April 28, 2020
In her hometown of Kiambu, Kenya, Leah Nguata watches as her three children gather around their television.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, schools in Kenya, like most countries around the world, have shut down and implemented distance learning plans through radio and television. Previously, it was rare to see the three of them learning together in front of the TV, as these programs were only accessible to her two daughters, and not her son Mark, who, after enduring Meningitis at age 3, is deaf.
“Mark could not hide his frustration when his sisters followed through the lesson and enjoyed learning from the TV teacher,” Nguata says. “Oftentimes, he would put off the TV so that no one is watching. This resulted in no virtual classrooms to bring harmony in the house.”
That was until last week, when Nairobi-based eKitabu began featuring a half-hour Digital Story Time across Kenyan TV, YouTube, and ekitabu.com/TV. Each episode features Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) videos and storybooks designed to help all children, including Mark and his two sisters, continue their learning while schools are shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we had the first signed Digital Story Time aired on TV, Mark was overjoyed,” Nguata says. “He follows the signed stories keenly and repeats the signed words during the glossary sessions. It’s amazing that my three children can now enjoy learning together from the digital story through listening and captioning provided as they also build their signing vocabulary together in KSL.”
Through the Book Boost: Access for All Challenge and Sign On For Literacy prizes, ACR GCD funded eKitabu to adapt more than 100 early grade books into accessible EPUBs, including 51 with embedded KSL and RSL (Rwandan Sign Language). In response to COVID-19, eKitabu rapidly built on these materials to produce Digital Story Time, a daily, 30-minute broadcast for children and families.
“We were excited when the Ministry of Education (MoE) in Kenya approached us to ask if we had any content that could be used during this crisis,” said Matt Utterback, co-founder of eKitabu. “Because of the work All Children Reading supported us to produce through Book Boost and Sign On For Literacy, we had high-quality, accessible content ready to quickly respond to the needs of the Ministry.”
eKitabu’s Studio KSL Director, Georgine Auma, introduces each episode, which features a series of three Kenyan Sign Language storybooks, along with English or Kiswahili audio narration and captions, followed by comprehension questions and vocabulary lessons. Each episode includes a tie-in to interactive online learning resources.
The MoE in Kenya has requested at least 25 episodes (eKitabu had planned for 20), followed by another set of new episodes to run through June. Because of the demand, the stories are being added to the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development’s (KICD) term learning activities, which will run at 5pm daily starting in May. This means Digital Story Time will be broadcast in its current morning slot and in the evening.
“A show with Kenyan Sign Language as the primary language is now being aired in prime time, mainstreamed into KICD’s regular programming,” Utterback said.
Similarly, through the Book Boost: Access for All Challenge, ACR GCD funded eKitabu to develop its open source Accessible EPUB Toolkit that incentivized local publishers and authors to create accessible storybooks. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, private sector publishers in the Kenya Publishers Association have made the accessible materials they created using eKitabu’s toolkit available for free online. Also available are the open educational resources licensed under Creative Commons that eKitabu adapted with funding from Book Boost.
“Several publishers who participated in our Content Development Challenge and leveraged the Accessible EPUB Toolkithave made their books available for free during the pandemic,” said Will Clurman, co-founder and CEO of eKitabu. “There are more than 100 accessible books available on open.ekitabu.com.”
For the Nguata family, the hope is that Digital Story Time will not only fill critical gaps in education for deaf children during the COVID-19 pandemic, but will open up conversations about the importance of sign language and education for all children.
“There must be an intentional effort to provide access, accommodate needs and adjust new learning environments to serve all students,” Nguata says. “And this is the role that Digital Story Time is playing.”