Six innovators discuss challenges and insights around implementing EdTech solutions to increase reading outcomes for hard-to-reach learners

An interview with innovators who participated in a consultation ACR GCD co-hosted with the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report

Six innovators discuss challenges and insights around implementing EdTech solutions to increase reading outcomes for hard-to-reach learners

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. (A recording and report from the event will be published in the coming months.) 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. Excerpts from these conversations are included below to further the dialogue begun during the consultation. 


  • Ayan Kishore and Dr. Homiyar Mobedji of Benetech’s ACR GCD-funded Bookshare India project, which added Marathi human-narrated audio capabilities to Bookshare 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. Curious Learning took the open source code ACR placed on GitHub 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 participated in several projects with ACR GCD. The first was creating Studio KSL (Kenyan Sign Language) to help the deaf community and local content creators integrate sign language videos into literacy content. They also catalyzed a born accessible book chain to create a library of open source, accessible digital titles along with providing an open standards based toolkit for local content developers. Currently, they are 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 building 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. 
  • Chris Kurz, Patrick Graham, Michael Vea and Leala Holcomb, who are currently participating in Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID) ACR GCD-funded projects. Their World Around You (WAY) open-content digital content creation and library platform offers sign language books in an interactive bilingual format. Currently, they are creating 1200 accessible books in six 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.

How does your EdTech solution uniquely address challenges in providing education to hard to reach learners?

Benetech: Bookshare India recorded audio storybooks in Marathi to accompany printed books so children could listen to the audio to improve braille literacy. Technology has advanced since then, and things have changed rapidly. Bookshare now includes more formats in nearly 100 languages. 

Digital content is the best way to reach learners with print disabilities…

Digital content is the best way to reach learners with print disabilities as it can be used offline and with low bandwidth. But different users have different needs. People consume reading content in different ways, based on the devices they have access to, so we now produce five formats so users can pull down content in the way they want to consume it. We’ve found master digital accessible books that include all these formats are cost effective because they meet all of these needs.

Today, we are using Bookshare to provide content in digital, accessible formats along with the technology–such as laptops and smartphones–to read ebooks and audiobooks, and we are training educators, librarians, resource center staff and students with visual disabilities how to use both the device and Bookshare and other electronic devices that allow children with print disabilities to read the accessible books. Our teams address these three pillars in workshops we conduct throughout India.

A smartphone with a Ukrainian version of Feed the MonsterCurious Learning: Our approach is particularly relevant for hard to reach populations, as the content does not need to be delivered by a trained facilitator and can be used alone, in groups or in school. The traditional approach views schools as the single entry point to children’s learning, whereas smartphone technology can facilitate the opportunity to reach children in their homes, via parent and caregiver devices. The World Bank research in Northern Nigeria [an intervention that provided $40 smartphones preloaded with Feed the Monster and the Global Digital Library to 3000 children] showed how it is possible to distribute devices with preloaded content to improve reading outcomes  for even harder to reach children.

Using digital advertising tools, we are able to let parents know about the learning content available for free and usable on their existing smartphones. We’ve been able to put apps in the hands of children at very low costs, which is infinitely more scalable than proprietary models. For example, Nepal has high cell phone penetration and low data costs, but we were finding there were no organic downloads of Feed the Monster. Through an advertising intervention on Facebook targeting the entire country, we spent $10,000 and reached 135,000 kids with Feed the Monster in Nepali within six months.

We deployed a Ukrainian version of Feed the Monster on March 9. Using Facebook and Google, we targeted Ukraine and surrounding countries, reaching over 100,000 downloads within two months. As of the start of June, we had over 130,000 downloads, with over 85,000 confirmed learners (learners meaning that we have data to show that the app was opened and played). There may be more learners however, the data we receive depends on the individual device settings. The average advertising cost per download is $0.15.

While the efficacy of Feed the Monster has been proven by multiple research studies, we have also managed to test embedding a letter sound assessment (in Ukrainian) into the app to help verify learning at scale as we move forward.

A girl with headphones and holding a table smiles at the camera

Photo Credit: Little Thinking Minds

Little Thinking Minds|Integrated International: Before the introduction of the Qysas program, the average statistic for reading in the Arab world was one book per year, or an average of 17 minutes a year. The interpretation of that statistic traditionally has been that the Arab culture is not a reading culture. But after Qysas, kids were reading 100-150 books during the school year which indicates that the low levels of book reading is an access issue. When students have access to appropriately leveled and engaging books, they read. 

Evaluations also showed the rates of literacy improvement are through the roof. It’s an EdTech program that is generating statistically significant and robust results. We’re really proud that it’s locally designed, and our path to scaling has been reliant on local partnerships, local understanding, and a very customized and localized approach.  

We’re really proud that it’s locally designed, and our path to scaling has been reliant on local partnerships, local understanding, and a very customized and localized approach. 

In 2018, we collaborated with UNICEF and the Ministry of Education to develop a new digital library for grades kindergarten through 3 to align the content with their Arabic curriculum  at grade level and  introduce concepts of social cohesion to support integration of refugees in the double-shift schools,  where Jordanians and Syrians both go to school. We co-created a library of 118 books with the Ministry of Education, called Let’s Live in Harmony. One hundred double-shifting schools implemented the platform; 25 tablets with the one-on-one interfaced interactive library were allocated to each school and rotated from classroom to classroom, reaching 15,000 children.

Let’s Live in Harmony was developed in collaboration with six departments within the Ministry of Education, and each department claims the work as their own, which is really wonderful, creating a level of buy-in that is supporting its institutionalization. With support from UKAid and USAID, Let’s Live in Harmony is being institutionalized by integrating it into the extracurricular weekly block for literacy strengthening, while teachers and supervisors trained on the delivery of our program receive professional development points. Currently, Let’s Live in Harmony plans to continue expanding to more schools with the aim to make the program accessible online for all.  

SIL LEAD: We are pleased that Bloom has been and is being used for creating accessible books. The platform provides people the wherewithal to enhance any book with accessible features. They just open a book in Bloom and they can add image descriptions, audio, sign language video and so forth. And Bloom has grown a lot–we now have more than 11,000 books that are free and open digital content in more than 480 languages. And it’s really exciting to see people and organizations creating and using that digital content. A graphic showing the structure of organization of reading networks with WhatsAppFor example, under the USAID LEA project in Guatemala,  we supported  the Ministry of Education to develop 600 books that have hundreds of thousands of reads–and that’s really the fruit of them having used Bloom, putting 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. 

What key insights did you learn about what works and what doesn’t work in using your EdTech solution with disadvantaged groups and providing access to content?

Benetech: We’ve learned that Bookshare Corners [spaces in regional libraries where community members can learn about Bookshare and access content] are super-efficient in expanding access to learning materials for people who are blind or low-vision. We launched a program with the Filipino government to create Bookshare Corners in 33 schools. We added to the spaces an open source screen reader, NVDA [NonVisual Desktop Access], so they can access the accessible content on laptops using Microsoft Windows, or they can use Windows 10’s Narrator, an inbuilt screen reader, that supports 67 languages. There is limited accessible content in Filipino, so we are conducting training on converting content that is in PDF format to accessible formats, which will also allow readers  to navigate  from chapter to chapter, essential to truly accessible content. 

eKitabu: Our theory of change is very straightforward: reach, utilization, and impact. Each element is critical. “Reach” means meeting learners where they are–in and out of schools, in communities–and using technology that is available to them. “Utilization” requires ongoing support and programming that respects and recognizes learner, teacher, family and community member engagement in learning. We’ve learned that “impact” follows from this sustained engagement in learning–more than anything technical.

SIL LEAD: One of Bloom’s limitations is that you either have to have an Android phone or a phone that has a modern browser in order to read Bloom books. In many places, though, people have feature phones (mobile phones that incorporate features such as the ability to access the internet and store and play music) instead of Android devices. In our current Begin With Books project in Mali, we are collaborating with Worldreader to share Bloom books through their platform that can be accessed on feature phones. Also, Bloom version 5.3 can now convert a Bloom book to a video that can be played on feature phones. These are ways that we’re trying to reach a much wider audience.

Another learning is that digital doesn’t meet the needs of all communities. You still have to be able to provide print in some cases, so we’re glad that Bloom can go either direction. 

When there’s an opportunity to adapt books, you really have to have local engagement to have content that meets local needs.

When there’s an opportunity to adapt books, you really have to have local engagement to have content that meets local needs. It’s a representation issue: the illustrations and the story need to enable a child to see themself in a story, to say, “That’s me!”

What barriers have you faced when using EdTech to reach disadvantaged learners? 

ekitabu: We always try to leverage existing infrastructure and devices available to learners, teachers and families, but disadvantaged learners simply do not have access to devices in some cases. And, even if they do, many times they are not well maintained or are out of date. Additionally, our team often finds themselves in the position of frontline IT support to get devices working before our content can be utilized.

Curious Learning: There are several limiting beliefs that hold individuals and institutions back from pursuing innovative and potentially game changing solutions using new mediums like smartphones. 

There are several limiting beliefs that hold individuals and institutions back from pursuing innovative and potentially game changing solutions using new mediums like smartphones. 

Often, the inclination is to replicate the existing model, but just digitally instead of unlocking many of the advantages of using a smartphone. For example, implementing a curriculum that was designed for a classroom setting with a well trained educator facilitating learning may not be possible, or even desirable, when using a digital medium for learning. On the other hand, activating a child’s agency and curiosity may be much easier with gamified learning content, which can be the catalyst for learning when using a smartphone.

Another challenge is that apps have to be maintained and updated or they go defunct. While smartphones and well-designed digital learning content are promising in reaching marginalized children, it isn’t a silver bullet either and must be constantly maintained and improved, otherwise the content can lack engagement which is key to learning or become defunct.

RIT/NTID: In our current projects, we are facing several barriers. The first, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people were still nervous about meeting each other in person, especially in the Fiji islands and Papua New Guinea. Also, due to the pandemic, we could not go in person to these countries and provide training; we had to adjust the training to a virtual format, which removed the ability to ask questions and manipulate the materials with the time to fully understand the concept. Virtual training sessions are not the same as in-person training sessions. We also faced barriers of finding time to meet with each other because of the time differences in all three countries, which made training challenging.

We also need to make our platform more accessible for readers and creators and we are looking for funding to be able to do that. In addition, we need to improve connectivity of the platform to support  large video files. For  areas where the connection is slow, it can be frustrating for the creator to add content as it is time consuming. 

SIL LEAD: When providing digital reading solutions, we encounter communities that don’t have devices or very few devices. But one of the things we are finding is that, in many places, reading is more of a social activity than an individual activity. You’ll have a group of kids looking at a device together. We think of reading as every person has a device in their hand, but  there are ways to have digital reading in a context without having to take the one-book-one-kid, one-device-one-kid approach. You can do a lot with fewer devices that are shared.

You can do a lot with fewer devices that are shared.

Having just a few devices in a classroom, or showing the book on a projector, can result in all kids getting some benefit. In Guatemala, they were really looking at a household having a smartphone, and the books were being pushed out to households and shared that way. So that’s another way of multiplying the impact of those digital devices. You can have one device, and a whole family could benefit from that–and probably friends, too.

All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development is a partnership between USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government.