Adapting open source solutions to unlock literacy for more children

All Children Reading’s investment in open source Arabic literacy app yields dozens of translations by nonprofit Curious Learning.

Adapting open source solutions to unlock literacy for more children

Stephanie Gottwald was in Ethiopia in 2014 when she discovered the power of education technology to positively influence the learning of children who lacked access to school. 

Syrian refugee children play the Feed the Monster Arabic literacy app, sourced through the EduApp4Syria competition. Photo credit: Norad.

Syrian refugee children play the Feed the Monster Arabic literacy app, sourced through the EduApp4Syria competition. Photo credit: Norad.

Then a researcher at Tufts University, Gottwald was working with fellow MIT researcher Tinsley Galyean to assess the impact of tablets pre-loaded with curated literacy apps on children’s learning across two communities in Ethiopia. 

“What we found was astounding: These kids were learning in a tough environment, and their only access to learning was through tablets and apps, none of which were in their home language of Oromo,” Gottwald says. “Yet even with all those barriers, we discovered the kids were learning about as much as kids in a well-resourced preschool or kindergarten in a well-developed country.”

Similar follow-on projects in South Africa, Uganda, India, Peru and rural areas of the United States provided greater validation of Gottwald and Galyean’s initial research, prompting the duo to question whether better quality apps in children’s local languages would yield even greater learning outcomes. 

That question spurred Gottwald and Galyean to launch the nonprofit Curious Learning in 2014, with a mission to find quality, open source learning content that could be adapted to local languages and contexts. In the process of this review, Curious Learning discovered Feed the Monster, an Arabic literacy app funded through All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation’s (Norad) EduApp4Syria prize. Research on Feed the Monster found improved reading gains and psychosocial wellbeing among out-of-school Syrian refugee children who used the app. 

“Feed the Monster had all of this wonderful investment in terms of design, being open source, and all of the audio and video assets being Creative Commons license,” Gottwald says. “This created a unique opportunity for us to take Feed the Monster to the next level – to localize it to as many languages as we could.”

Curious Learning has since adapted Feed the Monster into 47 languages. Those apps, available on the Google Play store, have been downloaded 90,000 times, even in the absence of any coordinated marketing or advertising efforts. Gottwald says plans are in place to ramp up marketing and distribution of the localized apps in 2020 to significantly increase app use in their respective regions. 

The nonprofit also created the “Guide for Creating Localized Literacy Apps,” intended to help anyone interested in learning about reading science, literacy research, and app design. “We had no intention of localizing Feed the Monster to every possible language on earth,” Gottwald says. “But we wanted to prove that it’s inexpensive and doable and doesn’t require big publishers. Small teams can do it on their own.” 

Curious Learning is also working on a partnership with UNESCO to provide an ecosystem of content, including Feed the Monster, to 20 African countries. That effort will include working with Ministries of Education to assess gaps in local language learning content, as well as training individuals in selected countries to adapt Feed the Monster into as many languages as are needed for their country, Gottwald says. “It would shift the responsibility from us to the people in those countries,” she says. “And then we’d end up with more content as well as more people with technical experience and content development experience.”

Curious Learning has also engaged in a major research effort by the World Bank to test the efficacy of the Hausa language adaptation of Feed the Monster and Hausa books on the Global Digital Library across 3,000 homes in Nigeria. In 2020, that research will expand to thousands of homes in Senegal, Gottwald says, adding that Curious Learning will continue its research with local universities around the globe to test the app’s efficacy in various contexts.

“Distribution and research play an interconnected role,” Gottwald says. “As we distribute the app, we’re able to collect more data on efficacy and learn more about what children need in those environments, which in turn allows us to create more apps. It’s a virtuous cycle.” 

The ripple effect of the investment of the All Children Reading Grand Challenge and Norad in the Feed the Monster app is making tremendous impact for literacy around the world, Gottwald says. “Had we not found Feed the Monster at the time we did, I’m not exactly sure what Curious Learning would look like right now,” she says. “The All Children Reading effort was instrumental to the formation of our strategy both in the short and long term.” 

To that end, Gottwald urges that the creation of open-source apps, books and other learning tools is the only realistic path to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 and unlocking literacy for the remaining 387 million children globally who are not achieving minimum proficiency in reading. 

“We have the tools at our fingertips now, provided by organizations like the All Children Reading Grand Challenge, that give us the chance to create and test solutions that really work, in a fast and innovative manner,” she says. “That’s an opportunity that didn’t exist even five years ago.” 

On Feb. 19, 2020, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development hosted Curious Learning for a webinar on localizing literacy apps and other learning content for children in low-resource contexts. 

Watch the webinar recording

Download Feed the Monster (45 languages)