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Most Africans don’t have computers or access to the Internet. Cell phones are a different story.

So why aren’t journalism schools around the continent integrating the use of mobile devices fully and squarely into their courses? It’s a question that could also apply in many other places — even in places with access to computers and the Internet.

Answers to this challenge were provided in Grahamstown, South Africa last week, when MobileActive Katrin Verclas, a Knight grantee, ran a workshop with a selection of African journalism teachers at Rhodes University.

Participants were brought together under the auspices of another Knight project, the Knight Center for International Media at the University of Miami. Veteran multimedia teacher Rich Beckman put together five days of high-powered training for a handpicked group from countries as diverse as Sierra Leone, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa.

The group learned about audio-driven slide shows by MSNBC’s Jim Seida, and online video storytelling by the University of Westminster’s David Dunkley Gyimah. Debate around digital ethics was led by Sam Terril from the University of Miami.

But it was the session with Verclas that brought home the obviousness of why there should be a strong focus on mobile in African journalism schools. Take Muda Ganiyu, head of the Lagos Polytechnic, who told colleagues that he had seven video cameras for 1,200 students. Video-enabled cell phones, he pointed out, could fill a rather large gap.

He proved this point when he and colleague George Nyabuga used a cell phone to capture dramatic images and video of a shack being set on fire and the arrest of the alleged arsonist — all while out on a workshop exercise.

Second-Rate Technology

“What about the problem that cell phones don’t usually have as high end capabilities as specialized video cameras?” asked Verclas.

She then answered her own question: “Having second-rate technology to tell a story is better than no technology at all.”

More than that, participant Harold Gess argued that journalism teachers need to focus on storytelling; the technology is secondary to this task. So, if a cell phone can enable students to learn to tell stories effectively, that amounts to mission accomplished.

Ayesha Ismail, another participant, added that the value of teaching students to use the power of their phones is that they can then do reporting at any time, and not be constrained to times when they booked out a school’s scarce equipment.

That point brought home the importance of students learning to use — to the fullest extent possible — their own phones.

Highlighting the value of capitalizing on having a communications tool in your pocket, Verclas herself snapped pictures on her cell phone of a smashed window at the local newspaper, Grocott’s Mail. Overnight, thieves had stolen a TV set located in the window bay that had been part of the Knight-supported Citizen Newsroom, launched the previous week during the Highway Africa conference in the city.

Newsroom co-ordinator Michael Salzwedel and editor Steven Lang had also grabbed a picture on their cell phones with the aim of posting it online and generating community discussion around the crime.

Reporting by SMS

Back in Verclas’ class, another participant, Brian Garman, proposed that classes on mobile journalism should start with the most basic of a phone’s capabilities by teaching the principles of reporting via SMS. Courses could then move to images, audio, video and multimedia packages done on — and sometimes for — cell phones.

Garman also argued that when students have access to higher-end equipment, they tend to replicate familiar genres and formats. Conversely, if they are required to experiment with the new medium of mobile, there’s a greater chance that they could drive change.

This point put the participants at the workshop into temporary pause mode, the reason being that using cell phones for journalism is as new to them as it is to students.

As realization of the possibilities set in, it was almost as if the room became energized with light bulbs flashing, brainwaves churning, and spirits soaring.

In assorted projects for Verclas during the day, the group came to grips with practical production using cell phones. They came up with pretty creative content, such as a documentary made in French using cell phones, as well as the shack fire story.

Innovative Use of Cell Phones

The groups also cooked up clever schemes for using cell phones in innovative ways. One idea was to sign up people during the 2010 World Football Cup in South Africa and, using a signal sent via text message, trigger an avalanche of user-generated photos of what was happening at that given moment in time.

Another proposal was for software tools that would enable an entire audio slideshow to be edited, compiled and compressed for upload on a cell phone. A third idea planned to enlist carriers to load phones with social mobilization images and audio, which would kick in to users when calls were made or received.

It wasn’t all blue skies, however. Verclas highlighted the importance of context in that powerful cellular carriers can determine what lives or dies on their network. Along with that, metadata about locality can be abused, prices are insufficiently regulated in some countries, and privacy can never be guaranteed.

There’s no problem in acknowledging the downside. Journalism teachers need to convey the negative aspects to students as well as the positive potential.

And thanks to the workshop, they know they can do both.