Steve Vosloo: Mobiles & Literacy & 21st Century Learning

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 26 November 2019

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Improving access to education was an urgent priority of the Shuttleworth Foundation for many years, and one critical area of concern was literacy.

A decade ago, only seven percent of schools in South Africa had adequate libraries and it was estimated that over half the households in the country did not have a single book for leisure reading in their homes.

The affordability of books was an obvious contributing factor, and the nation’s controversial political history had also left an indelible mark. Young people brought up by parents whose experiences of education left much to be desired meant a culture of reading simply did not exist. But also, for the majority of young South Africans, there were no books written in a language they could understand easily or - most importantly - enjoy.

However, while literacy rates were a source of national shame for many South Africans, technology - particularly the mobile phone - was making an impression amongst the young in the late 2000s. This posed an interesting question: Could modern tech increase learning and participation in education in the classroom and beyond?

The Foundation hired Steve Vosloo as 21st Century Learning Fellow in 2007 to find out. He was tasked with working on a broad range of experiments and explorations on how technology could be applied within the education space in South Africa - this is how it went.

The Fellow: Steve Vosloo

Before joining the Shuttleworth Foundation, Steve had been working in the intersection of youth and digital media for much of his career. He had experience working in e-government and was awarded a Fellowship for a major research project within the Reuters Digital Vision Program at Stanford, where he worked with children in the United States, South Africa and India.

Called the Digital Hero Book Project, it aimed to develop literacy, digital media skills, and cross-cultural awareness amongst youth from around the world, and was funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation for two years. As the project came to an end, it coincided with the few months leading up to the launch of our brand new Fellowship model.

“The Foundation approached me,” remembers Steve. “They said they had been funding me for two years, and they liked the work I was doing with youth, education and media. They asked: “Why don’t you become a Fellow?” So, that was how it started.”

As the Fellow for 21st Century Learning, Steve was tasked to explore the potential of bringing technology into the classroom and how it might improve education levels - specifically in South Africa.

He worked with artificial intelligence in teacher replacement experiments, and looked into enabling learners to drive their own learning through self-guided programs, using games, podcasts and other mediums attractive to a youthful audience.

“It was nice to focus in on one country,” says Steve. “But of course, we would think more globally and look for solutions that could scale up elsewhere. There was an education crisis in South Africa at the time, but also a real uptake in technology usage…there was something interesting there we could work with.”

The project: M4Lit

“We had seen significant growth in mobile use amongst young people,” Steve explains. “At the time there was an instant messaging service called MXit. It subsequently died, but it was hugely popular with kids.

“Not fans of MXit were teachers school principals and parents - who were trying to make sense of this ‘new world.’ They were against young people using mobiles, and when I discussed reading with them, they told me mobile was part of the problem. It was a case of: ‘They don’t know how to spell anymore’… ‘they just chat and flirt’… ‘they just do kid’s stuff.’”

Spotting a potential bridge to cross the generational gap, Steve came up with a proposition. Would young people read more if they had interesting content on their phones? Not just text messages, but a 10,000-word novel…a short story via mobile?

Steve called the project M4Lit – short for mobiles for literacy – and aimed to publish serialised short stories accessible on basic feature phones and from any web browser. This mobile novel movement had been in existence since the early 2000s, but only in Japan - could the format translate to South Africa?

“We developed one story called Kontax,” says Steve. “It was 10,000 words long. We tried to play around with the format whereby each character also had their own page and would talk to the audience about the story’s events. It wasn’t just about getting people to read, but also about creating engaging experiences on mobile.

“We kept the chapters short - 400 words max - and released a new chapter every day. It was in the soap opera mould, so we would end each chapter with a question mark to tease the readers to come back the next day.

“But we also asked questions,” he continues. “We asked kids what they thought should happen, and tried to make it relevant to young people’s lives. We had a lot of fun writing the story, hired an author and held story workshops with young teenagers from Khayelitsha, the biggest township in Cape Town.

Early success

M4Lit proved highly popular almost immediately. 63,000 young people signed up to read it and over 17,000 carried through to the complete story. To give that some context, it only takes around 4,000 sales for a book in South Africa to become a bestseller.

“It was encouraging,” says Steve. “People read it, engaged and gave feedback - they left thousands of comments. It was enough of a response to suggest building out the project, and that resulted in another two years on the Fellowship programme.

“It was all very open. Our research and the actual content was Creative Commons licensed. We released the story in English and isiXhosa - one of the main indigenous languages in South Africa. So we had the chance to research in how those languages get taken up and processed.”

The project then increased in scope. Steve recognized mobile as a channel for content delivery - one far faster and much cheaper than print. There was an opportunity to give young people a voice and encourage them to create for themselves in writing and poetry competitions.

As the project grew beyond its original remit, it was renamed Yoza as a new platform hosting 31 commissioned and licensed stories, poems and even some Shakespeare plays in English and Afrikaans. Over the next three years, Yoza made a valuable contribution to the mobile-literacy space and Steve’s work enjoyed multiple successes.

“I think a number of key players in the mobile reading space were inspired by what we did,” explains Steve. “Yoza was a pioneer in this space. It helped to inform the work of others that have gone onto to greater things - and still do - which is great.”

Moving forward

Steve’s Fellowship ended in 2011, and he moved to Paris to work at UNESCO for a couple of years, heading up its work on mobile learning. He also took the Yoza project, which by that stage was attracting over 50,000 comments from readers, and moved all the content over to a bigger platform called Fundza.

“When the UNESCO project ended,” says Steve. “I came back to South Africa for three years and I was offered a position as head of mobile in Pearson - which I know was quite controversial. I’d come from a very open world, but I also wanted to understand the other side.

“Developing a sustainability plan for Yoza had been a challenge,” he explains. “Many projects - ICT pilot projects - never move beyond that initial phase. So, I decided to stay within the mobile/digital space but see it from a commercial perspective.

“It was interesting and I learned a lot. I saw what it was like to be in a world that is utterly closed and how restrictive that can be. But also that it has certain other benefits. I’ve done both, and maybe if I was more vociferously open, I probably wouldn’t have done it. Of course, I would have preferred to work in a more open company, but there was a bigger reason for me going there. I think it paid off.”

Reflections on the Fellowship

“To be on the Fellowship programme is an honour,” says Steve. “It’s a real springboard, and I don’t see how anyone’s career can’t benefit from it. You get the opportunity to really focus on what you want to do and deep dive into something. Secondly, by being attached to the Foundation’s name is prestigious…especially in the open world, which can open doors..

“Also, the philosophy of living out loud,” he says. “It was a real boost. I still continue to live out loud. I publish to my blog and to a site called ICTWorks, which reaches about 40,000 people. Living out loud, sharing what you are doing, being a voice…it’s more common now, but ten years ago it wasn’t.

“I learnt so much about the world of open from the Shuttleworth Foundation, and it was wonderful to be in that position. If there is more open in the world it would be a better place. But there are arguments to be made for times when it is not the only option.

“It was an exciting time to be part of this programme. I was part of the first cohort and helped to mould it. It sounds like the model is more settled now, but I would imagine it’s still pretty loose and open, and not as rigid as other Fellowships. It suits them and gives them the ability to do interesting things. But back then, we really were shaping it.”

The present…and final words

After three years, Steve left his role at Pearson to return to UNESCO until 2018. He has now joined UNICEF in New York as a policy specialist for youth and digital connectivity, harking back to his early days with the Foundation.

“I’ll be looking at how digital can enable young people in a safe and productive way,” he explains. “It’s about how they use it, the societal and educational impacts, and exploring the opportunities for delivering better learning and health. I will definitely have an open perspective there.

“Openness is a good thing. I am likely to be working in the UN for some time, and I’m really glad that UNESCO and UNICEF are increasingly adopting open. UNESCO now has an open access policy for all of its publications. It’s funny, when I was at Pearson I think I did some good work in opening people’s eyes to what it is and what it can do.

“You realize there’s a lot of ignorance in closed communities about open; they think that all open content is of low quality, for example. We need to engage and educate them otherwise. There are some small wins we are seeing, for example, since 2016 Pearson publishes some of its Open Ideas papers under a CC Attribution 4.0 International Licence.

“It really is the people inside that push these agendas and who can make the difference, and I saw that at the Foundation. When I was a Fellow there were quite classic verticals - education, law etc - and it seems that’s opened up a lot. I think that the team are totally committed to learning and to helping it to grow.”

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