What happens when secondary school girls in Nairobi are introduced to a mobile learning tool?

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!




  1. juddie
    April 15, 2014 / 7:35 am

    Wonderful work you have their Girl.Lets work on sustaining the interest that is what will take us miles.
    So far good work going on.

  2. Macharia
    April 17, 2014 / 5:58 am

    This is an exciting task. I am based in Nairobi and I would be interested in doing an evaluation of the success of this programme. Is that within the scope of your current study?

    • Ronda Zelezny-Green
      April 17, 2014 / 8:05 am

      Hello! Thanks so much for your feedback and for your willingness to help. I am actually responsible for doing an evaluation as the final phase of this action research project. Unfortunately, the nature of the PhD (and earning the PhD) necessitates that I perform this work myself. However, I would be willing to share the findings with you once they’re all completed. Also, I am happy to put you in touch with other digital education project leaders in Kenya that would love your help with evaluation! Just let me know. Thanks again for writing!

      • mercyline daniel
        May 13, 2016 / 6:15 am

        My passion towards research and evaluation to the youth ongoing education in today’s world

  3. Rebekah
    April 17, 2014 / 5:02 pm

    Great blog Ronda, really look forward to learning about your progress as the pilot continues, very exciting project and will be a great example in the field for girls-specific project!
    I know you’ll be tracking their usage rates, and stats that you’ll get from BiNu throughout the project period, I also wondered if you plan to do a quasi-experimental design and integrate a control group and do any sort of pre/post test to try to ascertain if there are any differences between treatment and control groups in terms of reading skills? I’m not sure how long the pilot will run to know if it’s long enough to show changes, but would be interesting to see if possible (if for ex there’s another class of girls at the same school in the same grade that could be a close match). You could use an open source tool to get around having to create one. Just a thought from your M&E minded friend 😉

    • Ronda Zelezny-Green
      April 17, 2014 / 8:16 pm

      Hi Rebekah, thanks so much for the comments! It is encouraging to get this positive feedback.

      For the scope of this project, I do not plan to do a quasi-experimental design in large part because my focus is not on whether or not they improve their reading skills as a result of being introduced to Worldreader and biNu. During my past fieldwork periods I was more concerned with understanding the girls’ needs during after-school hours and access to/possession of books was a recurring theme. In my mind, it is one thing to say that you want that, but when presented with a way to get that, how likely would they be to pursue the opportunity, especially if it comes on a mobile?

      My main research question is: “What happens when secondary school girls are introduced to an educational tool available on mobile phones?” I ask this because I cannot presuppose that they will think this is a good solution and even if they do, will they use it and will it become a helpful tool, possibly even habit, to them? I am using the Capability Approach as a research framework so in essence I am striving to see if this tools will help the girls lead the lives they have reason to value; in that spirit, none of the girls really cared about improving their reading skills so much as reading for pleasure, reading to help them prepare for exams, or reading so that they don’t become “idle.” So, those are the sort of things that I will be measuring in terms of my evaluation at the terms of the research period and compare it to pre-intervention data gathered.

      If you have any M&E ideas in this vein, please let me know because I am currently still mapping out the best approach to take!

  4. Rebekah
    April 23, 2014 / 7:40 pm

    Hi Ronda,
    Sorry for the delay getting back to you. Completely understood. Your research question is a bit of a different angle than I was imagining, but will be interesting to see what findings you come away with. Yes, Capability and Sen/Nussbaum;) Especially given that its capability approach, I agree that it should be centered around what the girls value- which if I understand correctly is reading to help them prepare for exams, for pleasure, and so they don’t become “idle”. This still makes me think that there is a missing piece, without which there is an assumption that giving them content on a mobile is consumed, processed, and understood in exactly the same way as content from a book. For example, if they are wanting to read to help them prepare for exams (I don’t know what kind of exams we’re talking about), this means they must be able to read with a certain level of comprehension. Can they do this in the same way from the mobile phone? Just measuring if they use the mobile phone won’t tell you this. This is my line of thinking/reasoning. May be more complex than what you need to do for your research question, but wanted to explain the motivation 😉
    Happy to help in any way I can re: M&E, just let me know!

  5. Ronda Zelezny-Green
    April 23, 2014 / 7:55 pm

    Hi Rebekah, I am not interested at all in how they use a mobile for reading as opposed to a book. At least, not for this project. The reason is because I am not assuming that “mobile learning” is going to “work” in this case. Rather, my focus is whether or not the girls believe it has helped them reach the goals that they have articulated to me, whether they actually use it, how they perceive it… more focusing on the person. It is not just about access to books either. On the contrary, we have also done small activities about how to use other resources in biNu to help them reach their personal learning goals. You still have your formal M&E hat on, but I am not even at that stage. =) That would be like the next level of research. What I care about most for this particular project is the people and how they use (or not) the mobile phone once they have been introduced to certain features of it… definitely not a reading specialist here! lol

  6. mercyline daniel
    May 13, 2016 / 6:18 am

    mobile would not be the best because later may turn to be a draw back of education due to negative influence

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