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.

buying-water-matatu

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: http://www.ict4dc.org/content/mlearning-kenya