Distance education is the principle way for developing countries to cope with the fast growing educational needs of their population. Worldwide from 2000 until 2010, the number of students in higher education has increased from 100 to 150 million. Primary and secondary education is challenged even more.
In the long run, acceptance of distance education requires the application of quality standards likewise in f2f and distance education. Worldwide agreement prevails that the quality of education is better if it promotes:
- Active learning
- Frequent and timely interaction between students and teacher
- Co-operation between students
These standards have in common a high degree of interactivity between students, teachers, resources, and the outside world. In developed countries distance education can comply with these standards: The availability of IT-support in particular enables a high degree of interactivity.
At first sight the potential contribution of IT-support to high quality distance education is beyond reach in many parts of the world. Capacity for implementation of IT appears to be inversely proportional to the perceived needs. However, new opportunities come from an unexpected direction: In developing countries the use of mobile technology as a substitute for computers is booming.
The availability of mobile phones in developing countries is increasing apace. In 2000 the mobile access in Africa was 1%. Now 60% of the total population (1,1 bln) is in easy access of a mobile phone. Many mobile phones offer Internet connection, albeit slow. Consequently in Nigeria 42% of the population has some form of Internet access.
The number of M-learning applications is also growing fast. For instance, mobile phones are used to increase language proficiency and as tools for education in mathematics. A large number of (small) companies is developing content, gratefully using the abundant worldwide offer of Open Educational Resources. Several applications enable students to listen to Wikipedia content
Mobile connectivity and other connected Lo-Tech applications are enabling emerging countries to cope with the four above mentioned quality standards .
Active learning is based on a balanced delivery of content and assignments requiring students to apply the content in their own workplace or in cases. Among others, the African Virtual University distributes videotapes and CD’s with lectures. These lectures could be accompanied by assignments in students’ home environment. CD’s have one major advantage over ratio and television; they can be used during periods when electricity is available! Mobile technology is enabling interactivity. Quite a number of experiments have taken place with tutorials where students receive automated feedback by mobile telephones. Mobile phones are also in use for the delivery of short instruction and material of a limited size.
Frequent contacts between students and teacher
One of the best applications of M-learning is the submission by students of results of their assignment by mobile telephone. Mostly, the messages of students will be gathered in a mailbox and teachers can edit their commentary in messages for different group of students, based upon common mistakes or failures. Feedback to students is possible also in educative radio broadcasts. In order to prepare feedback, teachers must listen to a selection of the submitted answers.
Co-operation between students
Collaboration between students from different places benefits highly from the use of mobile phones. In particular, if students work together in order to create knowledge by solving problems. Communicate by forum, mail of phone is improved significantly by the opportunity to have incidental meetings in study centers every now and the. The African Virtual University has invested in the creation of study centers, although its number stays behind significantly the growing demand.
The African Virtual University is developing a ‘digital library’ in which students will find manuals, study books and relevant articles. The number of computers and printers still is limited and therefore benefit for students is restricted. Equally promising is an application for mobile phones that allows students to search in Wikipedia and subsequently to listen to the content (‘audio wikipedia’). This application complies with the oral tradition in many African countries.
Three conclusions can be drawn. It will take decades before the availability of computers in emerging countries compares with that of rich countries, also because of the necessity to have a reliable supply of electricity and enough expertise to maintain the network. In the meantime mobile learning will be a substitute, especially in combination radio, television and CD’s and an accessible network of study centres. In the third place a distance learning infra structure has to be developed that is characterized by an adequate mix of faculty (course developers, tutors and supporting staff) and that develops adequate didactic solutions to deploy the growing Lo-Tech infrastructure.
 Altbach, P., Reisberg, L., & Rumbley, L. (2009). Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution; A Report Prepared for the UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
 Visser, L., & West, P. (2005). The promise of M-learning for distance education in South Africa and other developing nations. In Y. L. Visser, L. Visser, M. Simonson & R. Amirault (Eds.), Trends and issues in distance education: international perspectives (pp. 111-129). Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age Publishing.