays and other delays we could only start on 31st January 2007.  The timing of this experiment was crucial and critical as most of the Board Class students are busy preparing for exams and were not attending the schools.  So it was thought to be an opportune time for support in various aspects of study skills and it was felt that quite a lot of students would opt for it.  However, the delay in starting the experiment may be a factor, which impacted some aspects of the study.

 

DATA ANALYSIS    

Following information about the users flowed in after the experiment was finished:

Database of mobile numbers available and first SMS (requesting the students to SMS back ‘Yes’ to receive further SMSs) sent to 1071 participants

No. of students who registered (sent ‘Yes’) after first SMS 275;No. of students who registered (sent ‘Yes’)  :after first reminder 90;No. of students who registered (sent ‘Yes’)after second reminder 37; and Total No. of students who SMSed ‘Yes’ 402                     :          

Out of 402 participants, the number of            participants who gave their option for any of the sub-units and received SMS’s  159

Detailed break-up of the students who opted for different sub-units:  Self Study-34; Memory-14; Concentration-26; Time Management-27; Preparing and writing for exams -38; Total-159.

No. of students who took up “Self-check”questions and also related study skills –sub units  61.

No. of students who requested for tips on2nd sub-units of study skills 75

Detailed feedback provided by 8 students

 

Analysis

There is a sharp drop in the number of participants who sent ‘Yes’ or agreed to take part in an exercise of improving their study skills.  Out of the 1071 students in the first instance 25.7% students SMSed ‘Yes’ or agreed to take part in the study.  Registration improved to 37.5% of the sample after two reminders.  Although, as per industry standards, most of the SMS sent by various companies/organizations get a response upto 10% to 15%. So although response was better than industry standards but it was below the expectation of the team conducting the study.  There could be some possible reasons for this:        

 

The students were informed about such a study by the school principals/school teachers in November 2006 when the mobile numbers of the students were collected.  The pilot study was delayed by almost a month and not many students were available and reminded about the pilot study due to exam preparation holidays.

 

It is also likely that in the personal space of the students, it is their own will or motivation that would prompt them to join such an activity.  Also improvement in the number of students who agreed and SMSed ‘Yes’ after 1st and 2nd reminder showed clearly that reminding students was effective.  The registrations improved from 25.7% to 37.5%.  It also indicates of the need to remind the students and cajole them into action or pursuing the receivers as most of the advertisers do to improve the receiver’s responses.    

 

The students who actually then gave their option after selecting the sub-unit and started getting tips was less than the students who registered.  As per the data 39.6% of the registered students actually opted for one of the sub-unit. During the planning, it was clear that some students may not like to choose (i.e. to interact) and may drop out.  The major possible reason contributing to this dropping out would be the level of interaction required.   In this interaction, the receiver was given the choice of sub-units as 1, 2, 3_ _ _ _ __ along with the title.  The receiver after reading the title of five sub-units had to SMS back the number of sub-unit (1, 2, 3 or _ _ _ _) to a pre-designated number.  This required slightly higher level of interactivity and it could be a factor due to which there was a reduction in numbers of participants. 

 

Also the experiment started on 31st January 2007.  Most of the students were in the midst of their board exam preparation.  It is quite likely that after having registered and received the 2nd SMS, they chose not to get distracted and hence did not respond further.

 

The distribution of students in opting for a sub-unit clearly indicated their concern.  Maximum number of students (29% of the registered students) opted for sub-unit entitled “Concentration”.  Next most opted for sub-unit was “Preparing for and Writing Exams”  (24% of the registered students opted for it).    Third popular or opted for sub-unit was “Self-study” (21.4% of the registered user opted for it).  48% of the receivers also opted for a second sub-unit after receiving tips on the first sub-unit.  It implies that quite a lot of students were finding the tips in study skills useful.   It is clear from the above that there was an untapped need to provide support to students in various aspects of study skills.  It also indicates while that planning for delivery of educational content, the choice of content will have to be outlined by the users. 

 

Another aspect of the pilot study was the “self check questions” on various aspects of study skills.  These questions help the user to informally know about the need to learn more about a particular aspect of study skills.  To receive such question, the user had to SMS “check” to a pre-designated number and then read the questions and decide for oneself what to do. Due to interactivity involved, it was expected that not many students would opt for it.  It was interesting to find that 38.4% of the registered students opted for self-check and then registered for the relevant sub-unit.  This also provides indicators towards the user’s need.  If the user feels the need for a particular educational content, then he/she will definitely try to use the same. So, while developing educational content for the mobile platform, user’s need needs to be looked into and analyzed.   It is going to influence what goes in to the content. 

 

Feedback questions were also part of the exploration into interactivity through the mobile platforms.  Only few students responded to these questions.  It clearly implies that traditional interactive strategies may not work with the mobile medium (as most of the feedback questions were typical traditional feedback questions).  There is a need to explore the question of interactivity further in this regard as to what style of interactivity would be best suited for this medium. 

 

The feedback given by the small number of participants can be taken as indicative.   The students found the tips sent to them useful.  All the students who gave feedback tried and used the tips either fully or partially.  The recipients also tried to share the tips either by forwarding the tip or by discussing it with their friends.   When asked whether information about school subjects in this format will be useful only few of them gave an affirmative answer.

 

IMPLICATIONS

It was felt during the pilot experiment that there was a need for support in information dissemination through print or other media so that other students beyond the existing number could also participate in the study.  Also it would have required a “pull” model rather than a “push” model that was used. (In a push model, one pushes out the SMS’s that has to be sent to the receiver but in the pull model, the receiver pulls out the SMS’s by accessing a pre-designated number).  There is a need to explore further both the models and compare their effectiveness for educational content. Also the people working in the field of education will have to develop a mindset like marketing people who try different strategies and techniques to make receivers respond to the messages.  There is a need to try out various marketing strategies and look at their impact.  There is need to explore further the capabilities of mobile platform and experiment with multimedia approach.  One can see the market forces are slowly forcing the features like better and more storage, multimedia capability, coloured screen etc. being incorporated in the low end models of mobile devices also. So there is a need to explore the mobile platform for educational purpose using multimedia content.  Push model was used in the pilot study. But there is a need to convert some units of school subjects into mobile ready content and then try the ‘pull’ model where a user could get it by accessing through a pre-designated number.  Such an activity could slowly become self-sustaining financially as the numbers of users grow exponentially and each pull generates some revenue for the content developers.  Interactivity is an important aspect of educational communication.  Different strategies for interactivity need further exploration so as to make communication more effective.    The mobile explosion is already taking place in India.  Number of mobile phones are growing at a pace of 30% or more.  Numbers of mobile phones have already outgrown the number of landline telephones.  There is a need to explore and use this platform for achieving educational goals as it provide exciting opportunities of reaching the user wherever he/she is.