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Ronda Zelezny-Green, Royal Holloway, University of London

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Mark Gaved
27 February 2015

Mobile phones are growing in prevalence throughout Africa as costs of ownership decline.  As this technology spreads, so does the ability of people to appropriate mobile phones for new uses to meet their needs.  While teaching in Equatorial Guinea and Madagascar, I learned about the power of mobile phones by paying attention to people I met. I observed girls using mobiles in a number of novel ways such as devising signals to send messages without spending credit; young women also used mobiles to learn.


Barriers to school attendance, such as a lack of sanitary napkins, illness and unreliable or untimely transport prevent some learners in Kenya – particularly girls – from regularly attending secondary school.  Additionally, once they begin their secondary education, girls drop out of school earlier and in larger numbers than boys.  As part of my MSc program, I spent the summer of 2012 doing fieldwork in Nairobi.  I found that when secondary school girls at the research site did not attend school, their academic performance suffered, especially since they did not always have the educational materials they needed at home to perform their best in their studies. [This work in a dissertation titled Gendered Mobility and Social Shaping of Mobile Phones: Perspectives from Secondary School Girls in Nairobi, part of which was published in the Gender & Development journal in Spring 2014.]  


Yet, I also discovered that some girls resourcefully used mobiles at home to bridge the gap between themselves and the classroom content before getting additional support from teachers when they returned to school: In some cases, girls who had been absent from school called or texted classmates to ask about lessons or homework they had missed.  Other girls used Internet-enabled mobiles to “google” and read information when textbooks were left in their desks.  Studies from various countries in Africa have shown that people can use mobiles in a variety of ways to learn at home, for example, by providing access to reading material, resources such as Wikipedia (free mobile access is available in Kenya for some users), or virtual access to people who can call and/or text learners for tutoring sessions.  At my research site, innovative and educational mobile use originated from the girls in response to their challenging circumstances to access education and educational materials on a consistent basis – challenges not always shared by their male counterparts. 

My PhD research project was inspired by these students’ initiative and so sought to explore what happens when girls at a secondary school in Kenya were introduced to an educational app on their mobile phones that helped them access books that were both formal and informal learning in nature. This action research was informed by the capability approach (Sen, 1999) to education and analysed using the Choice Framework (Kleine, 2013). It is anticipated that this research will make contributions to mobile learning in the areas of gender, action research, equity and sustainability.

As I enter the final year of research for my PhD, it has become increasingly important for me to be aware of other researchers’ work in mobile learning given that this field evolves rapidly. I believe that this workshop will facilitate access to a unique confluence of researchers with a wide-ranging body of work in mobile learning that will help me better structure my own study in dissertation form. Previously, I attended the IAmLearn conference in 2012. While there I sat in on the early career researcher session and watched presentations from people finishing their doctorates. The feedback they received from more experienced academics in the audience was both insightful and in some cases helpful in clarifying emerging concepts. I believe that I am at the stage with my work where having third party feedback will enable me to think more objectively about my research since I was deeply embedded in my research context and have had difficulty viewing my research and its findings as an outsider might.

Perhaps the most important factor relating to both my motivation to attend the workshop and my professional development needs are the context of the workshop itself. Current geopolitical events indicate that the Eurasia region is going through a great state of change and access to education is increasingly crucial in order to help speed the pace of socioeconomic development in these countries. Mobile learning could be a great tool here, but needs to be understood within its context of use (Kazakhstan) before its benefits can be gleaned with certainty.

For example, according to the World Bank, at least 42% of all Kazakh people live in relative poverty for a country at its development level. It will be important to understand the roles that mobile plays in the lives of Kazakh people, as well as to learn how much of an average household’s disposable income goes towards mobile services and ownership. I suspect that there will be a few parallels that can be drawn from my research experience in Kenya as it relates to how mobile phones are constructed in the lives of Kazakh people. Related to understanding mobile use and ownership in Kazakh among the majority of the population is the fact that, according to UNESCO, in 2011 Kazakhstan was at the top of the rankings for countries on the “Education for All Development Index.” I am quite curious to learn how this dramatic change was achieved and what role, if any, mobile learning might have played in this change. I think it might provide me with quite insightful revelations that might be applied to my research context in Kenya, a country that has struggled with achieving gender parity in education, ubiquitous levels of adult literacy and universal access to primary school.

 Overall, this workshop will contribute to my professional development needs on multiple fronts and provide me with an education in a new mobile learning context that I could not readily get elsewhere.

A hallmark of my career in education has been exploring the use of technology and innovative teaching techniques in low resource settings, including places with variable access to internet connectivity. Then, using this experience I have published academic papers and blog posts related to my learnings so that others might draw a benefit. While I have experience in a diverse range of settings, my work in Eurasian contexts is lacking. Participating in this workshop would help me greatly as a professional by providing me with the opportunity to build knowledge of the Kazakh (mobile) learning context through structured intercultural interactions. Furthermore, being able to engage in knowledge exchange with other teachers and early career researchers will help me keep up-to-date with the “state of the art” in mobile learning and any emerging approaches and paradigms.

On a personal level, I know that many Kazakh people may not have had the opportunity to interact with many ethnically diverse populations. As a Black American woman, I offer an element of difference that should help positively reshape stereotypes between American and Kazakh cultures while at the same time presenting the image of a black person not readily found in the media. Based on my experience in South Korea, where I was the first black person many of my students had ever met, I am certain my presence can be a transformative experience in and of itself for the Kazakh researchers/teachers present. Also, given the diverse contexts that I have engaged in mobile learning research and practice, this will provide a wealth of information to be shared and unpacked together with other research participants.

Although I have not travelled much in Eurasia, I have long been curious about the region and so would view my participation as personally satisfying as well for my wanderlust.

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