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:

In this issue, we are delighted to spotlight a friend and respected academic colleague, Dr Mmaki Jantjies. Mmaki is a University of Warwick graduate who developed innovative software as part of her doctoral studies to help make multilingual STEM mobile learning possible. She is now the Information Systems Department Head at North-West University in South Africa. In this interview, she shares insights into her work in mobile learning, as well as career advice for other women who may be considering a career in computer science. She’s a Woman in Mobile we admire!

G&M Newsletter: What led you to study computer science?
Mmaki: I studied it in high school as a subject. I was interested in it because there were a lot of opportunities in this area.

G&M Newsletter: Can you tell us a bit about your PhD research?

Mmaki: I was looking at a framework that could be used by other computer scientists to develop software for use in educational environments. Many computer scientists tend not to know how to do this. I wanted to explore how we could improve education through the use of mobile devices in multilingual contexts in STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

mmaki visual

      Data from Mmaki’s research

One of the things that I found is that in most developing countries, children learn in their third, fourth and fifth language. English in South Africa is like the third, fourth or fifth language for these children. So most of the time they judge [their responses to school assignments] based on the English language rather than the actual content that they are responding to because of the language barrier. Because children have so much access to mobile phones as opposed to computers, I thought: “Why don’t we tap into the availability of mobile phones?” Then they might be able to use their home language in addition to English.

G&M Newsletter: Given that your PhD focused on mobile learning, can you tell us if you have a favorite mobile learning app?

Mmaki: I can say my favorites are the ones that I developed! I thought that I tailored the apps to a situation that was unique in a context that was unique. I found that when I was working with the teachers [to introduce and use the apps in class], they actually wanted to implement them because South Africa is moving towards a paperless classroom. Also, I prefer my apps because they are multilingual and we as South Africans value that – content that is available in our home language because of what we are trying to push with multilingualism, because we come from a history of having to use only one language. We are trying to embrace multiple languages and keep them alive.

G&M Newsletter: Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

Mmaki: Right now, in the department I work in, we are trying to re-position our research area. So, one of the things I am going to get engaged with with my students is how to improve the effective use of mobile learning and ICTs in schools in South Africa. I also want to support research initiatives that deal with anything related to ICT supporting women. Finally, working on developing applications that can support teachers and children in schools for the purpose of learning STEM-related subjects.

M-Thuto, a mobile learning app Dr Jantjies developed

M-Thuto, a mobile learning app Dr Jantjies developed

G&M Newsletter: What advice do you have for other women who are interested in pursuing a career in mobile technology?

Mmaki: Start with the small things before actually going on to study technology. I know someone who still uses diaries to keep records – I mean it’s a good thing – but if you want to move into the field of technology, start with yourself. I think that you cannot motivate other people to use technology to make their lives easier if you’re not using it to make your own life easier.

G&M Newsletter: Thank you so much for your time!

To find out more about Dr Mmaki Jantjies, please visit her page on the University of Warwick.

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.