It’s difficult to fathom that in our global interconnected world of information and technological advances, nearly a quarter of a billion children are not learning basic literacy and numeracy skills—whether in school or not. This mass learning deficit poses one of the world’s most daunting challenges, and yet seems ripe for technology-enabled solutions.
Literacy represents the foundation for achieving our highest potential as humans. Being literate means better health, it opens doors to employment, and perhaps most importantly, enables safer and more stable societies. Without access to literacy, these children face a lifetime of limited educational progress, and, therefore, limited economic and social advancement opportunities.
For the past six years, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) a partnership of the United States Agency for International Development, World Vision, and the Australian Government, has fostered the development of innovations that can increase reading outcomes for children in developing countries. Applying innovation for literacy and numeracy applications can happen in many ways. Creating resources in languages children express and understand is one way we are seeking to alter their trajectory. Developing practices that increase family and community involvement and engagement in children’s learning is another.
ACR GCD also believes that utilizing technology to increase childhood literacy can offer new solutions to reach the greatest number of children. Today, nearly half (47%)1 of the world’s population has access to the internet; 84% live in an area where mobile-broadband is available.2 In many cases, the sole remaining barrier to access is an affordable internet-enabled device. With the cost of computers falling dramatically over the past 20 years, it is likely we will soon reach a point where almost every person on earth can access this life-changing technology. Thus, affordable educational software and systems that can be accessible via the web will offer resources and hope to millions. And many resources can be made to work offline, so the benefits are still available if internet service is not available or stable.
While ACR GCD has promoted the development of technology-based approaches for children at risk of not having the opportunity or resources to learn to read, another of our priority areas that is ripe for innovation is supporting literacy applications for children with disabilities. In many cases, these children live in communities with schools that lack sufficient resources or expertise to meet their needs, causing a disproportionate number of them to fall behind their peers or be excluded from education opportunities. During the past six years, we’ve learned that technology can be an effective way to level the playing field and offer these children access to learning so they can develop to their highest potential.
In Pune, India, for example, very few accessible reading materials were available for children who are blind/low vision. To address this challenge, we funded a pilot project implemented by Benetech that paired braille reading materials with human- narrated audio content in Marathi (the primary spoken language in the Maharashtra region); the content could be played on low-cost audio devices called DAISY players. Students were also visited weekly by a story auntie/uncle who read to them and provided reading support. This program showcased how providing multi-modal educational content in languages children express and understand can improve outcomes for students who are blind or low vision.
In the Philippines, another literacy innovation was applied through a project called Reading Beyond Sight implemented by Resources for the Blind. Even though approximately 3,000 students who are blind/low vision in the Philippines were enrolled in inclusive education programs, none of the programs made supplemental reading materials available in an accessible format. Our ACD GCD grant spurred the development of more than 500 volumes of online reading materials and lessons for students who are blind/low vision, as well as the provision of assistive technologies and training to the intervention schools and parents to support these students. An independent evaluation of the project using the first-ever Early Grade Reading Assessment in braille found students with access to the materials created through the project experienced more than 100% gains in literacy scores.*
Innovation can improve education for students with other challenges, such as hearing disabilities. Even in countries with a robust and well-documented sign language, many communities still have limited access to sign language resources. Family awareness, educational resources, community engagement, and learning tools are also often limited or lacking. To optimize language and literacy outcomes for children who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind (DHHDB), they must have access—the earlier the better—to the local sign language, a supportive community with adult role models from the deaf community, and skilled educators fluent in the local sign language. The more of these elements that are made available (e.g., sign language, adult role models, skilled and fluent educators), the more effective the solution will be in providing an inclusive, holistic, and successful approach to sign language and literacy.
As in many other countries, students in Morocco are facing these challenges. Compounding that, many Moroccan teachers who work with these children have few resources to support their preparation of bilingual learning materials that facilitate the learning of Moroccan Sign Language (MSL) and Modern Standard Arabic. In this case, ACR GCD funded an innovative educational software solution that supports teachers’ efforts to create sign language-enabled Arabic content. Developed by the Institute for Disabilities Research and Training and École Nationale Supérieure Des Mines De Rabat, MSL Clip and Create enables users to access a dictionary containing 3,000 MSL graphics (representing 5,500 words in Modern Standard Arabic), video clips, and supporting concept graphics to easily create and publish MSL-supported educational materials. The software is revolutionizing the way teachers create MSL instructional materials, while significantly increasing the amount, type, and quality of such materials.
While these projects have had significant impact, we recognize that more innovation solutions are needed. To that end, later this year, ACR GCD intends to launch another competition, seeking technology-based literacy interventions for children in the deaf community in low-resource contexts. We look forward to seeing what innovative solutions will be proposed from this global call and, most important, the impact these new solutions can have to help ensure all children learn to read.