9 lessons for designing EdTech innovations for early grade literacy

9 lessons for designing EdTech innovations for early grade literacy
Two students use a tablet and headphones to use GraphoGame created by the Agora Center.

Two students play GraphoGame in ciNyanja on smartphones at schools in rural Zambia as part of an ACR GCD-funded project by Agora Center at the University of Jyväskylä.

As a spotter and innovation catalyst in education technology to improve child literacy in developing countries, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) is on the front lines of what’s new and next to improve outcomes in this space. While funding innovations to serve children around the world with early grade literacy materials and instruction is a noble goal, it’s not enough without a sound investment in research that provides future funders, implementers, and researchers a foundation of learnings for designing and implementing EdTech innovations.

That’s why ACR GCD—a partnership between the United States Agency for International Development, World Vision, and the Australian Government—made research a key pillar of its programming. 

The culmination of our learnings from 11 projects funded by ACR GCD since 2014 can be found in our report, Technology-Based Innovations to Improve Early Grade Reading Outcomes in Developing Countries. With the commitment of the organizations we funded and the support of research firm School-to-School International, extensive research on these 11 projects unveiled nine trends that set the stage for future innovators to improve early grade literacy outcomes for children around the globe:

  1. Funders should consider supporting technology-based projects that provide access to reading content in languages in which there is a shortage of print content. Many of our funded projects utilized technology to deliver reading materials to students in electronic formats in areas where children, schools, or families had little or no access to print materials. Further, for children who have low vision or are blind, using technology to produce reading materials at the school level has the potential to greatly impact reading gains, as many education systems do not have the capacity to produce sufficient learning materials for these students. Overall, leveraging technology to deliver reading materials appears to have been anecdotally and empirically beneficial to children.
  2. Further research could strengthen knowledge on how much literacy content should be offered to significantly and practically impact student reading outcomes. Each project offered different amounts of reading material to children; even within projects, children accessed different quantities of content. With an individualized login, technology offers the potential to track each child’s experience with electronic content, providing critical details on how much each child reads, how fast they read it, and which content was most popular. These data provide critical information that can be used to strengthen project design and better correlate both the quantity of content and user experience with content with reading outcomes.
  3. Implementers can mitigate barriers that impede reading skills development by leveraging technology’s ability to deliver an individualized learning experience. In many places where our projects were implemented, technology provided the opportunity for an individualized learning experience and the ability to track students’ progress. Given the many challenges to helping students learn to read, funders should continue to research ways individualized learning can impact student learning as well as experiment with better ways to track student usage of technology.
  4. Funders, implementers, and researchers should invest time to better understand reading benchmarks to contextualize observed reading gains. Across all projects, improvements in children’s reading skills were observed, most notably on the oral reading fluency and reading comprehension subtasks. However, it was not always clear if the improvements were enough to meaningfully contribute to students’ ability to become readers. Future funding for understanding reading skills benchmarks would help demonstrate whether projects are providing the amount of support needed to meaningfully impact children’s skills.
  5. In contexts in which technologies are not widespread, projects should consider incorporating ICT training, particularly for participating adults. Across projects, adults expressed challenges using or troubleshooting technologies, which sometimes limited their ability to provide a quality learning experience for themselves or students. Funders should look for projects that provide sufficient attention to reading development capacity building and training for adult participants.
  6. Sufficient time to develop, pilot, and refine technologies before implementation would be beneficial for projects that propose new and untested technological innovations. Several projects required extensions to stabilize new technologies before their roll-out. Nearly all innovators that developed original technologies expressed that there could be improvements to their innovations had there been more time for development and piloting before implementation. In the future, funders should consider extending timelines for projects that promote original technologies to ensure that innovations are developed and rolled out in a manner that provides impact and a quality user experience.
  7. Before creating new technologies, projects should assess whether existing technologies—particularly assistive technologies that support children who have low vision or are blind—could adequately address the literacy challenges in a specific context. A select number of awarded organizations chose to incorporate off-the-shelf technologies into their intervention model. In each case, these technologies were already developed and tested but had not been used in the intervention context prior to the project. In most cases, this helped grantees avoid challenges experienced by projects that chose to develop new technologies as part of their intervention. All the projects that supported students who have low vision or are blind used previously developed, tested, and widely available assistive technologies, which allowed the projects to focus on distribution of the technologies and training on their use. Funders should encourage technology-focused projects to critically evaluate existing technology options and how they address literacy needs prior to encouraging the development of new technologies.
  8. Implementers should take into consideration the limitations of existing ICT infrastructure in target areas and the options for distributing content to users when selecting their technologies. Many projects faced challenges related to intermittent or nonexistent internet connectivity, large software applications that exceeded the hardware and software capacity, and limited ability for users to receive new or updated literacy content in low-bandwidth contexts. Although the grantees adapted to these challenges, in some cases creating offline options for applications or designing a content distribution plan, these modifications required time and financial resources from the project. Innovators that seek to use technology to deliver literacy content to students should adequately assess the ICT infrastructure in the targeted implementation areas, specifically internet connectivity, when designing their projects.
  9. Funders should consider providing ample time and budget to allow innovators and researchers to explore what works and what does not during pilot projects. Each of our projects collected significant amounts of data through measurement and evaluation (M&E) tools and Early Grade Reading Assessments (EGRA), although better measurement of fidelity of implementation would have been beneficial to fully understand where projects were succeeding or experiencing major challenges in being implemented as intended. Funders may want to consider a graduated approach when funding pilot projects. This would allow research during the initial phase of the projects to focus on measuring implementation and technology use, and student learning outcomes to be measured after the approach has been stabilized. Further, funders should allot sufficient time and financial resources for M&E and research for each project, especially before project start-up.

These recommendations are part of ACR GCD’s report, Technology-Based Innovations to Improve Early Grade Reading Outcomes in Developing Countries, available now.