Author: Linda Raftree, September 9 2015 - I had the chance to share some thoughts at UNESCO's recent Mobile Learning Week. My presentation explored some myths about girls empowerment and mobile learning and offered suggestions of things to think about when designing and implementing programs.

Ideas for the presentation were drawn from research and practitioner experiences (mine and those of others that I’ve talked with and worked with over the past few years). Here’s what I talked about below. Since realities are subjective and complex, and contexts differ immensely around the world, I’m putting these out mainly as discussion starters.

Some seem super obvious and some contradict each other (which may speak to the point that there is no universal truth!), so I’m curious to know what other people think…

Myth 1: Mobile as a stand-alone solution.

Reality: The mobile phone is just one part of the informational and cultural ecosystem. There is a lot of hype about mobile. I think as a sector we are mostly past the idea of mobile as a stand-alone solution, but in case not, it’s the first myth I’d challenge. There is not a lot that a mobile phone can do as a stand-alone tool to empower girls or improve their education and learning.

Things to consider: The mobile phone is the device that is most likely to already be in the hands of your target user - but the possibilities and channels don’t start and end with mobile phones. It’s important to think of the mobile phone as just one part of a much wider informational, social, cultural and educational ecosystem and see where it might fit in to support girls’ learning. It’s likely that mobile phones will be used more outside of the classroom than in – in my experience, I’ve found that schools often don’t allow mobiles to be brought into class. So, it’s more about integrating mobiles as a tool that supports rather than as the sole channel for learning and information sharing.

Myth 2: It’s the technology that’s mobile.

Reality: In most cases, the learner is mobile, too. This is one of the exciting things about technology and learning. It’s something I heard John Traxler say a few years ago, and I thought it was really smart. John said we should really be thinking about mobile learners, not just mobile technology. Learners access and share information in all kinds of ways, at different locations, using different devices or not using devices at all.

Things to consider: Rather than starting with the mobile phone, think about design based on a clear understanding of ‘digital repertoires’ - in other words, user behaviors or patterns that span places and devices based on factors like data capacity, cost, purpose. These repertoires will differ according to culture, sex, economic status, and availability of information points and sources. For example, maybe some girls use Google search to do homework at an Internet café but use their own phone or a borrowed phone for quick, short text reminders or questions to friends about schoolwork. Maybe other girls are not allowed to go to Internet cafés or they feel uncomfortable doing so, and they rely more on their mobile phone and their friends. This was the case in one community near Jakarta that I was in last month. One of the girls talked about her 15-year-old friend:

    “She’s too shy to go to the Internet shop…. Boys are always sitting out, calling you to ask ‘where are you going?’ or whistling. She feels too embarrassed to go into the shop because everyone will look at her.”

In a consultation conducted by Plan in 2011, girls in some countries said it was too dangerous to travel to the Internet café, especially at night. When men and boys watch porn and play video games in Internet cafes, girls tend to feel quite uncomfortable. Libraries, if available, may be places where girls go to access Internet because they feel safer. Girls may face reputation risk if they go too often to the Internet café. So in this case, girls may rely on phones.

In some parts of East and West Africa, however, girls with mobile phones may be accused of having ‘sugar daddies’ or selling sex for airtime or nice phones, so the phone also carries reputation risk. All of these situations impact on girls’ communication repertoires, and program designers need to take them into consideration. And perhaps most importantly, ‘girls’ are not a homogeneous group so we always need to unpack which girls, where, when, what, at what age, living where, with what kinds of social or cultural restrictions, etc.

Myth 3: Vulnerable girls don‘t have access to mobiles.

Reality: Many girls with phones are more vulnerable than we think, and more girls that we consider vulnerable are accessing mobiles. This is something that Colman Chamberlain from the Girl Effect’s mobile initiative pointed out. “We often hear that the most vulnerable girls don’t have access to mobile phones,” he says, “but this depends on how we understand and define vulnerability. Many girls with phones are vulnerable, and many vulnerable girls are starting to access mobile. This means we have a real chance to reach and engage with them.”

Things to consider: Age does normally play a role in access to mobiles. Younger girls from lower income families in most countries do not have their own mobile phones. Upper class children may, however, have phones. It really varies. Recent research (unpublished) found that it was common for 14-15 yr olds in Indonesia to have their own phones. In India and Bangladesh, that age was closer to 18. Girls who were no longer in school often had a mobile - some had even dropped out to get jobs in order to purchase a mobile. Sometimes married girls’ husbands purchase them a phone, yet it may be primarily to control and monitor their whereabouts.

When designing programs, it’s really important to take the time to learn whether the girls you’d like to work with own or borrow mobile phones and whether their access is controlled by someone else or if they are free to use a mobile however they’d like. Design for different scenarios and ‘user repertoires’ based on girls’ access and use habits. Don’t make assumptions on which girls access mobiles for what and how based on perceived vulnerability, do the research and you may be surprised when you get into the weeds.

Myth 4: Cost is the biggest barrier to girls’ mobile phone access and use.

Reality: Cost is a barrier, but perhaps not the biggest one. Clearly cost is still a big barrier for the poorest girls. But the unwillingness to invest in a girl’s access to mobile or to information and learning is linked to other aspects like a girl’s position in her family or society. Mobiles are also becoming cheaper, so the cost barrier has been reduced in some ways. Overall, compared to landlines, as Katie Ramsay at Plan Australia notes, mobile is cheaper and that opens up access to information for even the poorest families.

Research conducted this past year in India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, found that in some communities girls have much greater access than assumed, and cost was a lower barrier than originally thought. Parents and gatekeepers were actually a bigger barrier in some countries. For many of us this is a total no-brainer, but I still think it’s worth bringing up.

Things to consider: As already mentioned, the key when developing programs is to dig deep and talk with girls directly to understand and help them to overcome different barriers, whether those are personal, familiar, economic, societal or institutional.

In order to help get past these barriers, mobile-enabled programming or product/service offerings need to have real value to girls as well as their gatekeepers, so that girls’ participation in programs and use of mobiles is seen by gatekeepers as positive. This was shown clearly in a UNESCO girls’ literacy program in Pakistan, where 87% of parents changed from a negative opinion about girls using a mobile phone to a positive perspective by the end of the program, because they saw the utility of the phone for girls’ literacy.

It’s important to do work on educating and changing behaviors of parents. Katie Ramsay also notes that in places where men own the tech, there is a huge opportunity for targeting them to gain their support for girls’ education. So it’s worth re-thinking the role of mobiles in girl-focused programs, especially where girls’ access to mobile is low or controlled. The best use of mobiles for learning may not be ‘delivering content’ to girls via a mobile device. Instead it might be using mobile and other media to target gatekeepers to change their behavior and beliefs around girls’ education and girls’ empowerment.

Myth 5: Girls share their phones.

Reality: Phone sharing brings with it a challenging social power dynamic. Many people in ‘the West’ hold the romantic notion that people in ‘developing countries’ like to share everything and live communally. Now, I’m not saying that girls are not generous, but when it comes to girls and phones, we have not really seen a great desire to share.

In some of the unpublished research conducted in Asia (and previously referenced in this post), girls without phones said that they do borrow phones, often from family members or friends, but they don’t necessarily like doing so. They said that borrowing here and there just isn’t enough to do anything substantial on a phone. Girls described girls who do not have mobile phones as sad and unpopular. They drew girls with phones as happy, popular, and successful. Some girls also described girls with phones as stuck up and selfish and said that girls who have phones don’t share them with girls that don’t have phones.

    “A girl with a phone would look down on me, and show off what her phone does. She would let me hold it, but only because she would like to take it back from me again.” – Girl, 18, Dhaka

I was at a school in Cameroon last year, when a big fight broke out because one girl had taken another girl’s phone and thrown it in the toilet. The professor said that fighting over mobile phones was common among students. Phones had been prohibited at school in part to reduce conflicts, and sometimes students ratted each other out for having phones at school. This is not specifically a “mobile phone” problem, it’s a wealth or class or equity issue, but it manifests itself with phones because they are an asset that defines haves and have-nots.

Things to consider: Don’t assume it’s easy for girls to borrow phones. If you find that many of your targeted users for a mobile-enabled initiative are borrowers, then it’s important to design short, to-the-point options for them, because they may have only a few minutes at a time with a mobile. Girls may not share their phones unless there is some kind of incentive for doing so. If you are designing for borrowers, think about rapid communication in bursts, and don’t communicate about anything that would put a girl at social or reputation risk if the person she borrows the phone from should see it.

Myth 6: All girls (& all youth) are tech savvy.

Reality: Many girls are indeed tech savvy, but some are still behind the curve. In many places, girls with phones are way more tech savvy than their parents. And most young people around the world are pretty quick to pick up on technology. But girls’ level of savvy will obviously depend on what they have access to.

Girls I talked with in the urban slums areas of Jakarta were quite tech-adept and had Internet-ready phones, but they still only used Facebook and Google. They also mixed up ‘Facebook’ and ‘Google’ with ‘The Internet’ and did not use email. They were unfamiliar with the concept of an “app”. Girls knew how to search for jobs online (via Google), but they said they had trouble understanding how to fill out online forms to apply for those jobs. So regardless of a girl’s level of tech savvy, in this case, she was still missing certain skills and relevant online content that would have helped her get to the next level of job-seeking.

Things to consider: It’s really important to do your research to understand what technologies and platforms girls are familiar with and be sure to plan for how to engage girls with those that they are unfamiliar with. Basic literacy might also still be a huge issue among adolescent girls in some places.

Basically, the message here again is to avoid making assumptions, to do your research, and to remember that girls are not a homogeneous group. Market research techniques can be helpful to really start understanding nuances regarding which girls do what, where and how on a mobile device.

Myth 7: Girls don’t have time to use mobile phones.

Reality: You might be surprised by which girls find time to spend on a mobile phone. This again really depends on which girls, and where! Girls find the time to use mobile, even if it’s not at the always on-line levels that we find in places like the US and Europe, notes Colman from Girl Effect. Spending time in the communities you’re working with can allow you to find times that girls have free and uncontrolled access.

Jessica Heinzelman from DAI [Development Alternatives, Inc. - DAI Global] told us that in one project she was working on, they had assumed that girls in more traditional communities and rural geographies would have less access to mobiles. In reality, it was common for girls to be sent on errands with mobiles to places where there was connectivity to contact relatives on behalf of the family, leaving the girls with at least some alone time with the mobile.

Schoolgirls in the slum area of Jakarta that I worked in earlier this year said they checked their Facebook every day. Out of school urban girls checked at least a few times per week, and rural out of school girls also usually managed to borrow a phone to check Facebook quickly now and then.

Things to consider: I’m beating the drum again here about the importance of on-the-ground research and user testing to find out what is happening in a particular context. Alexandra Tyers from GSMA points out that user testing is really a critical piece of any girls and mobile learning effort, and that it can actually be done for a reasonable price. She notes that in her case, “Bangladesh user testing cost $5,000 USD for fifty tests in five different locations around the country. And yet the return on investment by making those necessary changes is likely to be large because making sure the product is right will ensure easy adoption and maximum uptake.”

Myth 8: Mobile phones can’t address girls’ real needs.

Reality: Mobile phones can help address girls’ real needs, but probably not as stand-alone devices, and maybe not as ‘content delivery’ channels. There is a lot of hype around mobile learning and mEducation, and as some presenters talked about at Mobile Learning Week, there is little evidence to help us know how to integrate mobiles in ways that could scale (where appropriate) and offer real results. I sometimes think this is because we are expecting mobile and ICTs in general to do more than they feasibly can.

Depending on the context and situation, where I have seen the greatest opportunity for mobiles is:

  • enabling girls to connect with peers and information
  • allowing girls more opportunities for voicing their opinions
  • linking girls to online support and services
  • linking girls with offline support and services.
  • helping organizations to track and monitor their programs (and hopefully then do a better job of adapting them to girls’ real needs).

Things to consider: It’s really important to think through what the best role for mobile is (if any role at all). Here is where you can (and should) be super creative. You may not get the biggest impact by involving girls as the end user. Rather, the best place might be aiming your mobile component at behavior change with gatekeepers. Or sending text messages that link a girl to a service or opportunity that lives offline. It might be getting feedback on the school system or using mobile to remind parents about school meetings.

Myth 9: Mobile phones are dangerous.

Reality: Many girls and women say a mobile helps them feel safer, more independent, and more successful. The 2011 Cherie Blair/GSMA study on women and mobiles noted that 93% of women said a mobile made them feel safer and 84% felt more independent. Tech can also offer a certain level of anonymity for girls that can be beneficial in some cases. “Tech is good for girls because they can be anonymous. If you go to the bank, everyone can see you’re a girl. But if you start a business online, they don’t know that you’re a girl, so you don’t have to deal with the stereotypes,” according to Tuulia Virha, formerly of Plan Finland. Parents may also see mobiles as a tool to help them keep their children safe.

Things to consider: Mobiles can help with an increased sense of security, safety and autonomy, depending on context and situation. However, and this is what I’ll say next, mobiles also bring risk with them, and most girls we talked to for our research were aware of obvious risks - meeting strangers, exposure to pornography, pedophiles and trafficking - but not so aware of other risks like privacy. They were also not very aware of how to reduce their risk levels. So in order to really reap the safety and empowerment rewards that mobiles can bring, initiatives need to find ways to improve girls’ digital literacy and digital safety. Data security is another issue, and organizations should develop responsible data policies so that they are not contributing to putting girls at risk.

And that brings us to the other side of the coin - the myth that mobiles make girls safer.

Myth 10: Mobiles make girls safer.

Reality: Mobiles can put girls at risk. That sense of being safer with a mobile in hand can be a false one, as I noted above. Dirk Slater, from Tactical Technology Collective noted, “A big issue of working with adolescent girls is their lack of awareness of how the information they share can be stored and used. It’s important to educate girls. Look at how much information you find out about a person through social media, and what does that mean about how much information someone else can find about them.”

Things to consider: Institutions should aim to mitigate risks and help to improve girls’ digital security and safety.

Girls face safety risks on mobile at a number of levels, including:

  • Content
  • Contact
  • Data privacy and security
  • Legal and political risk (in some places they may face backlash simply for seeking out an education)
  • Financial risk (spam, hacking, spending money they don’t have on airtime)
  • Reputation risk (if they participate on social networks or speak out)

It’s also key for organizations working with girls and mobile to develop ethical policies and procedures to mitigate risks at various levels.

And that’s that for the top 10 myths! Curious to know what you think about those, and if there are other myths you find in your work with girls, mobile and learning…

Click here to find this cross-posted blog on ICTWorks, and click here to find it originally published at Wait… What?.

Linda Raftree

Co-Founder, Kurante

Convener, Technology Salon NYC

Co-Founder, Regarding Humanity

twitter: @meowtree

Phone: +1 401 440 5432

Website: Linda Raftree's blog