Technology Director Turns Cellphones Into Classrooms

Katherine Traut, University of Cape Town

Laura Czerniewicz
February 26, 2012

For students in South Africa, mobile phones aren't just for texting. They're often the surest route to the Internet, especially for the many who have little or no reliable computer access off campus. And, as in much of Africa, cellphones are ubiquitous. A 2007 study found that 98.5 percent of the country's university students had one.

Laura Czerniewicz thinks a lot about how students really use those phones in a higher-education setting. She's an associate professor of education at the University of Cape Town and the founding director of the Centre for Educational Technology. Ms. Czerniewicz used to work in commercial publishing. She made the jump to higher education in part to figure out fresh ways to get content to people who need it. She now heads the OpenUCT Initiative, which makes Cape Town research and teaching and learning resources openly available online.

Getting a university degree remains a huge challenge for many South African students, especially those who don't have money to drop on textbooks and laptops. So students have gotten creative about closing the tech gap with the help of their phones. Ms. Czerniewicz's research shows that students use phone cameras to take pictures of blackboard notes and textbook pages. They record and share lectures, often without the lecturer's knowing. "It's been a case of necessity and opportunity," she says.

THE INNOVATOR: Laura Czerniewicz, University of Cape Town

THE BIG IDEA: Not everyone has computer access, so mobile education should make more use of cellphones.

Instead of looking at such behavior as a disruptive use of technology, she argues, institutions need to embrace it. At Cape Town, the university is working to make recorded lectures mobile friendly, for instance, and Ms. Czer­niewicz and her colleagues have designed an SMS mobile-learning tool that lets students in a course ask questions and compare notes, anonymously if they want to. It works on any cellphone, not just smartphones. In the university sphere, "there is a disjuncture between how we design for the use of technology and what students are already doing with technology," Ms. Czerniewicz says. "Higher education is missing an opportunity."