Mobility 101
By Carol Posthumus, Tue Jun 25 00:00:00 GMT 2002

A South African educational college is tearing down communication walls by making mobility a part of the curriculum.

This year, for the first time - in a move spoken highly about by students - one educational group, rather historically, gave away free mobiles and airtime to all new students as a part of their enrollment package. It's been a happy experience all round.

A few years ago, when teenagers got SMS rolling, Ludditic Mother Grundies, huffed - with all-knowing 'look at what our youth will get up to with technology' delight - in the popular press on a few early cases of "SMS exam cheats". The trusty high horse was all puffed up for a gallop against the latest technological villain! That is, until, it became exceedingly obvious that mobiles were here to stay. Moreover, it became patently clear that the majority of students were innocently using SMS for flirting and less dramatic data swops like transport arrangements.

These days, of course, even the most structured educational environments, as well as the mobility grouches, have come to terms with, and learnt to manage, the inescapable reality that mobile devices tend to be found with students.

Some, with mobile savvy, are going beyond just making grudging peace with new technology. Indeed, some educators are starting to actively encourage and explore, in classic 'if you can't beat em join em' fashion, much broader use of mobile in learning spheres.

One South African college - in a move that grundies would've felt apt for Ripley's Believe it or Not last century - presented, for the first time in its some 60 year old history, each of its new students with a free mobile as a part of its 2002 enrollment package.

"Fantastically Thrilled"

Damelin Education group's special projects and events marketer, Amelia Wessels says both the organisation and their student body are "fantastically thrilled" with the myriad of results stemming from the innovative welcome-to-2002 gift. The give-away has, she observes, brought a range of benefits for the group: ranging from marketing value to expanded communication power with students.

Wessels, who worked with an Internet Service Provider for several years before joining the education industry, explains: "We are constantly looking at and researching different ways to talk to our students, using new technology. Mobile stood out as an obviously popular communication tool of young adults and students. SMS, for instance, is a cost effective, quick and direct way for us to reach students. Students are constantly on the move today, and if you want to reach them, mobile is an obvious route.

"We take a whole-hearted approach to keeping track as to what our students require to make their way successfully in the real world. As we see it, making new technology available and accessible to students is part of empowering students to go into the world, stand on their own two feet and do things. Our mobile gift was also a reflection of this thinking. While some students had their own mobiles, and therefore passed on their old ones to other family members or friends, others had never owned a mobile phone before."

Wessels says they formed a partnership with a local cellular service company, New Heights, and a network, CellC, to make enrollment a mobile event. "We provided 4 500 students with a mobile, a Siemens A35, plus some free airtime to get going. We were keen to ensure there were no technical glitches or frustrations for first time mobile owners."

A Myriad of Benefits

Already the group has seen substantial benefits from the mobile kick-start to the year. They have used SMS to inform students of campus events - such as "Mr and Ms Damelin" and Book Days - and will tell them via SMS when exam results, for example, are available for perusal.

Elaborates Wessels: "Mobile helps student to organize their own lives, and group happenings. For instance, during the soccer World Cup students are getting together to watch the games on big screens at various venues - they've used SMS to spread the word on this. The offer has constructive benefits and, naturally, has had a lot of novelty value as a gift for students too.

As a marketing instrument, it's also been a good performer. We've had lots of radio, television and newspaper coverage around our mobile giveaway. It got the attention of students around the country, news spread rapidly about it. Initially we provided mobiles only to all full time students around the country; but we are now, given the success of the plan, are considering expanding it to part time students too."

Student Lifestyles

Observing mobile developments in schools, Damelin Principal Rodney Pettitt believes mobile is certainly a "new way to go" as a part of student life. "As a marketing tool for the group, and as a communication route, making mobiles available fits the bill - as mobile matches our students' lifestyles. Students, as we all know, are not often at home - by nature, young people are out and about. With this, transport is an issue with a lot of students: it costs in money and time for a person at college to be out of the communication loop.

Now, for instance, if a lecturer is ill, and we need to make a schedule change, we simply send out an SMS message in advance of the lecture. A database of students' mobile contacts is a great thing for an educational group as we can provide better and more services - there are so many applications possible. Already we provide free Internet for our students, and mobile is another technological tool we are facilitating. I am positive, new advances such as mobile Internet will become more a part of education: with limiting factors, however, for us in Africa being cost and socio-economic circumstances."

Feeling at Home

Pettitt sums up the students' response to the mobile move, thus: "Much happiness, for obvious reasons, is how our students felt about receiving a free mobile when signing up this year!"

Chairperson of the Damelin Port Elizabeth Student Executive Council and commerce student, 20-year-old Lusanda Koom agrees with the Principal's summation of a joyous response. She speaks to TheFeature one morning on her mobile, as she sits in a mini bus taxi making the 30-minute journey from her home in the township of New Brighton to the campus. It's noisy and joyous in the taxi on this particular morning with Lusanda doing a lot of "whew it's loud here, you're going to have to repeat that!" Spirits are high in the taxi, with discussions going on about the most important matter of the week: the South African soccer team's great showing, against Spain the day before.

Comments Lusanda: "It was a super idea for the college to give us all mobiles when we enrolled, now we can all keep in touch, which is a part of life and natural. I had a mobile, so I gave one to my brother - he was thrilled! I have everyone else's mobile number in my class: this is really handy, especially during exam and test time, when you need to keep in touch with your friends more than ever. I'm not at home a lot of the time; I have a busy life, and also work part time - the best way to keep in touch with me is, of course, on mobile."

Notably, the gift of a mobile made students feel more positive about their educational environment and educators.

Shaun Bezuidenhout, a 21-year-old commerce student, adds: "The mobile giveaway was a good thing to implement. It made us feel more at home - and like the college was doing something for us, that we would really appreciate. Education costs us and our families money of course - and it's nice to be given a gift like a mobile as it is quite a different and thoughtful thing for a college to do, as I see it."

He laughs: "With mobiles we can do a lot of important things - keep in contact with our friends and send SMS in class!"

Carol Posthumus is a freelance author, analyzing how mobile technology impacts our lives. She lives in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.