Policy Makers, Donors, and Innovators Convened in Africa: Here’s what they want to share about leveraging EdTech to improve reading

Policy makers, donors and innovators gather in Pretoria, South Africa, for the Leveraging Technology to Improve Early Grade Reading workshop hosted by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development.

Policy makers, donors, and innovators gather in Pretoria, South Africa, for the Leveraging Technology to Improve Early Grade Reading in Africa workshop hosted by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, the Global Book Alliance and Mobiles for Education Alliance in partnership with the Pearson Institute of Higher Education-Pretoria Campus.

“We’re here to acknowledge the marriage of technology and the power of reading,” said Ms. Kulula Manona from South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, kicking off a three-day workshop in Pretoria where early 100 policymakers, funders, implementers, researchers, and youth gathered to determine how technology could help improve early grade reading outcomes on the continent.

The workshop was hosted by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD), the Global Book Alliance and Mobiles for Education Alliance in partnership with the Pearson Institute of Higher Education-Pretoria Campus.  The event showcased EdTech innovations to better deliver reading materials to students, offer instructional support to teachers, and engage families and communities. Participants also shared lessons learned, collectively addressed challenges, and discussed how to equip policymakers to make decisions on the use of EdTech.

Three key takeaways emerged from the workshop:

1. EdTech decision-makers need to know what works and at what cost as well as the chance to trial technology before investing.

USAID’s Sandy Ojikutu reminded participants that “For every year of a child’s education, their income as an adult increases by about 10 percent.” But while the value of education is clear, the associated cost needs to be addressed. While integrating technology can drive the cost down and improve access to reading materials, decision-makers often weigh these benefits against real-life challenges of integration, potentially increasing disparity and the practicality of providing access to every student. Participants also acknowledged the tension between embracing technology and knowing it changes every day and that making the wrong decision on which technology to integrate into the classroom can be a very costly mistake, particularly in low-resource contexts.  The vocalization of these inhibitors revealed the need for greater investment in cost-benefit analysis.

Participants also had the opportunity to try several technologies that could complement their education programming, including assistive technologies. Carmen Strigel of RTI International demonstrated how apps such as PeekVision and hearScreen enable teachers to assess student’s hearing/vision and change how they engage these students.

The group acknowledged that giving decision-makers the opportunity to see these innovations up close,  and the research supporting them, could inspire greater investment.

2. Low demand for accessible products is a myth.

Liberia’s Deputy Minister of Education proudly noted that their education strategy includes targets around education and literacy for children with disabilities. This spurred conversation around the value of using assistive technologies in the classroom, with one participant noting, “If 10 to 15 percent of children have a disability, there is a market incentive for publishers to create and advertise accessible products. Low demand [for these tools] is a myth.”

To support that, Book Boost: Access for All Challenge winners eKitabu and SIL LEAD showcased business models that are rooted in optimizing and increasing the number of accessible books in the title development phase of the book value chain, resulting in a more efficient and cost-effective process. This information and resources, should incentivize digital content creators (many in attendance at the workshop) to create content in accessible formats.

ACR GCD’s extensive efforts to source solutions to increase learning outcomes for children with disabilities was shared, complemented by its evaluation report and winning edtech solutions anticipated from the Sign On for Literacy competition to provide a foundation of sign language for children who are deaf/hard of hearing. 

3. Families and communities need specific instructions on technology use to sustainably support children’s reading.

Technology platforms, like Bloom Library, Global Digital Library and Pukupedia, among others, have the potential to transform children’s access to quality stories in their mother language. However, participant Elinor Sisulu of the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation, reminded participants that “Devices do not dish out love and emotional support – people do,” emphasizing the importance of teachers, families, and communities in providing safe and supportive environments for children to develop a love of reading.

Participants also underscored the importance of family and community in selecting appropriate technology solutions for programs to improve reading. The World Bank Group DIME noted that campaigns and edutainment that leverage technology are powerful tools for changing behaviors. Successful health-focused behavior change campaigns suggest specific, defined behaviors, all equally feasible for the intended audience. Designing, experimenting, testing, and presenting defined behaviors such as reading 20 minutes per day with your child or asking your child to read aloud to you can increase parents and family members’ engagement.

Attendees also acknowledged that research is critical in measuring the impact families and communities play in improving child literacy and informing decision-makers. (For more information on this topic, see ACR GCD and School-to-School International’s new report, Engaging Families and Communities to Support Student Reading Skills Development.

Concluding the workshop, participants made commitments to working together, ACR GCD reaffirmed its intent to connect the broad partner ecosystem in Africa and around the world. Pearson South Africa’s Claudia Regnart was eager to convene partners within South Africa to address the country’s literacy challenges, and participants left with renewed enthusiasm and new tools and resources for the children they serve.

To continue this conversation, this report and webinar highlight findings from 11 EdTech pilot projects funded by ACR GCD from 2014-17.

Shelly Malecki is a Program Manager for All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development. She has more than 10 years of global development experience, including managing ACR GCD grantees in Mali, Mexico, Lesotho, the Philippines, South Africa and Zambia; and teaching and passionately serving vulnerable children in El Salvador, Russia and Uganda. She holds an MPA and MA in International Relations from Syracuse University. You can join the EdTech conversation with her on Twitter: @ReadingGCD.

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