June 1, 2020
Rama Kayyali Jardaneh and her team at Little Thinking Minds believed in the power of education technology long before the COVID-19 pandemic made it a global necessity.
The Jordan-based EdTech company partnered with Integrated International, a specialized M&E firm, to make an evidence-based case that education technology can improve learning outcomes.
Now, that early work developing quality, evidence-based digital content for children in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is supporting distance learning education in Jordan. School closures in the country, which is home to more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees, have impacted more than 2.4 million learners since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in mid-March.
“COVID has amplified the need for more programs that are EdTech-based, are proven to generate results, and align with the Ministry curriculum,” says Nedjma Koval-Saifi, founder and CEO of Integrated International.
In 2014, looking to transition from producing mostly educational video content to digital books and other learning resources, Little Thinking Minds applied to All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development’s grant competition. As one of 12 winners, the company created Qysas (which means “stories” in Arabic), an interactive and animated Arabic early grade literacy platform that features more than 125 leveled e-books with comprehension quizzes and provides automated feedback tailored to each learner.
The project transformed the availability of content for children, particularly those in low-resource contexts and public schools, and through the provision of a digital library of 150 books, enabled students to read on average 125 books in one academic year, as compared to the regional statistic of one book per year. In increasing reading frequency, literacy results improved tremendously, compared to students not using the program, Koval-Saifi says.
“In focus groups with teachers and parents, one of the most recurring things we heard was the confidence kids gained by learning to read on their own,” Koval-Saifi, says. “At its core, this is a very strong EdTech program that delivers literacy results.”
The 2017 Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) conducted on children in a pilot of Qysas, funded by ACR GCD and conducted by School-to-School International, found statistically significant gains in children’s syllable identification, oral reading fluency, and reading comprehension over comparison group students who did not participate in the project.
It was ACR GCD’s commitment to quality, rigor and evidence that tipped the scales for the Ministry and others to believe in the power of EdTech, Koval-Saifi says. “The quality of education in the MENA region has declined in recent decades,” she says. “There are small interventions that can actually make a difference, and that was where ACR GCD had an impact with the rigor it imposed. Qysas was a project that had an evidence base that can’t be disputed, and that is rare.”
Those early investments in the development and testing of Qysas proved valuable in 2018 – just one year after the end of their ACR GCD grant – when, with support from UNICEF and UKAID, the Qysas platform was transformed into a digital leveled library called Let’s Live in Harmony. Integrated International and Little Thinking Minds worked closely with the Jordanian Ministry of Education to co-create 120 digital books promoting social cohesion and literacy. With UNICEF and UKAID, Integrated International led the rollout of the Let’s Live In Harmony library to 100 double-shifting schools serving more than 20,000 Syrian refugee and Jordanian students in Kindergarten through Grade 3.
“Integrated International and Little Thinking Minds, supported by UNICEF and UKAID, are supporting the Ministry of Education to meet digital content targets, exceeding their five-year targets for creating digital content, and aligning with co-curricular aims,” Koval-Saifi says.
Further, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools across Jordan in mid-March, the Ministry of Education requested Integrated and Little Thinking Minds to transition their tablet-based digital library to the MoE’s online portal, to be accessible to all students across the country.
In response to COVID-19, Integrated International also provided support to UNICEF to upload 140 tablets with Let’s Live in Harmony, as well as the award-winning free literacy gaming apps, Feed the Monster and Antura and the Letters, developed through ACR GCD’s and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation’s EduApp4Syria prize.
Integrated International and Little Thinking Minds hopes to secure funding in the near future that would enable the development of an app that can support home-based learning among parents and children across the MENA region. The team also hopes to scale their solution to one or more of the 21 countries where Arabic is recognized as the official language. Koval-Saifi believes the COVID-19 crisis will heighten the urgency and need for quality, evidence-based EdTech solutions like Qysas and Let’s Live in Harmony.
“There is an emerging body of evidence that shows EdTech, when designed the right way, works,” Koval-Saifi says. “And that, again, is where ACR GCD has been particularly helpful to us because it has been a convener and producer of learning globally. COVID has shown us the need for EdTech, and now the ears of supporters and even skeptics have perked to its power.”