Insights and Analysis

Harnessing Mobile Learning to Advance Global Literacy

September 5, 2012

By Naita Saechao

This International Literacy Day, Sept. 8, 2012, marks the culmination of the United Nations Literacy Decade (UILD), an initiative launched in 2003 to increase literacy levels and develop literate environments worldwide. Much has improved over the last 10 years, including literacy solutions and tools that integrate rapid innovations at the intersection of education and technology – many of which were not available at the onset of UILD. These new methods of learning can support nations grappling with illiteracy by providing lower-cost solutions to today’s ever-increasing access needs for information and technology.

Although few long-term studies exist, early research suggests that access to mobile technology, more specifically mobile phones and tablets, can improve literacy performance among learners if effectively monitored, updated, and integrated with other literacy tools. A recent pilot study evaluation in Ghana conducted by USAID and Worldreader found positive effects that include increased enthusiasm toward reading, greater access to resources for teachers, and improved technological skills and performance on standardized scores at the primary level. In the U.S., teachers in Chicago, Illinois, and Auburn, Maine, conducted classroom research that showed notable gains in literacy after introducing Apple’s iPad into their lessons. These preliminary indicators linking literacy improvement to mobile learning through tablets hold promise for many countries in developing Asia, particularly as mobile phone and internet penetration increases exponentially. There are already 123 million internet users across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In Thailand alone, the internet penetration rate is nearly 60 percent, with nearly 72 million mobile phone subscriptions for the country’s 69 million citizens.

As Thailand prepares for increased regional integration under the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, the Ministry of Education has major challenges preparing students to compete with thriving neighbors like Singapore and Malaysia. While the World Bank upgraded Thailand’s income categorization to an upper-middle income economy in 2011, some experts, including senior economist Kirida Bhaopichitr, warned that higher levels of education and innovation are essential to continuing inclusive growth.

In early 2012, one bold move to address the challenge of equitable distribution among middle-income economies is Thailand’s One Tablet per Child Initiative (OTPC), which declares that every child in Thailand will have access to tablets to enhance learning and literacy. To date, the project has already delivered nearly 55,000 tablets to first-grade students out of an anticipated 900,000. Each tablet will provide access to as many as 336 learning applications for five subjects including ESL, math, Thai, social studies, and science. The Office of Basic Education Commission (OBEC) plans to train 549 supervisors to help train over 50,000 first-grade teachers to instruct their students in appropriate and effective use of the tablets. An additional 730,000 tablets are slated for delivery to schools in various urban and rural provinces: Chon Buri, Chainat, Chaiyaphum, Chumphon, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Trang,Tak, Nakhon Nayok, Nakhon Pathom, Nakhon Phanom, and Nakhon Ratchasima.

Thailand’s OTPC initiative seeks to provide access to mobile tablets, effective teaching and e-learning materials, teacher training and professional development of mobile tablet technology, and improved high-speed internet access nationwide. However comprehensive these goals may be, the initiative has faced stiff criticism from local and international experts for delayed deployment of the tablets, inadequate teacher training, insufficient planning for device maintenance, and most importantly, lack of robust content. Many of these challenges were lessons learned already through the One Laptop per Child initiative which many viewed as a flawed attempt at transforming education. Nonetheless, the government’s overarching vision to bring educational technology into the classroom to bridge the digital divide and facilitate the next era of education and innovation is courageous. If the challenges can be addressed with intelligent design and execution, Thailand’s new mobile learning initiative holds potential to influence education systems worldwide.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations are stepping in to fill in the teacher training and content gap by working at the grassroots level, and attempting to identify scalable models that work. As part of our Access4Asia initiative, The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program is supporting the OTPC initiative in Thailand with a training program for Android tablets at an early adopter school. In order to better prepare their teachers for the transition, Anuban Wat Ang Thong School, just outside of Bangkok, has purchased 45 tablets ahead of the government-mandated distribution. The Asia Foundation, its partner Books for Thailand, and the British Council are collaborating to conduct training sessions for teachers on tablet operation and how to effectively incorporate the devices into the curriculum. In addition, we’re also working with Change Fusion to fulfill the content gap by developing locally appropriate apps dealing with English as a Second Language (ESL) and climate change. This first round of app development reflects Thai priorities to increase job opportunities under a unified ASEAN economy by 2015 and raise awareness about climate change issues, the effects of which were experienced in 2011 at Anuban Wat Ang Thong School during the country’s worst flood season in five decades.

Although Thailand’s OTPC initiative is still in its early incubation phase and more analysis is needed on its effectiveness, it does take an important step toward addressing education challenges and preparing Thai citizens for a more technology-driven future where they will be better able to compete within ASEAN and beyond.

*Editor’s note: This version has been edited slightly from the original.

Naita Saechao is operations manager for The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Thailand
Related programs: Books for Asia, Technology & Development
Related topics: Education, International Development, Literacy


  1. Excellent write-up. Just one factual correction, it should read UN Literacy Decade instead of International Literacy Decade, launched by United Nations (not UNESCO) and coordinated by UNESCO.

    Thai expereince will indeed be valuable for the Mekong delta region – so watching closely. Good luck!

    • Thanks so much for pointing out this error. We have corrected it in the online version.

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