Today was Vodafone’s Connected Woman Summit.
This event featured both day and evening components during which women who had used mobile phones for empowerment in the areas of work, health, access (to many things) and education were able to share their stories.

mEducation in graphic form

While all the stories were inspiring, of course the crowd favorite was the talk interview that Malala Yousafzai conducted with the Huffington Post UK. During this talk, Malala spoke a lot about why she values education and continues the enormous task of fighting for the rights of other children like here who just want to learn.


Given that the event was sponsored by Vodafone and featured lots of women + mobile success stories, it was natural for Carla Buzasi, Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post UK, to ask for Malala’s thoughts on using mobile phones for education.

The following are paraphrases on what Malala said about mobile learning and the use of technology in education more broadly; they were first typed furiously as well as mentally noted as brief tweets before being included in this blog post. They paraphrases are not meant to be exact quotes. IMG_1228

1. Malala said that mobile phones, like any technology are a tool. People can use these tools for both good and bad, and it is up to people to use them for good such as in the case of mobile learning. Mobiles must be used appropriately if they are to benefit people in education, especially women and girls.

Expanding on the theme of using technology to support education, Malala also made mention of the Internet and its place in education.

2. “Of course I think the use of technology in education is helpful! When I am given homework, I have to do research at home online. […] The Internet is very important to the ability of women and girls to access information. […] Having access to the Internet can help make you broadminded.” Malala talk interview with HuffPost UK


Now this is where the Connected Women Summit shocker comes into play. I have even more respect for Malala after she responds to the question of whether she owns a mobile phone at an event sponsored by a mobile network operator! 


3. No. ::followed by an audible gasp from the audience::


Tonight, Malala bravely dusted off the shock some audience members had when she revealed that she did not own a mobile phone. While I did not capture all about why she said she did not own one, I believe it had to do with not needing one at this time/age and being able to do things for her education on computers.

Malala will always be a connected young woman to me. When she’s ready to explore the potential of mobile learning, especially as a tool of empowerment in one or some of her many education projects, I would love to be her guide! Being able to shake her hand and thank her tonight was a highlight of the year for me, to be sure!

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:

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.

For February I am sharing a guest post on the blog written by Sarah Johns, an academic colleague I know from Royal Holloway, University of London. Sarah works for Plan International and is presently completing the MSc in Practising Sustainable Development with ICT4D specialism, the course I completed prior to beginning my PhD work. It was at Royal Holloway that Sarah and I had an engaging conversation about gender and mobile learning, and our conversation inspired Sarah’s post. With her permission, I am reposting the text of the blog here.

Girl geeks and boys’ toys: The digital gender divide

Sarah Johns

By Sarah Johns, Plan International Publishing Coordinator
(originally posted on 30 January 2013 on the Plan International website)

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Plan’s Chief Executive Officer, Nigel Chapman, chaired a discussion on the ‘digital gender divide’. If you’re not sure what the digital gender divide is, imagine a world where your office IT guy is an IT girl, or where the first person to offer you help with your Powerpoint presentation is a woman. How likely is this in your office, your city, your country?

It’s a worldwide problem. For example in the UK, the information, communication and technology (ICT) sector accounts for a whopping 9% of the country’s economy – £81 billion – but just 17% of the people benefiting from employment in this sector are women. Ironically, 17% also happens to be the percentage of women participants at the WEF this year.

Economic opportunities
In low and middle income countries, the ICT sector is widely seen as a catalyst for creating economic opportunities for individuals, communities and states.

Ten years ago the debate was all about the digital divide – a canyon between rich and poor, urban and rural. Recently though, countries like India, Vietnam and Indonesia have seen economic growth partly because their governments have encouraged investment in digital communications and technology, and other countries, such as Kenya, Liberia and Ghana, are watching closely.

Barriers for women

There’s no doubt that there has been a growth in jobs and business opportunities in the ICT sector for those able to benefit from the opportunities, but it’s the same old story for girls and women.

Technology is seen as a man’s domain. Shiny new toys and gadgets are aimed at guys. The majority of people working in the technology industry are men. Even the language is gendered: geek, boys’ toys, scientist and engineer. Whether it’s learning ICT skills, or using computers, girls and women face all the usual cultural, social and economic barriers that come with being female. This is the digital gender divide.

“Girls are burdened with chores which do not provide them with adequate time to learn, access the computer and have time for leisure and play which are all very important for her development” – Abigail, 16 years, Ghana

Chance for change
There are two shining lights on this particular horizon though. The first is the mobile (cell) phone. The ability to have relatively cheap, personal, portable access to digital information and communication is not as revolutionary as some say, but it’s a technological evolution that has great potential to benefit girls and women.

If computers are male, telephones are female, traditionally used for family gossip and chatting with friends or listening to the radio. Women, on the whole, are already in control of this technology, which makes it a hugely powerful tool for change.

In many countries, girls are already using and innovating with mobile phones. In Kenya, the cost of owning a mobile phone dropped by two-thirds in just 3 years (US$10 in 2009 to US$3 in 2011) and this trend is continuing.

Schoolgirls in Nairobi use mobiles to catch up on classes and collaborate on homework. Groups like AkiraChix in Kenya, Women in Technology Uganda and Asikana in Zambia are teaching girls how to create mobile phone applications, particularly using the Android platform where development costs are low.

Women such as Juliana Rotich from Ushadidi and Sheryl Sanderberg from Facebook are also providing crucial role models for girls wanting a science or technology career path. And the future looks good: Asikana has mapped over 20 women’s technology organisations in Africa already, and more are in the pipeline.

What is Plan doing?

The second light on the horizon is us: Plan. We’ve got years of experience of working with girls and women in communities, and we’re increasing our expertise and our voice in this area through initiatives such as Because I am a Girl.

We’ve also got a growing amount of programmes that are integrating technology within more traditional programmes in education, health and disaster response.

I’ll leave the last word with Asri, from Indonesia, who took part in the Because I am a Girl Fast Talk Initiative on ICT and girls in 2011:

“I want to change the paradigm which says that girls aren’t used to technology like computer engineering…Girls with tools are okay and technology isn’t built for boys only. I want the girls to know that they are able to be computer engineers too.”