Photo Credit: GSMA mWomen Programme

Last month, Wayan Vota of ICT Works shared a thought-provoking blog post that struck a chord with me. He questioned the necessity of the GSMA mWomen Design Challenge given that an effective and simple approach to teaching women literacy with basic handsets had already been devised by the Jokko Initiative.

Wayan extolled the virtues of the the Jokko Initiative, and rightly so: This program for helping women in West Africa build awareness of their right to communicate along with their literacy skills is also my favorite mobile learning project. Tostan has a model that yielded funding-worthy results and I believe would be useful to scale.

However, to compare the Jokko Initiative to the GSMA mWomen Design Challenge is pitting mangos vs. ice cream sandwiches: GSMA’s mWomen Design Challenge seeks to improve usability of Android Ice Cream Sandwich-powered smartphones since “…the Android operating system offers several important advantages as a potential mobile operating platform for women in emerging markets. As of June 2012, Android represented 47% of developers’ primary platform 10 in Africa, as compared to mobile web (13%) and Apple’s iOS (13%),” (GSMA mWomen, 2012).

Additionally, statistics elsewhere project that increasingly affordable Android handsets will continue to spread in developing markets in Africa and Asia through 2015, and while there is no way to tell how many of these smartphone adoptees will be women, it can be presupposed that some of them will be. Learning how to use these phones is one step on the way to helping women harness the potential benefits of mobiles, including for educational purposes. Why not start looking forward for mobile designs that will benefit women who are smartphone users, since many signs suggest that there is a growing trend in ownership for this group?

Pitting mangos vs. ice cream sandwiches creates a false dichotomy that unnecessarily detracts from the push to help ensure that more women benefit from mobile phone uses for education and communication.
Women can benefit from the Tostan approach, but they may also benefit from mobile phone designs that are gender-sensitive since it could lead to women imagining even more novel educational uses.

In the dissertation for my Master’s program in ICT4D, I wrote the following about gender and social shaping of technology: “Wajcman (1991) contends that not only is technology shaped by users’ social contexts, but that gender is also a component of the social influence that people have on technology. For example, Cockburn and Ormrod (1993) tell how gendering of domestic technologies such as microwaves is an on-going process that does not end at the point of design or manufacturing. When piloting microwave design, engineers in Japan had to respond to women’s use of microwaves to thaw sushi, helping to create the defrost function (Cockburn & Ormrod, 1993). Users play a role in encoding their own gendered meanings on the technology as they appropriate it, and the example provided explains how this encoding can be in response to the users’ needs,” (Zelezny-Green, 2012).

Pitting mangos vs. ice cream sandwiches is an exercise in futility.The real question is who will be behind the winning design of the challenge? I take the position that if mobile technology is to be made easier for women to use, then it should be designed by or with women. Otherwise, the goal of making mobiles for women may not be met –- unarguably the greater missed opportunity as far as mangos and ice cream sandwiches are concerned.

Sources cited:

Wajcman, J. (1991). Feminism Confronts Technology. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Cockburn, C., & Ormrod, S. (1993). Gender and Technology in the Making. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

*Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I work for GSMA on the mEducation project. However, the views expressed here are wholly my own and are in no way meant to be representative of the views of the GSMA mWomen programme or their design challenge, or the GSMA mEducation project.

Welcome to my blog!!! When thinking about the themes this blog should consider, I decided to combine my interest in reflecting on the triumphs, debates, and follies of ICT4D with my passion for all aspects of the increasingly important and emerging area of gender, learning and mobiles (what I will hereafter refer to by the acronym of “G.L.a.M.”).

I know there are a number of voices out there already talking about the first of these two themes, but where I hope to be different is by considering the gendered dimensions and implications of ICT4D since so often this component of an intervention is merely a box to be checked on the way to having a project completed. The importance of gender and ICT4D has been written about since at least the 1970s, yet we still see that discussions about gender in ICT4D are often essentialized to how many women and girls have taken part in an intervention.

For the second theme, G.L.a.M. is an idea that I have been passionate about since taking a course titled “Technology in Education” in my Master’s program in Applied Linguistics. It was during this course that I first became aware of mobile learning, and I was stunned I had never thought of this possible use of technology before! This course made me think back to my time spent in Equatorial Guinea and Madagascar, where resources in schools were short but mobile phones were increasingly ubiquitous, even among people of the female gender. Yet use of mobiles as a learning tool cannot be imagined in a vacuum; indeed, like all technology, mobiles also have gendered dimensions and implications of use. So what relationships might gender, learning, and mobiles have with each other? This is an area this blog hopes to contribute the most to.

The idea to explore G.L.a.M. in-depth solidified for me after attending the 2012 eLearning Africa conference in Benin. During a session chaired by Shafika Isaacs (an eLearning extraordinaire!) on the various stakeholder views on mobile learning, a topic of discussion that arose was the need to speak more about the gendered dimensions and implications of use of mobile phones in learning contexts: An attendee mentioned how in all the excitement for gender and mobile learning, no one seemed to be talking about things like an incident in South Africa where mobile phones were used by boys (many of whom were students) to film the gang rape of a school girl. There are also the stories of school girls obtaining mobile phones through “sugar daddies,” where payments for the purchase of the phones often have dubious origins. At times, G.L.a.M. may touch on subjects that are uncomfortable yet absolutely necessary to talk about if some of the more grandiose visions in this field are to be realized. However, gendered discussions of technology do not all have to be “doom and gloom”, and in this blog I will strive to highlight both the positive and negative aspects of two very complex, intertwining topics.

This blog will discuss G.L.a.M. initiatives around the world, and special attention will be given to my own PhD research in this area. This work is constantly evolving but at the moment the conceptual framework will focus on learner-initiated (and teacher-supported) mobile-based communities of practice and gender, technology, and equity with the specific lens of groups of secondary school girls in Kenya. More on how this topic came to be of interest to me, and the need for research in this area, will be explored in future blog postings.

For now, I reiterate my warm welcome and hope that you will enjoy taking this blog journey with me. If so inclined, please follow me on Twitter @GLaM_mobileLeo, where I most frequently share ICT4D news.