How ACR GCD innovators using EdTech adjusted to COVID-19 — and what lies ahead

Five winners of All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development awards share how their literacy work continues during the pandemic

How ACR GCD innovators using EdTech adjusted to COVID-19 — and what lies ahead

The COVID-19 pandemic created a shared experience for people and organizations around the world: the need to adjust. That was keenly felt in education where, according to the UN, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schooling is a “generational catastrophe,” estimating that 101 million additional children and young people (from grades 1 to 8) fell below the minimum reading proficiency level in 2020, owing to the consequences of the pandemic. 

Awardees of All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development — who are seeking to increase reading outcomes for children in developing countries through schools, teachers, or parents — also had to adapt. 

COVID-19 upended normal operations and hampered the ability of organizations to carry out their plans. That often meant shifting to virtual trainings and interactions, using more online reading materials such as digital storybooks for children, and seeking ways to reach those with less access to technology. 

“But we could not just stop and let this pandemic prevent us from serving communities, especially children who are in need of educational materials in the language that they understand best,” said Rajib Mitra, program manager of SIL LEAD, an ACR GCD Begin With Books awardee. SIL LEAD is creating the first large collection of 200 story books in the Soninke and Sénnoufo languages of Mali, as well as 20 more in Malian Sign Language. 

The Asia Foundation (TAF) modified in-person presentations to virtual workshops and community gatherings for its Begin With Books projects in Laos, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea. 

“We’ve seen an incredible surge in demand for online material as schools and families transitioned to remote learning,” said Kyle Barker, associate director for TAF. “We’ve also seen a wonderful outpouring from community members wanting to contribute to [adapting] books into their local languages.” 

For instance, members of a group trying to reconnect with their Tamang language in Nepal joined virtual translation events hosted by TAF’s Let’s Read open-license library, as word spread through the community about the availability of Tamang children’s storybooks. 

For those lacking access to newly created Tamang resources through online activities, TAF conducted read-aloud sessions on local radio and television (see photos left and below) for three books adapted into Tamang, with two other sessions done in the Nuwakot district near Katmandu, the Nepal capital. 

TAF used Zoom and social media for virtual community gatherings, conducting interactive read-aloud sessions and informing the Tamang language community that translated books were available. 

For eKitabu, its Begin With Books project in Malawi — to create accessible books in the Tumbaka language and Malawian Sign Language for early grade children — started in March 2020, just as the pandemic led to lockdowns. 

“We quickly shifted to building a process to train and work remotely with a team of local translators, content developers, audio narrators, illustrators and organizations of persons with disabilities, providing them with airtime and a set of tools for project tracking and coordination,” said Lilian Kibagendi, eKitabu project manager. 

“Though this process has had its challenges, we feel it enabled us to reach out to a wider group of collaborators and pushed us to improve our tools and documentation,” she said. 

In addition to adapting to accomplish goals outlined in their projects, each awardee expanded its work when ACR GCD and the Global Book Alliance, through its Begin With Books prize, awarded $30,000 to create 46 children’s storybooks with essential COVID-19 health and hygiene messages.  These books were created in 12 languages, including books in four sign languages, some of which were written by deaf authors who incorporated the deaf experience in the age of COVID-19. 

In Rwanda, eKitabu’s project — to increase use of accessible ICT and widen access to accessible digital books for children with disabilities, as an awardee of ACR GCD’s UnrestrICTed Challenge — found success in its virtual training with publishers. Because they were mainly in Kigali, the capital, the publishers had access to devices, internet, and power as they learned how to use open standards for accessibility, open source tools, and new production skills. 

“In contrast, our pilot training with teachers and librarians presented challenges due to their limited skills in using technology, poor internet connectivity, and low electricity” in more rural areas, said Yvette Iyadede, eKitabu senior manager in Rwanda. 

Now that COVID-19 restrictions have eased and schools are gradually opening in Rwanda, eKitabu has pivoted to a hybrid training approach, beginning with in-person sessions with librarians and teachers in their home communities. It incorporated training sessions on how to use information and communications technologies so that teachers and librarians can apply these skills both in training and in the classroom. The accessible content eKitabu provides during the training can also be downloaded and used offline. 

EdTech enabled a continuation of learning for some, but technology also carries a concern, said Catharine Morgan, senior program officer for World Education

“There is a risk in Nepal that the pandemic will increase existing inequalities and disparities aligned with access to EdTech,” she said. “As a result, we are advocating that EdTech-based responses to the pandemic be paired with targeted efforts to reach those who might be left behind due to lack of access. For example, by having local volunteers lead small neighborhood-based learning sessions in a safe and socially distant way in remote areas.” 

Through its Leveraging Existing Accessibility Resources in Nepal (LEARN) project, World Education hopes to “demonstrate how a flexible approach that leverages multiple EdTech solutions as well as low-tech and ‘no-tech’ learning materials can support children in a variety of contexts,” Morgan said. 

Likewise, eKitabu believes that reliance on the Internet and EdTech as the main solution for remote learning during the pandemic is “not a viable solution in Malawi, where the vast majority of the population does not have access to devices, connectivity, or electricity,” Kibagendi said. “In this setting, we see EdTech as part of a mix of solutions, filling in gaps and opening new opportunities.” 

In an example of this mix, eKitabu produced print-ready PDFs of books it adapted and translated into Tumbuka in Mali, in addition to creating EPUB versions for the Global Digital Library

Looking ahead, Mitra sees EdTech playing a key role in filling gaps in the delivery of education to children. “As this pandemic continues to cause disruptions in our daily lives, and until we can return to some sort of ‘new normal,’ we need to continue adapting so that children can learn through various EdTech platforms,” he said. 

That includes Bloom, SIL LEAD’s book-writing software and digital library that enabled the awardee to provide thousands of books to children and parents to read at home in their own languages. 

With the growing prevalence and availability of smartphones and the internet, Mitra said, “we are hopeful that children and their parents will become increasingly comfortable with educational technology and educational apps as part of their daily lives.” 

Another solution is TAF’s Let’s Read open-license library, which has  helped reach communities needing offline and non-digital approaches by providing immediate access to books that can be printed and distributed or adapted into new languages. 

Even when the pandemic subsides, EdTech will continue to be vital. 

“Teachers will have to adapt to meet the variety of learning needs,” Morgan said. “We are hopeful EdTech solutions will support children with tailored learning supports to meet their needs, and especially enable struggling learners to catch up.”