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!

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!



This interview was a piece that was intended to be published in Royal Holloway, University of London’s university magazine, but did not make the cut. I share it here so everyone can learn more about the objectives for my research in Kenya.

Girls are one of the most marginalised segments of Kenyan society. Early pregnancy, a lack of sanitary napkins, and the expectation that they will stay at home to care for relatives makes attending school more difficult for girls than for boys. Ronda Zelezny-Green, a PhD student in ICT4D, has been researching ways in which secondary school-age girls might achieve the education and lives they want by using a technology increasingly found in Kenyan homes – the mobile phone.

Whilst undertaking fieldwork in Nairobi, conducted as part of her Royal Holloway MSc with support from an Irene Marshall Travel Grant, Ronda discovered that girls at her research site used mobile phones to seek and obtain academic support whilst at home. Whilst new mobile learning – or mLearning – technologies looked like a promising way to help the girls, as a trained teacher, Ronda knew that many of the currently available systems did not encourage the kinds of social learning experiences that benefit the girls most.

RZG mLearning in Kenya

“Frequently the creators of these systems are not trained educators,” says Ronda. “I hope to take what exists now and, together with the girls and their wider communities, create a truly social mobile learning experience for after-school use that could have benefits not just for the learners, but for the entire school community.”

In July and August 2013, with the support of a Helen Shackleton Fund Award, Ronda interviewed female students, their teachers, principals and parents at two secondary schools in and near Nairobi to talk about the kinds of learning activities that the girls were participating in outside school. She explored their overall experience of using mobile phones along with any educational uses.

Ronda hopes that her work will contribute to future Kenyan government policy on the use of mobile devices in education. “The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) is a partner of my PhD work,” she told us. “My aim is to help the government continue its push towards becoming a knowledge society as part of its Kenya Vision 2030 strategy. I think mobile learning can be a part of that drive.”

The link to the original online publication can be found here:

As I went through my daily news this morning, I came across this gem:

India’s first female-oriented gun designed to prevent rapes.


As much as I am a fan of technology, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself: Why are we not spending more time educating men on why rape is wrong and stimulating behavior change that will be more long-lasting and less bloody than equipping women with guns? Why is our response from the tech side something totally ridiculous, especially given that I imagine India doesn’t have tons of gun ranges for women to even practice use of their new, ‘dainty’ weapons?

If we are to continue going this route, perhaps somewhat of a middle ground is the self-defense app championed by Mary Kom. Mary, who is a world-class boxer and Olympic medalist, is creating an app for Indian women that “…offers hints and tips to staying safe as well as a free SMS-based service.”

Mary Kom

Ms. Kom has also partnered with Vodafone India to create the first female “fight club” in the country. This seems like quite an unexpected and unlikely pairing, but I am interested to see how this pans out. Although, it almost implies that men are raping women because they are not strong enough to fight back or don’t know how; thereby still making it the woman’s fault when she is raped.

I long for the day when combating rape places more or at least equal burden on the men than it does the women when it comes to prevention… and for the day when the tech that is imagined for this cause is more appropriate for the context of use.

The following is a blog post I wrote for The Guardian Global Development 
Professionals Network

A woman attends her baby girl who sits under a mosquito net

Many young mothers in Kenya want to return to school, even when the circumstances made learning a challenge. Photograph: Alamy

As we celebrate the International day of the girl today, we should take time to remember that young mothers are still girls, too. We need to do what we can to support them in their educational endeavours — even in means considered to be non-traditional. Mobile learning might be one way we can support young mothers when school interruptions occur due to early pregnancy. Here are some of my thoughts which draw upon the Kenyan context.

Schooling and early pregnancy in Kenya

With a high rate of early pregnancies among women in Kenya, female children in both primary and secondary school are increasingly being affected. One of the most damaging side effects of this phenomenon in Kenya is that once pregnant, many girls face barriers such as a lack of awareness among school administrators about laws on early pregnancy and schooling, severe time constraints due to care work, and even familial beliefs that deny them the right to continue their education.

Recently, speaking on education reform, cabinet secretary for education, science and technology in Kenya Jacob Kaimenyi drew attention to the difficulties that girls face when they want to return to school after having a baby. Although there is no policy in place that restricts a girl’s ability to rejoin her peers in school, many girls drop out or are sent home when the pregnancy is discovered, are turned away when they try to return to school after giving birth, or are refused the chance to try and return because of the stigma the pregnancy and subsequent birth places on the girl and her family.

Commonly there is a desire by girl learners to continue their education, especially their formal education, despite their pregnancy even when the barriers to returning to school imposed by their families or schools and social stigmas may not easily permit it. Awareness-raising campaigns about the rights of young mothers, such as the girl declaration, can undoubtedly help address issues surrounding access to education by young mothers. Nevertheless, problems persist, and for girls out of reach or otherwise unable to benefit from these mechanisms, mobile phones could offer learning support.

Despite the use of mobiles in a number of facets of Kenyan society(banking, utilities, retail, health, transportation, etc), their use in education remains limited to a few offerings such as Eneza Education(mostly secondary) and eLimu (mostly primary).

Some of the oft-repeated challenges to mobile learning as a viable vehicle for education include the costs associated with ownership and maintenance of the devices, fears of inappropriate use, and the allegeddifficulty of reading on the devices with small screens.

While a study from Kenya indicated that some may go without food to own and maintain a mobile device, the device is often used to improve its owner’s life, making the costs spent on its usage long-term investments. Eneza Education and gMaarifa demonstrate that high-end mobile devices and smartphones are not a necessary prerequisite for mobile learning in Kenya, since both organisations’ approaches to mobile learning do not require more expensive mobile tools.

Inappropriate use of mobile devices is a common issue around the worldamong youth. Perceived and real problems can range from contacting a member of the opposite sex to cyberbullying. Yet, a knee-jerk reaction to this challenge is to ban youth mobile use altogether. Educating Kenyan girls — and their families — on potential pitfalls and guiding them to use mobile devices appropriately is more sensible, especially when they are likely to find a way to use the devices anyway. But we do not see many mobile learning initiatives globally making this an integral part of their approach, to the detriment of any possible long-term success.

Helping to dispel the notion that reading on mobiles is difficult, Worldreader adds evidence that reading in Kenya, even on small feature phones and eReaders, can be enjoyable and beneficial to young learners.

Education is key for marginalised girls (such as young mothers) to participate in all domains of the societies they live in. If an overarching goal for Kenya is to cultivate a knowledge economy, then more avenues of obtaining this knowledge need to be opened up for young mothers, a group that can contribute substantially to development efforts if given access to education.

Young mothers of school age in Kenya make ideal beneficiaries of mobile learning opportunities when they experience school interruptions because they have a strong need for flexibility when juggling the demands of child rearing, are not always able to attend school even if they are permitted to return, do not always have consistent or affordable access to formal education or computers, may feel embarrassed to return to school after giving birth, and can make use of the mobile literacy skills they gain to pursue income-generating activities, if needed.

What subjects can young mothers access through mobile-based instruction?

When girls leave school after becoming pregnant or are unable to return after giving birth, the stigma of exclusion compounds their marginalisation. But we are seeing encouraging signs of possible future support in bridging the home-school divide at the primary and secondary level with educational technology. Through mobile devices, we have seen a number of subjects taught including maths (Dr MathM4Girls), mother tongue languages (eTaleem, MoToLi), science (Text2Teach), sexual health & HIV/Aids prevention (education as a vaccine), and life skills (learning about living).

For young mothers in Kenya, having support to access education at a distance, in the subjects above, which will be critical to their success as they grow into adults, should be viewed as a right and not a luxury. Mobile learning can be one medium to help realise this right. Nevertheless, even when this approach is undertaken, practitioners and educators must ensure they work to involve the girls’ communities in the transformation process. Plan International has a number of resources for how community involvement in support of girls can be mobilised, including identifying community members who can be girl child champions. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.