We’ve been told smartphones will save education—and even better, on the cheap. From hackathons for refugee students to helping women in developing countries earn university degrees, we’ve been sold the idea that technology is the key to making higher learning equitable and accessible to everyone.
But is mobile education snake oil?
Thanks to AI, big data, and automation, we’re on the edge of an education revolution. But due to gender barriers as old as time, it’s one that risks leaving the next generation of women behind. Mobile education holds tremendous promise for millions ready to learn—but only if we solve some social and infrastructure problems first.
To start, we could really use a mobile phone
Women globally aren’t afforded the same access to technology as men. Sure, there’s been progress: 830 million young people are now online, but there’s still a ways to go. Today, over half the world’s population is still offline, with global internet penetration only slated to break 50% by mid 2019.
This is best shown through a viral photo of Ghanian teacher Richard Akoto. In spite of the fact that the school he teaches at two and half hours outside of Kumsai doesn’t have a computer, its students are expected to pass a national exam to advance to high school—and computer literacy is part of that test. Undeterred, Akoto draws the Windows interface on a blackboard in an act of creativity and commitment to his students.
Women are also waiting to go from analog to online. According to the International Telecommunication Union, since 2013, the gender gap in internet usage narrowed overall globally. But when you dig into regional data, it shows that connectivity is improving mostly in just some places, for just some people: men.
In low- and middle-income countries around the world like Pakistan and Uganda, over 1.2 billion women still do not use mobile internet. The number of women using the internet globally is 25% lower than men, and only one out of seven women use the internet at all. In fact, the only region where women are using the internet at a higher rate than men is the Americas, where there also happens to be a correlation in gender parity in college education.
Online inequality is caused by offline problems
So why are more men than women using the internet in two-thirds of countries? It turns out it’s hard to get online if you’re a young woman: Cost, stereotypes, and family concerns about online harassment block young women from using tech and accessing opportunities. In this sense, the barrier to getting online isn’t the newest app or smartphone, it’s usually the most low-tech barrier imaginable: your family or community.
In India, where women make up only 29% of internet users, community leaders in rural Rajasthan ban girls from social media due to their gender. A village in Uttar Pradesh levies Luddite-style fines on any unmarried girls found to be using mobile phones outside of their homes (or wearing jeans). In Sri Lanka, where only a third of adolescent mobile internet users are girls, parents freely admitted to researchers that they were the ones restricting use, often citing safety.
It’s not the device that’s the challenge—it’s systemic gender and educational issues that any tech will need to take on to succeed. When women in Nigeria were asked why they didn’t own a mobile phone, 40% said the barrier wasn’t money, but literacy. This creates a digital chicken-and-the-egg scenario, where women need mobile technology to gain access to an education, but they can’t use said technology unless they’ve already been educated.
To help solve this issue, we need to look to traditional school systems.
A woman’s place is in the (mobile) classroom
Women are still fighting for their seat in class, whether online or in real life. Although the world has made significant progress on gender parity in education in recent decades, we still haven’t achieved equality at the tertiary level, which is where women are most likely to get the training and credentials needed for high-paying jobs. (And there are still huge disparities between regions: While 58% of high-income countries have achieved gender parity in lower secondary education, only 16% of low-income countries have.)
This significantly impacts building a pipeline of young women who could someday become college students, whether online or in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Even if young women are lucky enough to access a classroom, they often aren’t learning the skills that will empower them to be globally competitive—or even achieve full literacy and numeracy. This “learning crisis” in global education impacts the poorest and most at-risk girls the most, widening the existing opportunity gap and leaving them even further behind.
For the few women that do make it to college, they make up just 35% of students enrolled in higher-education STEM subjects, which will lead them to the jobs at the center of the new global digital economy. Women also drop out of college at disproportionate rates to men, meaning that by graduation day, women make up only 3% of information, computer, and technology (ICT) graduates globally.
Even then, education is not enough to eradicate inequality. If a young woman is literate, manages to get a working smartphone, and her family is supportive, there’s still one more barrier to studying for that college degree online: paying not for her classes, but for her data.
So I have my phone—now what?
Remember when streaming Netflix from your phone could have cost more than your rent because of how expensive data was? Imagine being a poor female student in rural Afghanistan trying to download a semester’s worth of video content for her online college course.
Simply having access to hardware doesn’t mean people can use it. According to research released last month by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, even just 1GB of mobile data is not affordable for more than 2.3 billion people globally. In some countries, 1GB can cost as much as 20% of the average monthly income.
This is tech saviorism gone awry. We cannot simply provide regions with the tools to make fire if we don’t also provide them with a flint.
Global nonprofits like Nethope are doing admirable work to expand basic internet access and make it more affordable, but the problem is much bigger that one passionate group of NGO tech geeks. Relying on corporate programs like Facebook’s recently discontinued Free Basics service means some nations, like Myanmar, consider Facebook to essentially be the internet, with sometimes disastrous consequences.
Another example of misguided Western-centered design for developing country implementation has come to be known as “tech dumping”. An evaluation of darling-turned-disaster One Laptop per Child showed children who received computers had no gains in learning, motivation, or time spent on studies. In the words of The Economist: “Giving a child a computer does not seem to turn him or her into a future Bill Gates—indeed it does not accomplish anything in particular.” In addition, OECD research has shown “little if any effects” from simply increasing access to educational hardware and software in schools without also focusing on offline solutions that support it.
Today, there’s cause for hope in mobile education, but that hope isn’t quite measurable yet. Many promising ed-tech projects are not yet at scale or haven’t been in progress long enough to run comprehensive trials. And it’s here that international donors will need to balance needed investment in visionary projects and ensuring funding is linked to measurable outcomes and impact.
To solve access and impact challenges, governments, the private sector, multilateral institutions, and civil society will need to put digital policies at the center of international development and economic growth. This is an area where tech is often misunderstood or ignored entirely—especially for girls and women.
What works and measuring more of it
So what does work in ed tech for girls and women? Instead of perpetuating the cult of the heroic social entrepreneur, developing country partners need to be at the center of true systems entrepreneurship that includes—and goes beyond—technology.
To make mobile education succeed across all genders, it turns out the best places to focus are teachers, curriculum and, the classroom environment. MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation worked with the Indian Institute of Management to develop a framework to support teachers, parents, developers, and policymakers in making better decisions about how and when to implement technology to help educate students globally. Their astonishing findings? That school budgets, teacher training, technical infrastructure, and evaluation are some of the most important variables, not the technology itself.
For the full promise of mobile education to be realized, it will take a healthy dose of humility, alongside ambitious moonshot development projects. Expanded internet access and better platforms are needed, but they will not be sufficient to ensure girls and women can overcome systemic barriers to learning.
Mobile education can—and must—succeed for the millions of young women waiting to achieve their potential. But it can only do so if female students in developing countries receive at least the same level of attention that is dedicated to dating-app development in the global north.
We will best realize ed tech’s future potential by investing in start-up founders in developing countries and women developers, and then listening to them. Because the next Steve Jobs? She’s in Africa, ready to learn.