How to create high-quality digital books and increase access for hard-to-reach learners: Part I

A two-part blog series in recognition of World Book and Copyright Day 2022

How to create high-quality digital books and increase access for hard-to-reach learners: Part I

In recognition of World Book and Copyright Day, this two-part blog series shares key concepts and principles in creating high quality digital books and increasing access for hard-to-reach readers in low-resource contexts.

Girl looking at cell phone with an ebook from the Global Digital Library

Girl looking at cell phone with an ebook from the Global Digital Library (Photo Credit: Pal Laukli)

On April 23 every year, individuals and organizations around the world rally together to celebrate World Book and Copyright Day, an annual event created by the United Nations to recognize the impact of books and promote creativity, diversity, equal access, literacy and open access to education resources. 

Yet around the world, millions of children still have little to no access to books and reading materials in languages they use and understand. For the more than 93 million children with disabilities, the shortage of books is even more severe, as resources, if available at all, are only in print format rather than in born accessible digital formats that allow them to learn using features such as audio or sign language video.

All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) is dedicated year-round to ensuring all children have access to reading materials and books so they can learn to read, read to learn and love to read throughout their lifetime. We are committed to developing solutions to produce high quality and engaging content in languages children use and understand and finding ways to increase access for hard-to-reach learners in and outside of school, including children with disabilities, and  especially those in developing countries, fragile contexts or emergency or crisis situations. 

We believe that education in the 21st century must leverage technology to help children learn to read and succeed in school. When technology, to include digital books, is applied appropriately, it can effectively disseminate new and existing teaching and learning materials in and outside of school to underserved and remote populations. 

ACR GCD has tested a wide range of technologies and implementation approaches to developing, producing and making available cost-effective, high quality, accessible and engaging reading materials and books in underserved languages, including national and local sign languages and e-braille. In this two-part blog series, we share key concepts and principles in creating low-cost, engaging and high quality content and increasing access for hard-to-reach readers.

Four key concepts and principles to develop high-quality, engaging content

Digital books can accelerate efforts towards ensuring access to opportunities for all to read, but the development and production must be guided by guidelines and principles to create high quality and engaging content as well as ensure their use helps bridge the digital divide instead of increasing it.

ACR GCD has launched several challenges to create high quality content in underserved languages, including local and national sign languages that are grounded in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. Learning experiences are individualized – no two children learn the exact same way. UDL is an educational framework that helps provide flexible learning environments to improve and optimize teaching and accommodate individualized learning experiences. EdTech grounded in UDL can support individualized learning experiences and self-paced learning, even in classrooms that do not use a language a child understands, and help teachers meet the individualized learning needs of children, including those with disabilities. 

Below are a few additional principles to guide the creation of high-quality, engaging digital content:

1. Start with a commitment to free and open source content

Key to cost-effective and scalable EdTech solutions is content released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, resharing, adaptation and redistribution by anyone with no or limited restrictions.  

All of the digital books and materials developed by ACR GCD innovators are created under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license, which makes them free for anyone to use, adapt or translate as long as attribution is given to the original author. This inspires and promotes use and distribution on a global basis, increasing language diversity and making digital books more widely available on multiple platforms. 

Books created by our innovators can be easily accessed, adapted or downloaded on multiple platforms, including the Global Digital Library, Bloom Library, World Around You, and Asafeer Library. For more online digital libraries, visit our Solutions Hub.

2. Create or translate books in languages children use and understand

A cell phone with a screenshot of the online digital platform, Global Digital Library

Global Digital Library

Research shows that children, especially those who are marginalized, achieve greater reading success when learning to read in the local spoken or signed language used at home. Having access to engaging stories in languages children use and understand increases their vocabulary and readiness to learn in school. Providing engaging and accessible books in their own languages is essential to empowering and supporting children on their path to literacy.

ACR GCD innovators and partners have developed several platforms that support translation of open source digital books, including the Global Digital Library, World Around You, and the Bloom Library. For more book creation software–all open source and free–visit our Solutions Hub.

3. Commit to born-accessible creation from the beginning

Producing books in accessible formats and features–like text highlighting, audio, e-braille, large print and sign language books–ensures children with disabilities have the same opportunities to participate in education. In addition, it not only more efficient and cost effective when compared to retroactively adapting materials to meet accessibility standards but also helps publishers and writers think more inclusively about children’s needs. 

ACR GCD innovators have supported or funded several resources to help authors and publishers create born-accessible materials. For example, Bloom software makes it easy to create children’s books and translate them into multiple languages, including sign language books. The World Around You platform offers open source software to create content in local and national sign languages. The Accessible EPUB Toolkit helps publishers and others create accessible EPUBs with image descriptions, accessible navigation, and optional sign language videos. For more book creation software–all open source and free–visit our Solutions Hub.

4. Create high quality content

High quality content is a catalyst to engaging children in reading. Below are a few of the components we have identified to develop engaging and high-quality content for children:

  • Create characters with which children can identify and resonate. In A Guide for Strengthening Gender Equality and Inclusiveness in Teaching and Learning Materials, USAID underscores that characters represented in teaching and learning materials are powerful role models for children. Students are more interested in reading when they identify with characters in the storybooks where they see children and people that look, talk and live similarly to them. In digital storybooks, this can be implemented by featuring local settings with protagonists that include both girls and boys, children with disabilities, and local populations. 
  • Incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) concepts and themes. SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and apply the knowledge skills and attitudes to develop health identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and make responsible and caring decisions. Children’s literacy skills and SEL growth can be supported and nurtured through meaningful books that help children learn that they are not alone in whatever struggle they are facing, develop coping skills for the future, feel empowered, and develop empathy for others. Access and learn more about books that incorporate SEL themes.
  • Engage local authors and illustrators. We share a commitment with organizations like Global Book Alliance to increase the supply of books by, among other things, pushing the supply chain needle towards locally driven book creation. One aspect of that commitment is engaging local authors and illustrators and empowering them through digital book creation tools and guides. For example, Begin with Books awardees The Asia Foundation (TAF) is engaging local authors and illustrators in Laos, Laos, Papua New Guinea, and Nepal to create a series of book collections in underserved languages, and Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID) is working with local disabled people organizations to create books in local and national sign languages in Fiji, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa and Somalia

In addition to TAF and RIT/NTID, ACR GCD innovator Asafeer Education Technologies also embraced these concepts in 2017 to produce 100 STEM audible, leveled and illustrated books that engaged Arabic authors and illustrators and incorporated elements like character development and themes such as building relationships, friendships, family dynamics and community involvement and responsibility. 

Instead of seeking out a cadre of good authors to create content, Asafeer turned to Maria Dadouch, an author who received her degree in literature from University of California Los Angeles. She developed a syllabus to train 24 authors–the majority of whom were women–to create the storybooks, which includes books like the following–all free to access, adapt and use:

A screenshot of a page from Little Mr. Einstein on Asafeer Library

A page from Little Mr. Einstein on Asafeer Library

  • Little Mr. Einstein, a story about a boy with a disability who has a knack for invention and won’t stop until his dream to build one comes true, incorporates themes around developing healthy identities (read in English and Arabic)
  • Annabelle and the Wishing Hill, about a girl who makes a wish and takes the steps to make it come true, incorporates themes around girls’ education and the urban/rural divide in access to education (read in English or Arabic)
  • Grace in Space, about a girl with a disability who journeys to space. The book recently captured international attention when it was read aloud by NASA astronaut Jessica Meir and USAID Administrator Samantha Powers. SIL LEAD, another ACR GCD innovator, recently adapted the book using open source publishing software with that narration and uploaded it to Bloom Library, an online digital platform. 
  • Layla’s Project, about a girl inspired by her grandfather to lead the way in fighting global warming, featuring the impact of empowering girls to take leadership to effect change and make the world a better place. 

Next: How to increase access for hard-to-reach learners

Digital books can address the growing book gap, but the development and production must include a commitment to open source content, engaging characters, and high quality content in languages children use and understand. To reach more learners, we must also encourage usage and extend the reach of digital books. Read Part II of this series to learn about key principles and concepts regarding increasing access to high-quality, accessible digital books for hard-to-reach readers.

ACR GCD is a partnership between USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government