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 our first “Woman in Mobile Spotlight,” we featured a computer scientist who created multilingual mobile-based STEM learning tools. In this edition we are proud to feature a woman whose skills in mobile policy were first honed while working for former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Angela Baker, Senior Manager for Qualcomm® Wireless Reach™, shares with us how she leveraged her education in international relations to help shape an exciting career in tech, which includes providing government guidance for mobile health and mobile learning initiatives worldwide. We think she’s amazing because how many people can say they have contributed to improving maternal health in Morocco with mobile ultrasounds?! 

How did you get into the mobile industry?

My background is primarily in politics. I worked on political campaigns and in government for 10 years. In 2008, I worked for Secretary Clinton on her presidential campaign.  An opportunity opened up about two years later to work for Secretary Clinton at the U.S. State Department in her Innovation and Technology Office – an office she created when she came in as Secretary. It, was a small office, but she was making a big push for the use of technology in diplomacy. I came on board to do planning and project management, and that was when I became really interested in technology. That was in 2011 and during my time there, we did a lot of cool things, like work on internet freedom and building the capacity of NGOs through the use of technology in a program called TechCamp. […]. I co-led a technology delegation to Brazil, which included a woman from Qualcomm with whom I really hit it off. When I decided to leave the State Department in 2012, I reconnected with my Qualcomm contact, who happened to be hiring for a senior position on the Wireless Reach team, which was very serendipitous.

Coming from a non-traditional mobile industry background, how does what you studied apply to what you’re doing now with Qualcomm?

Wireless Reach is a strategic corporate social responsibility program (CSR).  It’s unique to other CSR programs, as we’re housed in the Government Affairs division. A lot of our programs are done in conjunction with foreign governments because we’re funding projects around the globe in the areas of education, health, entrepreneurship, public safety and the environment. For the most part, those are issues in which governments are interested. My Bachelor’s degree is in International Relations and my Master’s degree is in International Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

For my Master’s, I studied about the effect of conflict on women, and now I oversee the mWomen vertical at Qualcomm, which focuses on women and mobile.  My background and experience are helpful, because when working with different governments, we believe mobile can have a positive impact on the economic and educational issues they are facing. I think there’s a big tie-in to the traditional path of study I took to the work I am doing now.

Do you have a favorite project that you’re working on at Qualcomm?

We have a really great program in Morocco where we trained ultrasound technicians to take ultrasounds, and transmit the images over the 3G network. This enables doctors or ultrasound technicians in rural areas to get second opinions on images in a faster, more cost efficient way. It started as an effort to help prevent placenta previa which is a fairly common condition in pregnancy, but because it often goes untreated, it results in maternal health problems. Angela BakerThe only way to detect those issues are with an ultrasound. We ran the first trial in a few rural areas of Morocco. There were a number of successes that came from it, the main one being that the amount of time to share ultrasound images and to get a diagnosis significantly decreased. Because of the success, the Government of Morocco has agreed to scale the project to ten health clinics around Rabat and eventually nationally over the next few years.

What is your favorite mobile learning app, one that you use yourself?

I use a lot of social media to get access to information. I don’t push a lot out on Twitter but it’s where I go for news and information and I follow a lot of mobile leaders. Snapchat is sort of growing in that area and people are sharing information on that platform.

What advice do you have for other women who might be interested in pursuing a career in mobile technology?

We’re trying to do a lot of work at Qualcomm to help build the pipeline of girls and women who study STEM. We’re trying to focus early on because research has shown that girls start to lose interest around middle school.]. For girls and women interested in mobile tech, I would say that there are a lot of real world applications. We have this preconceived idea of an engineer or a coder, sitting in a room, crunching numbers all day or reading lines of code. I love my job because we’re really looking at how we can leverage the benefits of mobile for social good. If you are a girl or a woman and you want to change the world, or you want to help women and girls, the mobile device is going to be the way to do that. What better time to study mobile technology than now?

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.”

In July 2013, The Economist spotlighted the seemingly “surprising” statistic that approximately 35% of tech entrepreneurs in Western Asia are women, which supposedly outstrips that of entrepreneurs who are women in places like North America and Europe. Many on the Internet have said their surprise stems from the [mis]conception that women in Western countries are “less oppressed” than their Western Asian counterparts, and so they should perform better in this area. 

But I think people really shouldn’t be surprised. As the old adage goes, “adversity breeds success.” A number of women in Western Asia think that they may be even better prepared for the rough and tumble tech entrepreneurship world not only because of high rates of tertiary education completion in the region, but also because they are skilled at forging partnerships and compromises with the managerial skills developed in the country contexts they live in.



Here’s five reasons why I think we need to jettison the surprise and start to celebrate the success of Western Asian women in tech entrepreneurship:

1. Success anywhere for women in tech is success for us all.

2. Especially in the wealthier countries of Western Asia, imagine the potential if ventures [co-]generated by women were able to gain access to funding that made their ideas a reality! What innovations might await us?

3. For women in more conservative areas of Western Asia, the ability to gain virtual mobility through remote working is a nascent, and possibly transformative, avenue for them to make further contributions to their societies.

4. Frankly, hearing something like this from a region that is somewhat under-discussed in ICT4D is like a breath of fresh air. Is Latin America next on the move?

5. The inspiration to young girls in Western Asia that undoubtedly comes from seeing their female compatriots succeed in an area that they may not have previously believed was open to them.