Q&A with Sergio Ramirez-Mena, new chief of party for All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development

Ramirez-Mena shares vision to improve global child literacy through EdTech innovation

Q&A with Sergio Ramirez-Mena, new chief of party for All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development

Can you tell us about the career path that brought you to All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD)?  

Beyond my passion for improving education and leveraging technology, there were two important factors that led me to ACR GCD: First, my most recent field experience as chief of party for three major early education projects in Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Honduras. Second, my technical background implementing information and communications technologies in education projects in Africa and Latin America. In these projects, we implemented a mix of tablets, mobile phones, and digital books to track and improve reading assessments. However, the breakthrough moment came early this year. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I saw how entire education systems, such as in Honduras, quickly pivoted to large-scale distance learning applications to reach students and their parents so children could continue to learn while at home. The pandemic provided valuable lessons about scaling and sustaining distance learning. We saw previously reluctant educators embrace EdTech and understand that, in the right context, it could be a force for good. I saw a historic window of opportunity for ACR GCD to build on this momentum and accelerate the adoption of technology as part of today’s education systems.

Headshot photo of Sergio Ramirez-Mena

ACR GCD new Chief of Party Sergio Ramirez-Mena

What interested you in the leadership role at ACR GCD?

After eight years in the field as chief of party with early grade reading projects, ACR GCD was the ideal opportunity to bring my field experience with reading projects and EdTech background to support marginalized children, especially students with the greatest disadvantages. For the current winners of our awards, I will focus particularly on solutions for students with disabilities or little access to local language reading resources in digital or hard copy forms. I recognize ACR GCD’s work to support local entrepreneurship and ideas to improve reading. My goal as chief of party is to work with our three Partners (USAID, World Vision, and the Australian Government), leveraging their support to make our current awardees successful.

What do you find unique about ACR GCD’s approach to improving child literacy in low-resource contexts?

ACR GCD has built a robust set of lessons learned and applications that are child-centered and based on locally gathered evidence, thanks to its partnership with field organizations that understand reading and use of technology in a holistic way. Through a competitive process, ACR GCD has done the quality assurance of each award and their solutions. ACR GCD recognizes the importance of building human capacity (especially those of teachers, instructors and parents) to help students learn to use these tools as a complement, not a substitute, to learning to read in the language they use and understand at home.

What elements do you believe are vital to ensure the use/adoption of literacy innovations?

Literary innovations should be human-driven and user-friendly before anything else. It sounds ironic, but innovations that put technology ahead of the human element tend to fail. However, ACR GCD understands this paradigm and looks at strengthening the capacity of our local awardees and the students they support. One important factor for early adoption is to work through innovation “champions” in the field, typically a core group of teachers or instructors who quickly realize the benefit and role of EdTech as part of their teaching-learning in the classroom.

What is your vision for ACR GCD moving forward?

My vision for ACR GCD is to bring best practices and solutions to boost literacy — from basic writing boards to advanced tablets that help children with self-paced learning — to the next level. In other words, we will refocus and strengthen our role as thought leaders in quality education through better books, better applications, and better resources for teachers and instructors. We need to reimagine ACR GCD’s technological innovations as an integral part of our work with child protection, safe schools, and family well-being. We should leverage applications for use in health and nutrition activities so they can also be used to deliver education services, using tablets and other technology. We can take advantage of technology to bridge the gap in distance learning for children in education emergencies and conflict zones where teachers or schools are not accessible. The expansion of fast and economically accessible Internet connection — but more importantly, the advent of low-cost mobile devices — continues to widen the opportunities to educate children and their school communities with quality reading materials, storybooks, textbooks, and teacher training resources to unlock their literacy potential.

What are some of the innovations for disability inclusive education that ACR GCD has supported that could easily be picked up and scaled in other contexts? 

First of all, by supporting students with disabilities to read, you are supporting the entire school. Assistive technologies, especially those with enhanced audio and video applications, help students with disabilities to self-pace their learning. Well-developed apps are not only exciting and stimulating for students, but they also allow them to proceed at their individual paces. Technology is the most patient tutor. Specifically,  I think of our innovators who created Bloom software and the World Around You (WAY) platform to produce sign language storybooks. Secondly, the inclusion of ACR GCD-sponsored sign language books on the Global Digital Library platform is a very promising resource to help scale the use of these books worldwide.

What principles and/or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

My lifelong principle is that every child is born to learn — no matter their country, the conflict, their economic status, or their social situation. Boys and girls need equal opportunity, especially the most vulnerable and those with disabilities. By helping children with the most need, we help all children learn. Education starts at home with parents, caregivers, and the participation of the school community at large.

What else do you want others to know about you?

I’m an avid reader of historical novels and biographies. I want to continue learning new languages and their historical roots and linguistic origins. Learning another person’s language opens a window into their own way of looking at and learning about the world they live in. Language defines us and how we interact with each other. I’m also glad to be back in Washington, D.C., to watch my favorite baseball team: the Washington Nationals.