In a primary school in rural Cambodia, 10-year-old Sophal whisks his fingers across a mobile device as new words and literacy lessons appear in his native language of Khmer.
Things are different now than at the start of the school year, when Sophal was often absent from school for extended periods. His parents, who plant and harvest rice fields owned by others, do not have regular income and are often so busy they have little time to help Sophal and his siblings with school and other activities. Absent from school for long periods, Sophal had missed the opportunity to gain basic reading and writing skills vital to his development and lifelong employment opportunities.
Now, following the intervention of a Literacy Coach supported by the Total Reading Approach for Children Plus (TRAC+) project, Sophal is regularly attending school and developing his reading and writing skills through traditional books and materials and the Aan Khmer (“Read Khmer”) app, developed by World Education Inc. through All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development’s (ACR GCD) Round 1 global competition.
“I don’t want to go away from school because I want to play this tablet with the study game that helps me improve my reading,” Sophal says. “I want to be able to play the same as my other friends. I also can play with other materials, too.”
TRAC+ is a scaled intervention of the initial TRAC project implemented in eight primary schools in two Cambodian provinces from 2012 to 2014. Based on TRAC’s promising results, World Vision International-Cambodia funded World Education Inc. to implement the scaled TRAC+ project to 138 primary schools in five provinces of Cambodia from 2014 to 2017.
Sophal was among hundreds of children who participated in TRAC+. His school’s literacy coach, supported by the project, visited his home and encouraged he and his parents on the benefits of education. Now, Sophal regularly attends school and receives support from the literacy coach, teachers and classmates to develop his reading skills. Sophal’s parents have also become more engaged.
“I am very happy to see that my son likes to go to school,” his mother says. “I now will also visit his school more often to talk to the teacher about Sophal’s progress, which is something I never did before [the TRAC+ project].”
The Aan Khmer app was one of only a few mobile solutions awarded under ACR GCD’s Round 1 global competition that sought to offer digital gaming to early grade students in low resource settings. ACR GCD also funded research on the value of the Aan Khmer mobile learning (m-learning) component of TRAC+. The research—conducted by the University of Western Australia and the Digital Learning for Development project of the Foundation for Information Technology Education and Development of the Philippines—was released May 21, 2018.
Results indicated that children in Grades 2 and 3 who self-reported making higher use of the Aan Khmer app scored significantly higher in some subtasks of the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) than children in schools with lower use of the app. Teachers and students also revealed positive views of TRAC+, including its m-learning component.
While findings were generally positive, they should be treated with caution due to the methodological limitations associated with the context. Further, implementation of m-learning was not always carried out as intended in schools, and several challenges were identified with implementation (i.e. staff training and peer tutoring processes) and the app’s design. As the children participating in the TRAC+ study also were from rural, resource-poor locations, an m-learning model for literacy is unsustainable at least for the next several years.
These challenges aside, the study makes significant contributions to the potential for m-learning to be implemented and scaled for early grade literacy in Cambodia. Researchers found the scalability of the project might be improved by implementing a responsive design for the app and increasing its availability through the Google Play store.
“Both scalability and sustainability might be improved by balancing investment in digital technologies with more investment in traditional analogue resources such as books,” the report states.