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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.

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

My co-editor Alex Tyers and I realized after its publication that this newsletter issue has a definite mobile health (mHealth) theme happening. Most of the stories feature mHealth interventions, including the launch of South Africa’s first national public mHealth service, called MomConnect.

MomConnect

MomConnect advertisement

My favorite spotlight article from the newsletter, however, is of course mobile learning-related. Lizzie’s Creations is a company developing educational apps for women and children in Africa, and its young female namesake has already created a partnership with MTN Nigeria to expand the reach of her work.

Why I like Lizzie’s product AfroTalez so much is because it teaches children African folktales in a bid to help preserve the rich history of the continent. afrotalezAlthough the oral tradition has been strong in Africa for millenia, digital preservation of the peoples and cultures there is one way to document, maintain, and share stories so that they’re not lost when migration happens or people lose the spirit of the griots before them. I hope we’ll see more apps like this soon.

Check out this newsletter issue and let me know your thoughts!

When I tell most people that my first profession was as a teacher, I am often greeted with disbelief. Questions such as “How did you go from teaching to technology?” often follow the initial shock, and increasingly I am beginning to understand why this happens. Before I discuss these reasons, I will first give a brief professional background.

Me in the last month of college study, smiling but terrified of the future!

Me in the last month of college study, smiling but terrified of the future!

When I graduated from college (the equivalent of university-level education in the United States), I did not have a firm idea of what type of career I wanted, or even the area that I wanted to work in.

Desperate to get a job and limited in my available options given my majors in Spanish and Philosophy, I took advantage of an opportunity to receive on-the-job training while working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.

During my first year as a teacher, I was able to work with students from Asia, Africa and Central America. While I derived a lot of joy from this role, the endless testing and the feeling that most of my students were being treated as second-class citizens made me take the decision to leave this job, but not teaching altogether.

Acting on the advice of a friend who was completing a teaching stint in South Korea, I began searching for my first teaching position abroad.

Can you guess which person in the photo is me? ;-)

Can you guess which person in the photo is me? 😉

To me, this was a surprising yet exciting prospect for my budding teaching career since I had always wanted to travel more and had a deep appreciation for learning about other cultures. As it turns out, my role in South Korea then led to other positions in Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, before returning to the United States, and then heading off to Europe.

Having had fairly diverse opportunities in terms of the geographical contexts I worked in as well as the education levels I taught, I can say that I matured in my understanding of what education and learning is, but also began to think about possible ways that education and learning might be extended to or improved for people who did not presently have access to it.

Playing with a chameleon during my teacher training stint in Madagascar.

Playing with a chameleon during my teacher training stint in Madagascar.

Chance helped set me on my present path when I took a Master’s level course called Technology in Education. It was on this course that I discovered that the mobile phone could be used as a learning medium.

It is safe to say that after that course, I became engrossed by the potential of mobile telecommunications, especially after my experiences in Equatorial Guinea and Madagascar. In one summer I read any and all things that I could about mobile learning, but then also read about issues and links between gender and technology. This dizzying journey led me to come in contact with one of my professional mentors, Dr. Nancy Hafkin. And the rest is history!

When I met with Nancy, I explained my interests and shared with her some of my emerging work and writings in gender and mobile technology. The encouragement I received from her propelled me on, and she soon introduced me to Sonia Jorge, my second professional mentor. I owe much of my present successes to these two women for giving me the opportunity to enter the world of tech despite not having any background or professional training in the field.

They provided support, a network of like-minded contacts, as well as advice on how to make the most out of a field that historically has not been very balanced from a gender perspective. Now, I have been enjoying a career in mobile telecommunications for nearly five years, and am so glad I made the change!

Me with Tyson Greer in Shanghai for Mobile Asia Expo 2013 for my job in mobile telecoms. Photo taken by Sam Adkins.

Me with Tyson Greer in Shanghai for Mobile Asia Expo 2013 for my job in mobile telecoms. Photo taken by Sam Adkins.

Here’s some advice I can give to other women who are looking to transition from their present career to one involving tech:

1. Decide on what area of technology you want to work in, then reach out to women who have similar roles. Having mentors were priceless for me, and I think they went a long way to help make my transition successful.

2. Become an expert in the area of technology that you want to work in. While I don’t believe you need to earn a formal qualification to do this, it certainly does not hurt. However, you can also read as much as possible on your own about the subject, and write and share blog posts illustrating your knowledge. People will eventually notice.

3. Help others on your way up in the tech world. The most inspiring part of my journey has been receiving support from pioneers in gender and technology. Now that I am established in tech, I do the same for others – and you should, too, whenever you can! Like Michelle Obama said: “…When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”

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!