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

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 II

This is the second of a two-part blog series in recognition of World Book and Copyright Day 2022

A child looks at their phone which features a page of a book on the Global Digital Library

The Global Digital Library is a web-based platform that contains more than 6000 books in 90 languages.

In recognition of World Book Day, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) is sharing lessons learned in creating high-quality digital books and increasing access to hard-to-reach learners in a two-part blog series (read Part I).

Around the world, millions of children have little to no books 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, often lack accessible formats.

Year-round, we are dedicated to ensuring all children have access to books–with the goal of not only creating strong readers but also readers who love to read. 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 those in developing countries, fragile contexts or emergency or crisis situations.

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 sign languages and braille. In Part 1, we covered four key principles and concepts for developing high-quality, engaging content. Below are six considerations for increasing access to digital books for hard-to-reach readers.

Six considerations to reach more readers in low-resource contexts

One of the challenges facing education is finding ways to increase access to books and literacy materials in low-resource contexts. We believe that education in the 21st century must leverage innovation and technology to help children learn to read, so they can read to learn and love to read as lifelong skills. When applied appropriately, technology based literacy projects can effectively disseminate digital books to underserved and remote populations. 

1. Know when to use EdTech

We envision EdTech solutions as a complement and support to existing teaching and learning materials in the classroom. In particular, EdTech can be a game changer in contexts where it provides access to education and learning materials for a child who previously did not have access didn’t have access before, where it significantly lowers the cost of providing access as compared to the status quo, and where it can significantly increase relevant learning outcomes as compared to current programs. 

2. Commit to free and open source content

We already mentioned this in Part I, but it bears repeating. The key to cost-effective and scalable EdTech solutions is content that is released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, resharing, adaptation and redistribution by anyone with no or limited restrictions. ACR GCD innovations 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–and inspires and promotes use and distribution on a global basis, increasing language diversity and making digital books more widely available on multiple platforms. 

3. Use or create open source and accessible online platforms

Screenshot of the World Around You platformAnother key to reaching more readers in low-resource contexts, including those who are deaf or  hard of hearing, are easy-to-access online libraries that host high-quality, open-source, and  free content and enable the easy creation, adaptation, translation and use of that content. ACR GCD has supported the development and improvement of several online libraries and platforms, including:

  • Bloom Library, a global collection of books created with Bloom software, which makes it easy to create simple books and translate them into multiple languages.
  • Bookshare, an online library of accessible content for people with print disabilities, such as dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy and other reading barriers.
  • Global Digital Library, a free, web-based platform that makes high-quality early learning resources available in more than 90 languages, including sign languages. 
  • World Around You, a collection of sign language storybooks with open source software that enables communities to create and share digital books and literacy content in local and national sign languages.
  • Let’s Read, Asia’s only free digital library for children with resources and books that explore important topics and can be downloaded and printed for offline use.

4. Extend usage beyond 1:1

A common misconception about EdTech is that it is limited to one-to-one usage or that a child must own a device in order to access content. However, innovators and others have extended the reach of digital books and content beyond one-to-one usage to increase impact and usage in a variety of low-cost ways, including:

  • Utilizing smartphones and projectors: Using digital, open source and accessible teaching and learning materials, including digital library apps, on smartphones with PICO projectors can complement printed books and extend access to more reading materials. Accessibility features include audio, sign language video, text highlighting, and image descriptions to support children who are deaf or blind; these features also support early learners and drive both student and parental engagement, particularly in low resource settings or communities in crisis that may have low rates of adult literacy. This strategy can be used to increase the number of books per child in reading camps and address barriers to using digital books such as cost and unfamiliarity with using EdTech in schools and homes.
  • Lending tablets via community libraries: In a context where there are no functioning community or school libraries, e-libraries with collections of tablets that can be lent out to or used by children are an option to consider. The e-library is attractive to children, provides personalized learning, content including more than 10,000 books through platforms like those above, and ICT skills acquisition. 

5. Low-cost, light interventions can be extremely effective and extend reach

A recent intervention by the World Bank that provided children with cell phones preloaded with two EdTech solutions–developed with support and funding from ACR GCD–provides compelling evidence that EdTech can improve reading outcomes for children in low resource contexts in as little as five days, with learning outcomes continuing to improve one month out.

The DIME Movies and Mobiles study engaged 9,000 Nigerian households with children between the ages of 6-9 with film screenings aimed at motivating parents to support their children’s education and reshape attitudes around gender bias along with a lottery in which one-third of the participants received $40 smartphones preloaded with access to the Global Digital Library (GDL) and Feed the Monster. During the 5-day intervention and one-month follow-up, the children who received the phones as well as their siblings saw substantially increased literacy and numeracy test scores, leading the World Bank to recommend that EdTech interventions like this should be considered in programs and projects addressing literacy, education and child protection.

The World Bank researchers concluded that low-cost, light interventions utilizing EdTech solutions can have a significant impact on literacy for children in low resource contexts. While longer interventions, like learning camps with volunteers, can be more effective, they also require higher cost and effort. To address the learning crises exacerbated by the pandemic, the researchers recommended the acceleration of testing mobile-based solutions for both offline and online populations. Learn more.

6. Good content creation lays the groundwork for scaling and reach

In Part I, we covered lessons and principles that are key to creating high-quality, engaging content for digital books, including creating books in languages children use and understand, born accessible, engaging characters, developed themes, and engaging local authors and illustrators. Utilizing these concepts and principles can lay the groundwork for scaling and expanding the creation and usage of digital books.

As one example of a project that embraces these concepts, we mentioned ACR GCD innovator Asafeer Education Technologies, which produce 100 STEM audible, leveled and illustrated books that engaged Arabic authors and illustrators and incorporated engaging elements like character development and themes such as building relationships, friendships, family dynamics and community involvement and responsibility. 

The incorporation of these key concepts laid the groundwork for Asafeer to extend the reach of their literacy efforts. In 2020, with the 100 Arabic stories funded through ACR GCD available for free across several platforms, Asafeer scaled their model to reach more aspiring authors with training on creating quality children’s content in Arabic. Since the launch, Asafeer has engaged more than 34,000 new authors across the Middle East and created a pipeline of quality children’s books in Arabic.

Be part of the solution

High-quality and accessible digital books can address the barriers to access for children in low-resource contexts. To increase accessibility for hard-to-reach learners, key concepts to keep in mind include knowing when it is appropriate to use EdTech and digital books, using open source content and platforms, and planning beyond 1:1 usage. Effective use of EdTech doesn’t need to be expensive; low-cost, light interventions can have significant impacts on literacy outcomes. 

For more than a decade, ACR GCD has implemented and scaled game-changing solutions and tools to help address gaps and barriers to child literacy. We have distributed over 1.7 million learning materials, including more than 1 million books and ebooks in more than 50 underserved languages and materials in sign languages and e-braille. 

Be part of the solution for the more than 584 million children globally waiting for the opportunity to learn to read. Explore our solutions and tools to help you increase literacy opportunities in local languages for marginalized children in your work and programming or partner with us to pilot or scale a solution or innovation in your community or region.

Together, we can advance EdTech solutions to improve reading outcomes for marginalized children in poor regions and developing countries around the world.

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