The increasing application of mobile phones to development challenges has created what Ken Banks called in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review post: “[A]n explosive interest and excitement—and, yes, hype—in mobile, and a sense that the technology can be the savior of, well, everything.” Practitioners of mobile phones for education (mEducation) are already building on the enthusiasm generated by the scale of mobile health and mobile money programs, but they should be wary of a technology-centered, top-down approach. John Traxler, director of the International Association for Mobile Learning, cautioned in a recent interview: “There remains a risk that the cultures and the traditions at the receiving end of programs using mobiles for education will get overlooked in the drive for efficiency and scale.”

Many of the 3.6 billion SMS-capable mobile phone subscribers all over the world are already engaging in illustrative mEducation experiences. At the 9th Intel Education Summit in November 2012, UNESCO’s Steve Vosloo described two such examples. In Pakistan, 250 girls extended their face-to-face Urdu lessons to their disconnected villages through SMS reminders and short SMS reading assignments. In Bangladesh, BBC Janala (part of the larger English in Action Programme) students studying English would call a number daily to get a new audio message and three-minute audio lesson. Both programs attracted thousands of users who then voluntarily paid to sustain the programs, but there was one important difference between the two: In Bangladesh, the English in Action program also created a dedicated website where students with Internet-enabled phones could download the lessons and quizzes for free. Vosloo reported that this online-enabled approach extended the 15 million audio lessons into an additional 250,000 lesson downloads.

The possibilities of a mobile broadband approach to mEducation will expand as the world’s one billion smartphone users grow to an expected three billion or more by 2018. Organizations such as iHeed and Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO), are harnessing this new opportunity for online (or locally stored) content delivery through animated videos that inform communities about topics such as water purification, breastfeeding, and treatment for malaria and cholera. The next step is for this type of content to be incorporated into more structured Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that combine video, text, and forums in an open online format. TechCrunch’s “Best Startup of 2012” award went to Coursera, a MOOC platform that has provided free online courses to two million students, and is now looking toward mobile optimization and workforce development.

But the global need for context-specific mEducation and relevant workforce development training opportunities will inevitably strain the MOOC one-size-fits-all approach. Differences in language, custom, and culture, along with poor connectivity and electricity access, and unfamiliarity with ICTs and self-directed learning approaches mean that MOOCs will not be a viable education model for many people around the world. While MOOCs are a bargain at scale, just one video-rich course can cost upwards of $50,000 and even professionals have difficulty in executing with a class size in the tens of thousands.

That may be a good thing, however. Instead of adapting international development to available technology, online and mobile education efforts should focus less on scale and more on lowering barriers to creating smaller, locally owned online and mEducation programs. Powerful mobile learning experiences require 1) engaging content, 2) a social platform, and 3) relevant facilitation. While the enthusiasm around mobile broadband is welcome, evidence and practical experience show that we will not overcome global education and workforce development challenges simply through a device, massive levels of content, and an Internet connection. Even the best textbooks will be wasted if they are not coupled with an appropriate classroom, good pedagogy, and attentive teachers.