m-Learning: How Broad is the Janala (Window) in Bangladesh?

By Fatima Tuz Zahra

Young woman using Janala to learn English. Source: http://goo.gl/uz4RY

According to the World Bank, Mobile (m)-learning has gone “mainstream” in the field of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the last few years. It is interesting to see how m-learning has captured its market in Bangladesh at the moment when mobiles as hand-held devices for communication is an integral part of the ICT scenario in the country. Subsequently, BBC World Service Trust’s (BBC WST) latest initiative in Bangladesh called English in Action featuring BBC Janala was launched in 2009 with funding from DFID and UK Aid. The BBC World Service Trust (BBC WST) through Janala aims to “educate” 25 million people by 2017 through a television, drama, a game show, and mobile phone-based English lessons.

A snapshot of BBC Janala webpage

Janala’s three-minute mobile English lessons are reported to be “accessible to those living on less than two dollars a day” as its cost is equivalent to the price of a cup of tea, a regular drink for the average Bangladeshi. That lagging behind India and Sri Lanka in English affects the smooth operation of trade and commerce is frequently used as a strong argument for motivating Bangladeshis to learn English. A recent impact research reveals that 8.5 million Bangladeshis are users of English learned through BBC Janala, which uses TV, mobile and newspaper to reach a large section of the population who come from a low socio-economic background. BBC claims that the project has already reached 26 million Bangladeshis, which was the ultimate goal of the project as outlined by the BBC WST. The producer of the content disseminated through mobile messages in Janala Ken Banks, is also an innovator, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. His work led to the development of FrontlineSMS, “an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system” which is devised to empower individuals and organization at the grass-root level.

In a developing country like Bangladesh most people – including individuals from low-income background – use cell phones for daily communication; the country is a haven for a booming mobile industry. Also, the colonial history of Bangladesh and the pressure to meet the Education For All (EFA) Goals make Bangladesh one of the best markets for English teaching and learning industry, which in turn facilitated the establishment of BBC Janala. The scope of m-learning in such a densely populated country is therefore soaring because of high mobile phone usage, the international pressure for literacy, and the market economy. The successful expansion of the initiative in Bangladesh proves that the country was indeed a suitable ground for the use of mobile for learning to communicate in English (the language used in mobile phones).

BBC: Media for cultural domination. Source: http://goo.gl/bczfn

However, BBC Janala operation is an example of the reinforcement of the existing World system where the relationship between the developed and developing nations is not that of two equal and interdependent entities. BBC Janala may be called a success because of already reaching out to a large population with the noble aim to teach the 25 million Bangladeshis learn English, the global language. However that BBC Janala likens English learning in Bangladesh to literacy is problematic. It claims to “educate” the citizens of Bangladesh by teaching them English! In this case, the unequal relationship between the country in the periphery  (Bangladesh) with the country at the core (UK) is reinforced by exporting Western ideas of literacy to Bangladesh from the core (the UK). This in turn facilitates the Westerners’ cause to be a dominant power in Bangladesh ( a new market untrammeled by m-learning). English learning through Janala in Bangladesh can be seen as a way to expand BBC’s market in the name of catering the Bangladeshi citizens with literacy learning and establish the hegemony of English/English culture in Bangladesh.

The lesson that needs to be learned from such an m-learning initiative is the applicability of using mobiles to learn new skills. Homegrown initiatives to use mobile phones to spread literacy in mother tongue can be equally or more innovative than BBC Janala to reach the grass-root level. Most importantly, Deshi content developers should be given preferences for programs that service their community as their aligned interest in the positive outcome would be a resource to sustain the project. The policy makers in my country, Bangladesh, thus can find a cost-efficient way to utilize the mobile phones without having to sacrifice their cup of tea.

I would like to know what our readers think about such a Janala of our own!


English in Action: Mobile Learning in Bangladesh in National Geographic Emerging Explorer on March 29, 2011: goo.gl/PKwKf

Mobile learning in developing countries in 2012: What’s Happening? in World Bank Blog on ICT in Education on January 31, 2012: goo.gl/6nQFC

Biography of Mr David PROSSER, World Innovation Summit for Education Qatar: goo.gl/PJ1Ni

Explorers Bios. Ken Banks in National Geographic: http://goo.gl/x5kX8

FrontlineSMS: Using Mobile Technology to Promote Positive Social Change: http://goo.gl/X1XHS


About ftzahra

PhD Candidate, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania

Posted on February 9, 2012, in ICTs Initiatives Around the World and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. There is a complicated balance here. However, for-profit education is always fundamentally flawed. Do the benefits of the two minute scraps of English lessons to average Bangladeshis equal the benefits that the BBC et al are reaping? Doubtful.
    Better than nothing is a low bar to set. (Not that the author is setting it here.)

    • Thank you for your feedback Emmet. I agree with you wholly that better than nothing is a low bar to set for education, but at the same time it is only these big projects that get most of the attention and therefore can continue to operate in the long-term. The much smaller operations really flounder after a few years once the initial grant runs out and further funds are hard to come by.

      My main point is that using the BBC infrastructure could be used to teach a subject like Math rather than English using local content. While that would be much more effective and useful (this is only my opinion at this point) teaching English – using lessons developed my the BBC – is more in line with BBC’s brand objectives.

  2. This is a good illustration of the complicated nature of so much of the development work currently going on in Bangladesh. While illustrating the potential of such projects I think you also highlight how unsustainable they can be if they are sourced and planned out of the Western centers. Are there examples of locally developed programs that similarly use ICT for educational or other narrowly defined developmental purposes currently operating in Bangladesh? If so what are some useful lessons we can take from them?

    • Thank you for your response. There are certainly other initiatives being implemented in Bangladesh now that utilize m-technology to sidestep infrastructure constraints and are really doing some great work. One particularly successful one is Clickdiagnostics, which provides healthcare and diagnosis with m-technologies. If you are interested then do check out this link for more introductory information: http://clickdiagnostics.com/tag/bangladesh/

  3. Very useful analysis of the BBC’s m-learning program in Bangladesh! One question: Do you see the “market interest” of western corporations as intractably embedded in all m-learning?

    • Thank you for your question Evan. While I would agree that “market interest” is certainly the dominant discourse dictating the procedures and developments of m-learning in Bangladesh, however I think it is more important to focus on whether these corporations will actually create the required changes and infrastructures in ways that are sustainable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: