Wired magazine has been tracking the innovative uses that various religious groups are finding for cell phones. If you are a Muslim, your phone can point you to Mecca. Catholics can get daily SMS text messages from the Vatican (just send the text message POPE ON to 24444 if you are a US subscriber of AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless or Cingular -- but it costs a significant 30c per day). For $3.25 a month, you can even get a daily multimedia spiritual thought delivered to your phone by Deepak Chopra. Subscriptions to these services are booming, which proves that, given a willing target group, even low-tech mobile phones can overcome their obvious limitations and be used for learning.
I have said before that m-learning using phones as internet access points may be a way for developing nations to bypass the infrastructure barriers to "traditional" e-learning. When you consider that one of the most basic requirements in such counties is literacy training, and that the elements of such training are text and audio, the phone is potentially a great way to deliver both in small learnable doses. What better way to learn the alphabet than on a device that is with you all the time and which can give you crystal-clear audio while showing you text?
Phonics on the phone? All that is needed is someone to sponsor it. If such learning were available on an 800 number, paid for by the government or some corporate sponsor, people would call in. If the learning bytes were transmitted to subscribers as storable SMS-plus-audio (MMS or multi media message service), that might be even cheaper. Or if simple phonics learning games designed to be downloadable to phones were available, they'd be used.
Governments (and those like the World Bank who nudge them) need to get more creative and less traditional, more pragmatic and less dogmatic, in the way they think about solving their educational problems. In the internet era of rapid prototyping, nobody builds massive oil tankers when a fleet of cheap inflatable high-speed boats can accomplish most of their goals. Sometimes a little bit of success right now can contribute dramatically to the success of The Big Plan long-term.