MXit, the very cheap, very popular mobile instant messaging (MIM) application (that is actually a lot more), is coming of age.
To clear the way for the rest of the discussion, I am aware of the dangers and risks of MXit: addicts — teens and working people — who spend hours a day tap-tapping their phones, paedophiles in chat rooms, the sheer distraction of incoming messages when trying to perform other tasks and so forth. These are real and serious issues that need to be addressed. MXit (the company), child-support organisations, parents and educators have worked hard to minimise the risks, and I think with considerable success.
The issue of online safety is complex and worthy of its own discussion, a different blog post. For now, I want to dispel the notion that MXit is only good for inconsequential jabber and show, with great interest, how MXit can be a useful tool in the learning process.
Up until recently there has been almost no formal research into the MXit phenomenon that asks: What good can it be used for? In the chatting and accessing of content, what life and educational skills are being developed through the online communication, collaboration and socialisation? MXit provides an opportunity for teaching and discussing these skills, for example online safety, awareness of the public presentation of self, and judgement — how to discern between credible and unreliable information. Is enough being done to seize this opportunity to develop the skills that people, especially youth, need in the 21st-century workplace and public?
Researchers from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology published their investigation into the usage of mobile instant messaging in tertiary education in September 2007. They wanted to determine the perceptions of tertiary students’ regarding the use of MIM in education. Of the 179 respondents from the university, all were mobile enabled. When asked about the potential of MXit as a communication tool in the learning environment:
- sixty percent of respondents felt that MXit was useful to exchange information between peers and lecturers;
- almost half of the students felt that MXit could be used to manage tutorials;
- about two-thirds (68%) of the students felt that MXit could be used to make announcements;
- more than half (56%) of the respondents felt that MXit could be used to manage Q&A sessions; and
- fifty-seven percent of the respondents felt that MXit could be used to communicate assessment results.
Although more than half of the respondents were keen to use MXit in the learning environment, it is currently never or almost never being used by the faculty and lecturers of the university. This is definitely an opportunity worth exploring, given that MXit is more than only a chat client. It also offers text-based information services — such as news and movie listings — that can present educational materials; the ability to view and upload images, video and audio; and seamless integration with the web.
In other words, MXit can be used to access and contribute to any suitable website, like Facebook. When two people are chatting, with one at a wired PC and the other on MXit, the interaction is seamless for both. The last feature means that faculty and lecturers who are not MXit users but very comfortable with working at their PCs can interact with students using MXit. Online chat would complement other communication variants, such as face-to-face, email and SMS interaction.
Math on MXit, or Dr Math, is an interesting initiative launched in early 2007 by the Meraka Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) that has proven the efficacy of a chat support service. Learners send a maths question to the Math on MXit number and enter into a discussion with a tutor ready to answer any question from the entire high-school mathematics syllabus. Tutors are students from the University of Pretoria who are obliged to do 40 hours of community service work.
After one year, Math on MXit has 1 000 learners that it supports during the hours of 2pm and 8pm on weekdays, and on Sunday nights when possible. You might think that MXit is not a suitable medium to talk about maths, but read the conversation transcripts in the research paper by Laura Butgereit, Math on MXit founder, and it is quite clear that real support and learning is happening. She says: “If you want to reach teenagers and children, you have to reach them using their own medium, and MXit does that.”
This week MXit had more than 5,8-million subscribers in South Africa, and this number is growing at between 10 000 and 12 000 new subscribers per day. While Math on MXit does not know whether its service is improving its users’ grades, there are pointers suggesting that it definitely does. Of interest is that its users are boys and girls from private and public schools, from all over the country. They obviously find the service extremely helpful because they constantly ask for a Dr Science service. Butgereit confidently recommends this mode of communication with teenagers for a variety of learning areas including science, history and religion.
Mobile learning has huge potential for South Africa, where only 8% of the population has access to the internet through PCs but about 70% has access to a cellphone. MXit provides an opportunity to access content and professional support in an affordable way: at most a Math on MXit support session will cost the learner R1. Yes, there are challenges; educators might have banned MXit in the classroom, but then agree to its use for educational purposes. How do they police this? In the case of Math on MXit, children interact with adults, so maintaining ethical behaviour and protecting privacy are key to the success of the initiative.
Overall, I believe that the opportunities outweigh the risks. Mobility not only applies to people and devices, but also to information, because it can be accessed at any time, from anywhere. This time- and space-shifting effect means that learners — and higher education students — can have classroom-like experiences when it suits them, not just during school hours when one educator is shared with 30 or 40 other learners. For many young people in South Africa, this might be the only opportunity they have to access qualified educators.