K.I.S.S. = Keep It Simple, Sumitra

When I first came across the story of the Indian girl who used her mobile phone to record the conversation that We want justice not appspreceded her attempted rape by an uncle, I was floored! Here was a home-grown, tech-based solution delivered on the spot, and without any complications. But why is this so amazing?

Over the past year I have been blogging about my slight annoyance of the various bandwagon solutions that have sought to outdo each other in order to capitalize off of the increasing attention given to rapes of girls and women in India. Although many of these solutions are good-intentioned, at the end of the day, any tech solution to any major social problem needs to be so seamless that a user can use it almost intuitively. With an app, you may have to fumble around to get it, and really, when you may be seconds away from being raped, who’s going to deal with all of that maneuvering?!

Phone recordingRecording audio and/or video on a mobile phone may seem almost too simple. And that’s because it is. Moreover, when you consider that girls and women typically face a second injustice after being raped, a mix of disbelief or nonsensical blame by others, having hard proof of what exactly happened should go a LONG way to eliminating doubt about how the unfortunate events transpired.

 

So while the hunt is still on for the uncle, there is at least 0% doubt as to his guilt. Hat tip to the girl the Indian press refers to as “Sumitra” for a tech solution that literally any girl or woman can use, no downloads necessary.

The August issue of the Gender & Mobile/Learning Newsletter is now available! You may access the newsletter on the web by clicking this linkMama Zambia

This particular issue of the newsletter appears to be dominated by mobile network operators (MNOs), and in this case that is a very good thing! MNOs often get a bad reputation since they only seemed to be concerned with their bottom line. While this is undoubtedly true, who says you can’t make money AND do good at the same time?

This issue features an Airtel Zambia partnership with Internet.org to offer the popular MAMA app to people in the country. Although Airtel Zambia will not generate any revenue from this, indirect benefits should be a handsome reward. Bangalink (Bangladesh), Airtel Uganda, and Zain (South Sudan) also provide a few products and services that I hope we will see scale in the coming years, especially Zain’s training to teach women how to create mobile apps!

The June 2014 issue of the Gender & Mobile/Learning Newsletter is now available! You may access the newsletter on the web by clicking this link

While it is difficult to make a choice, I think my favorite story from this issue is definitely about Instagram’s first female engineer. Instagram's female engineer This was such an important story to me because it honestly shocked me that with how much I see girls and women using Instagram, this is the first time they’ve had a female engineer on board. How did they manage to figure out what women want without having women to help them?

One can’t help but wonder if this was a coordinated PR scheme by Instagram to appear to be one of the “good companies” in the wake of the abysmal and absolutely appalling performances of most major tech companies when it comes to gender and ethnic diversity.

Although a writer for The Atlantic rightly argues that simply tallying up “enough” female tech workers is not a sincere or sustainable way to address the hiring disparities among the top tech firms, at this point it is a start. Let’s not forget the old adage about crawling before flying.

Nevertheless, with as much innovation as we see coming out of these companies, how is it possible that no one has innovated in the HR department?! It will be good to see what happens over the next few years in this space.

I am nearing five months of being in the field in Nairobi. This past week I finally got to introduce a mobile learning tool to the girls at my school!

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There had been lots of buildup, but once it happened, I think the girls and I were equally excited! The mobile learning implementation was not without its hiccups, but overall things went well.  But what led to this? Why was I seemingly injecting mobile learning into this situation? Well, if it is one thing I have learned after working in international education development, it’s that if you want to have real impact, you will listen to people and try to discern their needs before saddling them with what you think they need (as they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions!).

During three separate research periods over the course of nearly two years, I learned that girls at the school I work with wanted more reading materials to use during after-school hours. This was desired because the girls stated that they wanted to practice reading, to help them prepare for exams, to read about new or interesting things, to be more knowledgeable about the world, or to read to support their formal learning.

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Riding a matatu, buying water… thinking of cake?

But why didn’t they have all the books they wanted to begin with? On average, books can cost at least 300 KES (KES = Kenyan Shillings) for one copy, and this can be a considerable amount for a secondary school girl to bear on her own when you consider how much 300 KES can buy to satisfy more immediate needs (for example, two matatu rides, a 1L bottle of water, and a loaf of cake from Uchumi, combined, is still cheaper than the price of a book).

At the same time, I conducted surveys that revealed that nearly half of the girls at the school I work with have a mobile phone. These mobile phones were often provided by parents or siblings so that the girls could be reached when needed, to conduct M-Pesa transactions, or even for safety purposes.

With this in mind, I researched possibilities that could take advantage of the availability of mobile phones, were affordable to the inelastic budget of a secondary school girl (and their parents or guardians!), and provided access to reading materials that would be interesting and relevant to this population. One of my PhD supervisors, Niall Winters, wisely asked me to create a chart detailing the features and advantages of various mobile learning tools available in Kenya. I considered things like cost, the ability to facilitate constructivist learning experiences, and the type(s) of mobile devices the tool would run on.

Having been a fan of Worldreader for a while, I decided that this could be one of the best options for the secondary school context I was working in. The thing that I liked most about this tool is that there are so many books, many of them sourced from Kenya or Africa more broadly. Also, the data compression software that accompanies biNu, which hosts the Worldreader “app”, means that using the “app” doesn’t cost as much as reading on a regular Internet browser.

 

worldreader books

With data bundles in Kenya available for a cost as low as 5 KES, it seemed logical to see if and how the introduction of this educational aid could support the girls’ reported needs.

Although I am just in the early stages of the actual implementation/introduction of Worldreader via biNu as the mobile learning tool to help the secondary school girls attain their educational pursuits, so far the girls have been spotted online a lot, have told me that they have been showing the “app” to their friends, and they have even been sharing what they have been reading with me via biNu Messenger.

Screenshot of a biNu message sent to me from a research participant

Screenshot of a biNu message sent to me from a research participant

Overall, the girls seem to be quite excited about Worldreader and the materials that the “app” is helping to put within their reach. But will this excitement last? Will the girls still use this “app” when I am not around? Will the data costs and need to re-charge their mobile phones eventually become barriers to use? How will parents or guardians react to their use of mobile phones in this way? Will this mobile learning tool help facilitate the girls’ ability to lead the lives that they have reason to value?

These are just a few of the questions I will be exploring until October 2014 (including a period when I will be away from Kenya, July to October 2014). If after six months since the Worldreader implementation/introduction the same level of excitement and use is observed among the girls, in addition to continued reported benefits, I will be more confident that this intervention was worthwhile and helpful to them.

Until then, I am going to enjoy reading with the girls and helping them to navigate the “app” for their purposes!

 

 

Today was Vodafone’s Connected Woman Summit.
This event featured both day and evening components during which women who had used mobile phones for empowerment in the areas of work, health, access (to many things) and education were able to share their stories.

mEducation in graphic form

While all the stories were inspiring, of course the crowd favorite was the talk interview that Malala Yousafzai conducted with the Huffington Post UK. During this talk, Malala spoke a lot about why she values education and continues the enormous task of fighting for the rights of other children like here who just want to learn.

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Given that the event was sponsored by Vodafone and featured lots of women + mobile success stories, it was natural for Carla Buzasi, Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post UK, to ask for Malala’s thoughts on using mobile phones for education.

The following are paraphrases on what Malala said about mobile learning and the use of technology in education more broadly; they were first typed furiously as well as mentally noted as brief tweets before being included in this blog post. They paraphrases are not meant to be exact quotes. IMG_1228

1. Malala said that mobile phones, like any technology are a tool. People can use these tools for both good and bad, and it is up to people to use them for good such as in the case of mobile learning. Mobiles must be used appropriately if they are to benefit people in education, especially women and girls.

Expanding on the theme of using technology to support education, Malala also made mention of the Internet and its place in education.

2. “Of course I think the use of technology in education is helpful! When I am given homework, I have to do research at home online. […] The Internet is very important to the ability of women and girls to access information. […] Having access to the Internet can help make you broadminded.” Malala talk interview with HuffPost UK

 

Now this is where the Connected Women Summit shocker comes into play. I have even more respect for Malala after she responds to the question of whether she owns a mobile phone at an event sponsored by a mobile network operator! 

 

3. No. ::followed by an audible gasp from the audience::

 

Tonight, Malala bravely dusted off the shock some audience members had when she revealed that she did not own a mobile phone. While I did not capture all about why she said she did not own one, I believe it had to do with not needing one at this time/age and being able to do things for her education on computers.

Malala will always be a connected young woman to me. When she’s ready to explore the potential of mobile learning, especially as a tool of empowerment in one or some of her many education projects, I would love to be her guide! Being able to shake her hand and thank her tonight was a highlight of the year for me, to be sure!