In my last “Woman in Mobile” spotlight, I featured a woman working at the global level on mobile policy with a focus on mobile learning and mobile health. In this edition, we will take a look at a woman named Joanna Norton, who is leading a mobile learning startup called Keywords English. Joanna shares with us some of the ups and downs of being a “teacherpreneur”, and gives advice for others looking to jump into the edtech startup space.


Ronda Zelezny-Green (RZG): I know your work well in mobile learning entrepreneurship from Keywords English. Can you speak more about that for my readers?

Joanna Norton (JN): Keywords English is a research-based approach to STEM literacy. It is based on the premise that the academic language of science is a barrier to approximately 30% of people in the K6-K9 school levels (high primary, low secondary grades). Joanna-Norton-Education-Apps1 But there is a struggle in engaging science teachers in the area of STEM literacy because it is something they feel the English teachers should be dealing with, and therefore they just get on with the science. I have been doing a lot of capacity building in this area. I have been working attract funding. There’s funding to extend the project and to extend the prototype into a more interactive experience where we incorporate additional activities on pronunciation, gaming and collaborative learning. This will also be supported by a new online service which will be available in January 2016.

The idea here is looking at a concept approach to STEM literacy. We know that many people have a reluctance to learning STEM – not just girls but also boys. They just don’t like it and can’t relate to it. The website will look at how can we rebrand STEM and how can we show that STEM is relevant in music, dance, and maths, and in other subject areas. It will be a cross-curricular approach to STEM literacy.

RZG: How did you come to be involved as an entrepreneur in mobile learning?

JN: My background is as a teacher, and as an entrepreneur – so “teacherpreneur” is the correct term I should be using. I started using mobile technology for teaching and learning around 1994. At the time we were using feature phones and I found it very successful in terms of engaging young learners who had literacy needs and were disengaged from formal classroom teaching. While it was a formal classroom setting, what I used to do was text them, for example, key items of language that I was going to ask them about in class the next day. They were required to learn one or two concepts or spend some time reading. Gradually, they started to get the answers correct because they obviously had researched and they became a lot more open and responsive to using their mobile device in class. When I saw how successful this was, I thought there must be some way of applying this methodology to address the development of STEM literacy given that it is a huge challenge for young people who want to go on and pursue these types of careers. STEM literacy is a huge barrier to this group in terms of making academic progress.

RZG: What kind of challenges have you had as an mLearning teacherpreneur with getting your product out and raising awareness about its benefits?

JN: I think one of the issues, particularly in the developed world, is that teachers are very cynical about technology. We have made massive investments in hardware but the level of investment in teacher training and upskilling is minimal. So in terms of getting people to engage with what I’m doing, it is definitely an uphill struggle. Teachers, once you break through that barrier, can be very receptive. It is the decision makers themselves who are very difficult to reach. To try to bring in any level of innovation or creativity is a massive hurdle that you have to overcome.

RZG: Do you have any recommendations for other entrepreneurs who may be interested in the edtech space?

JN: Personally, I wouldn’t recommend education! The decision makers differ in every single school. The most innovative person in the school also differs. We don’t have a very good history of collaboration within and across schools – not that it doesn’t happen because it does – but we don’t have scales or models in this area. We’re used to working on our own a lot more, you might work with teachers in your own department, but beyond that it [collaboration] doesn’t really go that far. This all makes the introduction of technology an uphill struggle in terms of how you convince people of its efficacy.

There’s also a definitive lack of research-based efforts of what mobile technology can do. When you’re trying to convince decision makers of what technology can do, you really need a one to three year study behind you. That’s really difficult to do because it costs money and investors are not interested in funding research – they want profits. Unless you have some kind of state funding that gives you the breathing space to develop capacity within schools, within teachers, and within networks to actually get some kind of product out there, then get feedback, make changes [to an edtech intervention], come out with version two… and then maybe you have something that  people are willing to invest their own time in. But that’s lacking. I think the ecosystem is not joined up. What you have is numerous entrepreneurs going around and getting nowhere, really.

RZG: How would you say the lack of research on mobile learning impact affects your work more broadly? Is it the entrepreneur’s responsibility to get more research?

JN: It definitely needs to be a partnership between research institutes and entrepreneurs. I think we need to step back and collectively think about what we’re trying to do. While there is a lot of research out there – and I’ve read a lot of it myself – you will find that the overwhelming majority of teachers on the ground don’t engage with it. Because technology isn’t really embedded in initial or ongoing teacher training, the opportunity to upskill teachers on an ongoing basis is not really utilized.

When you go to some of these edtech sessions, it’s all about using the tools but not about why you should use them and the research behind the effectiveness of that tech tool. If a school was going to invest a couple of million of state money, then you have to be able to present them with data. We’re not able to do that yet. I think there’s a real deficit in the [edtech entrepreneurship] model because of that. Therefore, many teachers and decision makers don’t trust it. Is it entirely up to the entrepreneurs? No, I don’t think so, because we have so many other things to be doing and there are people who are a lot more qualified to carry out the research. There needs to be long-term studies in what technology and teacher training can achieve.

RZG: Where do you see Keywords English heading in the next few years?

JN: Well we will have a full working model and a full working concept ready by the start of the 2016 academic year. Joanna Norton 2There are schools in the UK and the US that are signed up to use it and give feedback. Then hopefully pending the success of the feedback, we can extend it into other STEM areas. We will start off with biology. The website and teacher training approach, which will start in January, will be followed up by a three-month period of testing, getting feedback from teachers, going into schools, and training teachers in the areas of STEM literacy, creativity, and innovation. We will provide teachers with the tools in terms of how they can extend STEM literacy within their subject area, and also how they can work with their colleagues across disciplines to address these learning issues.

RZG: Do you have any advice to women who might be considering anything related to mobile learning as a career?

JN: It is really interesting because overall, women are the predominant gender involved in education. But yet when you go up through the ranks and to the decision makers, they [women] become fewer in number. I think there’s something that can be done about teachers coming together, even at a very local level, and using technology to get the word out there [about becoming part of the decision makers]. Entrepreneurship, especially in the edtech space, should be more collaborative because there are so many barriers that we need to address. It is very difficult to do that as an individual, whether male or female. People who are interested in doing edtech entrepreneurship should do research on working models because there is a very high failure rate in this area – it is very difficult and expensive.

To access the Keywords English app on an iPhone, please follow these links:


Official UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2015 logo

In 2010, I first started researching the potential links between gender and mobile learning. In 2013, I was the first ever presenter to speak on gender and mobile learning at UNESCO. Now, nearly five years after beginning this journey of exploration, it feels like the specialist field of gender and mobile learning has finally arrived: UNESCO has dedicated its entire Mobile Learning Week 2015 theme to this critically under-explored topic.

But why does gender matter to broader field of mobile learning? When most men and women hear the word “gender”, they assume it is only referring to girls and women, or working to take over the male population completely. Both ideas are false yet such assumptions do a great deal of damage for those who wish to engage in gender work that helps provide social transformation for women, men, boys and girls. For the past five years I have worked to publicly engage with the topic of gender and mobile learning in order to help promote gender analysis and awareness in the design of mobile learning interventions. What follows is a description of how I got my start in the area.

agnes and john

John Traxler (left) and Agnes Kukulska-Hulme (right)

Having taught in Africa, Asia, and North America during the time (2005-2009) when we all witnessed the incredible rise in access to mobile communication devices, I at first never considered how they might be used for learning. While studying during my first Master’s degree program, I discovered some of the existing work on mobile learning from academics like Agnes Kukulska-Hulme and John Traxler and became hooked.

By 2009, girls’ education had become a passion of mine because of my experiences as an educator with female youth in a diverse range of settings, and I was also a graduate of a women’s college in the U.S. I had the opportunity to observe how girls are systematically silenced in curricula, classrooms and in their societies more broadly because of prevailing social mores, and also saw how they were more or less guided to careers thought to be more appropriate for someone of their gender. Such issues have plagued systems of education for ages, to be sure, but there has been a significant amount of work done to help redress these issues as well.

My experiences as a teacher and my new found awareness of mobile learning led me to explore the potential links between gender issues and mobile learning, including how mobile learning might be used as a tool for the empowerment of the female populace, in partnership with their male peers. It is important to acknowledge that gender work with the goal of social transformation cannot be done without men and boys since women and girls live with and interact with them on a daily basis and they are change agents in their own right – even for issues that may not affect them directly. Also, it is worth noting that gender issues in education are not always tilted in favor of boys: In South Africa and the Philippines, the situation is reversed, and even in the U.S. there are more women enrolled in higher education than men.

School visit in the Philippines; Filipina girl shows me and my colleagues her school work on a tablet

School visit in the Philippines; Filipina girl shows me and my colleagues her school work on a tablet

As I performed meta-analyses of existing mobile learning literature, I noted that there was scant work done with gender issues despite the increasing evidence of some of the positive outcomes of mobile learning. I believed it was important to engage in this space to better understand the potential and pitfalls of gender and mobile learning work – especially because the number of mobile learning interventions is on the rise, even in developing contexts. If investments were going to continue being made in mobile learning, I felt it was imperative to understand how such interventions might impact the intended beneficiaries, and girls and women in particular, since it is often said that mobile learning can facilitate opportunities for those who are denied or prevented from having consistent access to education, and females are most acutely affected when it comes to such access.

All of this inspired me to pursue a second Master’s degree so that I could more fully explore this area, and this research led to me undertaking PhD investigations in the same area, and I am now in the final year of this program.

PhD fieldwork in Nairobi, Kenya

PhD fieldwork in Nairobi, Kenya

Throughout these five years I have learned a lot, but I think the most important lesson that I have been taught is that gender and mobile learning is not a passing fad or a topic deserving of superficial consideration among mobile learning intervention designers. In my own work, I have seen just how much power and influence men, girls, women and boys can have on the outcomes of a mobile learning intervention. Understanding how and why gender matters in mobile learning could help everyone working in the field create more effective and sustainable interventions.

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!

Ronda & Eva thumbnail

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.


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!