November 17, 2022
In May 2022, The Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report and All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) hosted a consultation event for ACR GCD awardees to collect feedback on and evidence for the 2023 GEM Report concept note, which focuses on the role technology plays in education, including learnings during the COVID pandemic for a post-pandemic world.
The consultation focused on how technology can address education challenges with respect to access, equity and inclusion with a focus on hard to reach learners and access to content in more attractive and cheaper formats. Afterwards, ACR GCD spoke with awardees and innovators, who are leading the way in implementing and testing ground-breaking EdTech to support learners, and asked them to dive deeper and elaborate on ways their innovations address these topics (read their responses here). We also asked them to reflect on what accomplishments they are most proud of and their dreams for the future. Excerpts from those reflections are below. Read more in our report summarizing feedback and evidence highlighted during the consultation and collected during the subsequent interviews.
MEET THE INNOVATORS
- Ayan Kishore and Dr. Homiyar Mobedji of Benetech’s ACR GCD-funded Bookshare India project, which added Marathi human-narrated audio capabilities to the Bookshare Reader app to create accessible, grade-level storybooks that can be listened to on low cost audio devices by children who are blind/low vision.
- Creesen Naicker of Curious Learning, which localizes, distributes and measures use of digital learning software, including Feed the Monster–an open source literacy app created through our EduApp4Syria competition in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Curious Learning took the open source code that ACR GCD shared on GitHub – a public clearinghouse of open source software – and created additional versions of the app, now available in more than 50 languages with 600,000+ users globally. Most recently, the organization created a Ukrainian version of the app, which reached over 100,000 downloads within two months. Curious Learning also created and deployed a suite of follow-on content in the form of interactive storybooks.
- Matthew Utterback and Mercy Kirui of eKitabu, which has been awarded through multiple ACR GCD competitions. The first was to create Studio KSL (Kenyan Sign Language) to help the deaf community and local content creators integrate sign language videos into literacy content. They also created a library of open source, accessible digital titles along with providing an open standards based toolkit for local content developers. Currently, eKitabu is creating more than 200 books in Tumbuka and Malawian Sign Language with e-braille and audio formats for free use on the Global Digital Library.
- Rama Kayyali (Little Thinking Minds) and Nedjma Koval-Saifi (of Integrated International|Innovation), who led Little Thinking Minds’ ACR GCD-funded project to build Qysas (Stories), an online leveled and differentiated early grade Arabic literacy learning platform supported by after school literacy clubs for students which enabled students to read on average 125 books in one academic year, as compared to the regional statistic of one book per year. By increasing reading frequency, literacy results improved tremendously, compared to students not using the platform.
- Amy Mojica of Resources for the Blind, Inc., which provided teacher training and mentoring, parent engagement and advocacy workshops, as well as assistive technology, braille and large-print materials to students who are blind/low vision in the Philippines. In that project, students achieved statistically significant reading gains over peers in the comparison group on all subtasks of the adapted Filipino and English EGRAs.
- Chris Kurz, Patrick Graham, Michael Vea and Leala Holcomb, who are currently leading Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID) ACR GCD-funded projects. The Deaf World Around You (WAY) platform offers open-content digital content creation and a library of sign language books in an interactive written and sign language bilingual formats. Currently, they are creating accessible books in six underserved sign languages and producing Sign Language Rhythm and Rhyme and Shared Multilingual Reading Strategies materials for deaf children and their families.
- Paul Frank and Rajib Mitra of SIL LEAD, who have received ACR GCD funding for several projects, including enhancing Bloom software to create leveled and decodable books in any language, talking books, comic books, books for the blind, sign language books and books with interactive activities. They also enhanced the software with accessibility features to allow users to create “born accessible” reading materials in underserved languages. Their current ACR GCD project includes creating books in two Malian languages and Malian Sign Language as well as supporting families in using SIL’s Bloom Reader app to gain access to Department of Education curriculum books in local spoken and signed languages.
- Kyle Barker, Ritica Lacoul and Ujjwal Krishna Mali of The Asia Foundation, who have received ACR GCD funding for several projects building on the launch of Asia’s first open-source library of children’s books, Let’s Read Asia. Currently, they are creating children’s books in six local spoken and signed languages in multiple regions in Asia as well as providing children and their family members in Nepal with evidence- and UDL-based approaches that sparks curiosity and increases oral language and pre-reading skills.
What results or impacts achieved through implementing your solution or project are you personally most proud of?
eKitabu: We are most proud in the moments when we can witness the content and software we produce be used by learners for the first time. In May 2022, we delivered digital storybooks in Malawian Sign Language(MSL) developed under ACR GCD’s Begin With Books prize to learners who are deaf in Malawi. We saw the excitement of the children–they had never seen books in MSL before. Also, it was so rewarding to see the digital storybooks we developed under ACR GCD’s Book Boost and Sign On For Literacy challenges reach a national audience of children and their families during the COVID lockdowns when we transformed these digital books for a televised Digital Story Time.
Curious Learning: Feed the Monster is an android app that uses gamification to teach children the fundamentals of reading–by collecting monster eggs and feeding them letters so they can grow into new friends! The game is based on years of research and experience in the science of literacy. It incorporates key skills for literacy, including phonological awareness, letter recognition, phonics, vocabulary and sight word reading so children can develop a strong foundation for reading. We localized Feed the Monster into more than 50 languages. While there is other content available in multiple languages, Feed the Monster stands out for its combination of engaging interaction and learning efficacy.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, schools across the country closed, and hundreds of thousands of children became displaced. During an ongoing crisis like this, learning takes a backstage to the more immediate needs of safety and shelter. Curious Learning stepped up and quickly created stories in Ukrainian and advertised the Ukrainian version of Feed the Monster. In just 100 days, Feed the Monster was downloaded by 100,000 users. [Watch this video from a mom who downloaded Feed the Monster for her son.]
We have had over 150,000 downloads and over 100,000 confirmed learners, with over 15,000 users reaching a level in the game that reflects that they should be introduced to simple stories to begin reading text as soon as possible. All of this for less than $30,000. We have also managed to test embedding a letter sound assessment in Ukrainian into the app to help verify learning at scale.
Resources for the Blind, Inc.: We’re most proud that teachers under Reading Beyond Sight were able to successfully support their students. Their students are very independent, and they don’t feel any different than their peers that aren’t disabled. Teachers cannot do it alone, they need to be able to co-create with local governments, NGOs and parents as partners. We are also proud of the sustainability that occurred through the project such as schools covering the costs of maintenance for braille embossers and the items to produce braille books. The success of the project is the result of the equipment, skilled providers, and partnership from the whole community in providing support.
RIT/NTID: The international collaboration between multiple countries in this project is amazing. The country team leaders have become friends and support each other whenever necessary. They have been trained and produced a large number of stories in their written and signed languages. They saw the value in this process–they know deaf children need accessible stories in their languages and they are making this happen. They have become comfortable with producing accessible storybooks using the World Around You platform, and they are capable of training future content producers in their country.
We can see the impact of their work in responses from learners. A female student who is deaf, after reading a story that has a deaf character, announced that she is like that character–this reinforces the concept of Deaf-Same [a deep connection that is felt between deaf people around the globe, grounded in experiential ways of being in the world]. Learners get hooked on reading stories by seeing themselves in the stories.
SIL LEAD: We are most proud of the Guatemala project and how they used training on Bloom (a small amount of yeast) to create books and multiply their use. Under the USAID LEA (Read and Learn) project in Guatemala, we supported the Ministry of Education to develop 600 books in Spanish and Mayan languages that have hundreds of thousands of reads–and that’s really the fruit of them having used Bloom, creating and uploading books into the Bloom reader and then using WhatsApp and a systematic distribution process to push books out to families during the pandemic. They did a tremendous job of promoting and facilitating children’s access to good books. Their own research showed that children that had access to the books actually had learning and reading gains rather than loss during the pandemic.
Their own research showed that children that had access to the books actually had learning and reading gains rather than loss during the pandemic.
The Asia Foundation: Through the Ready2Read project in Nepal, together with our partner, Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), we have been able to reach marginalized communities to better prepare young children to enter school. Through the project, CWIN’s community outreach workers were trained and supported to engage children and families in fun read aloud sessions and learning activities that are increasing children’s oral language and pre-reading skills. This engagement will continue beyond the project thanks to the new skills and stories created through the project.
Through our ACR GCD Begin With Books award, we produced sign language books for children in Nepal – one of the first such initiatives in the country. We had recently enhanced our Let’s Read platform with the capacity to offer sign language videos, and the Nepali Sign Language books became the first sign language stories to populate the platform. Begin With Books enabled us, alongside local disable people organizations (DPOs), to learn how to produce the sign language content and build in steps like creating signs for words that weren’t previously represented in Nepali Sign Language. The project has been a great opportunity to collaborate with the government to positively influence the learning processes in Nepal, particularly during COVID-19.
What big dream do you have for your solution? What would you need to achieve that dream?
Benetech: About 5% of all printed material is accessible in developed countries. This is even lower in developing countries, with less than 1% being accessible to people with reading barriers. Benetech wants to empower inclusive learning through global technology platforms and services to enable all learners to pursue their dreams regardless of difference or disability.
Benetech wants to empower inclusive learning through global technology platforms and services to enable all learners to pursue their dreams regardless of difference or disability.
A dream come true would be bringing together the key global stakeholders—from big international publishers and the UN, to other leading Edtech providers and content developers—to help realize a future that is born accessible. A future where everyone can read and learn their way.
Curious Learning: Our dream is all children reading—learning how to read should be available to anyone, anywhere, anytime! It is part of our statutes that we aim to give all children the opportunity to read to the point that we no longer need to exist as an organization.
It is part of our statutes that we aim to give all children the opportunity to read to the point that we no longer need to exist as an organization.
We dream of reaching 100 million children—and the medium of smartphones is one of our best options, and we’ll continue to use that approach to reach as many children as possible. About 4% of the population is in the 4-8 year-old range and 50% of adults have a smartphone. It’s so ubiquitous that it seems obvious—smartphones are the most efficient and effective learning tool for literacy.
Essential to this approach is building content, maintaining it well, and letting parents know it is available. We’ve been able to put apps in the hands of children at very low costs, infinitely more scalable than proprietary models. For example, our research showed Nepal has a high cell phone penetration and low data costs but there were no organic downloads of Feed the Monster, which we made available in Nepali. Since people in Nepal primarily use Facebook, we designed a Facebook advertising intervention targeting the entire country, spending $10,000 to reach 135,000 kids with Feed the Monster in Nepali within six months. In Ukraine, people primarily use Facebook and Google, so we designed several campaigns using ads on Facebook targeting different profiles, including parents with children ages 4-8, in Ukraine and surrounding countries. In Kenya, we targeted self-declared teachers with interactive storybooks. In South Africa, we targeted slightly differently, because research shows many children live with grandparents.
UNESCO research shows that only 12% of kids in Africa read at grade level. One of our dreams is to have a huge annual budget for advertising, more partners to help get the apps into the hands of kids, and more open source content in more languages so that we could do something so big that that 12% grows to 25% over five years.
eKitabu: Our big dream is that born accessible digital content [with formats like braille, audio and sign language] becomes a standard, and that all publishing—whether print and digital–can shift to being born accessible.
Our big dream is that born accessible digital content [with formats like braille, audio and sign language] becomes a standard, and that all publishing—whether print and digital–can shift to being born accessible.
Moreover, we believe that this shift is a critical ingredient in building sustainable book chains in Africa and supporting local publishers and content developers—with and without disabilities—to develop local content for their communities.
Little Thinking Minds/Integrated International: Our dream is to scale, but funding is always the issue. It is increasingly critical to improve learning loss due to COVID, and evidence shows that our interventions provide instant improvement. We would like to see Let’s Read in Harmony in every home, but we need the funding support to scale—and access to devices is critical.
There is also the myth that EdTech doesn’t work, because many people aren’t assessment literate—they don’t have the knowledge, skills or understanding associated with designing, implementing, scoring or using high-quality assessments to improve student learning. EdTech works! We need to elevate evidence-based research and educate donors on the positive impact EdTech can have on student learning—like we have seen with Qysas and Let’s Read in Harmony. We also need donors to understand that longer timelines are necessary to improve scaling.
EdTech works! We need to elevate evidence-based research and educate donors on the positive impact EdTech can have on student learning—like we have seen with Qysas and Let’s Read in Harmony.
Resources for the Blind, Inc.: Currently, local governments and the Department of Education have set up about six inclusive education research centers. Our dream is for at least every municipality in the Philippines to have a center that students, teachers, parents and service providers can access and use to support children with disabilities. However, that is very expensive, and local governments and the Department of Education would need to fund these.
Our dream is for at least every municipality in the Philippines to have a center that students, teachers, parents and service providers can access and use to support children with disabilities.
RIT/NTID: Our dream is for the World Around You (WAY) platform to have multiple sign language storybooks accessible in the national or local sign languages of as many countries as possible. We want to keep the content free and open, and empower more deaf storytellers to create more storybooks for our deaf and hard of hearing children.
Currently, there are libraries and online books that are not fully accessible for our young deaf and hard of hearing students. We want the WAY platform to become internationally known as a crowdsourcing site to access books in multiple sign languages to increase the literacy rate of deaf and hard of hearing children in the world.
We currently have digital storybooks in sign languages and written languages created by people and teams in Ghana, Somalia, the Philippines, Fiji, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, USA and Mexico. We will continue to work with them after our Begin with Books project is done.
SIL LEAD: While a large number of languages have 200 or more books on the Bloom platform, most of the current 546 languages only have a few books. We want to see a substantial number of books in less dominant and indigenous local languages. This is where the power of Bloom can be used in communities: it can give people the tools to make great and interesting books in these languages.
We would also like to see more interaction with content—to see Bloom as a tool that draws kids in and engages them with the reading process. We are working to increase the balance between providing the basic tools for users with limited capability and continuing supporting users with more advanced resources. We would also like to increase more native Bloom capabilities, like adding multiple choice comprehension questions to stories.
Be Part of the Solution
Evidence-based EdTech solutions can improve reading outcomes for marginalized populations at lower costs and in less time as compared to traditional approaches. These reflections by ACR GCD awardee and collaborators highlight some of the trail-blazing accomplishments and gains made in implementing open-source and free EdTech solutions to increase literacy for hard-to-reach learners and disadvantaged children in low-resource contexts around the world, especially for children with disabilities. Learn more about ACR GCD awardee and collaborator accomplishments and useful examples of ways that technology can help address challenges related to access, equity, inclusion and others in the full report.
But there is still much to do. We must continue to increase the number of high-quality, accessible storybooks in local and underserved languages. We need to continue to facilitate collaborations at the local level to increase community awareness of the resources and use by teachers, parents, and learners with disabilities. And we need to continue supporting life-changing EdTech solutions and applications that enable children with disabilities to communicate with their teachers, parents, friends, and community at large.
You can 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 work towards the dream of transforming and enriching literacy learning spaces to build resilience and ensure quality, equitable and inclusive education for all children.
ACR GCD is a partnership between USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government