Using devices like smartphones as learning tools can be a low-cost, high impact method of increasing access to education, especially for hard-to-reach learners
Around the world, crises are increasing the number of children who are losing access to education. Conflict in Ukraine, militias in eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, gang violence in Central America, and the growing food crisis in the eastern Africa are adding to already staggering numbers of children who are displaced and falling behind in education. By the end of 2021, children and families displaced by war, violence, persecution and human rights abuses stood at 89.3 million, up eight per cent from a year earlier and well over double the figure of 10 years ago, according to UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report.
Providing quality education in low resource countries is difficult enough without the added challenges associated with crises, especially for migrants and refugee children who lose access to traditional school environments. In addition, crises are not monolithic; contexts are different in each one, adding to the challenges of finding ways to keep children accessing education and learning as they travel from country to country. What works in one situation may not work in another.
All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) believes education technology can continue children’s learning when access to traditional education environments is limited. With devices as simple as a mobile or smartphone, children, parents and their teachers can access evidence-based literacy and learning applications and thousands of high-quality digital books in languages they use and understand–whether they are at home, on the move, in refugee camps, migrant settlements, reading clubs, or host-country schools and libraries.
With devices as simple as a mobile or smartphone, children, parents and their teachers can access evidence-based literacy and learning applications and thousands of high-quality digital books in languages they use and understand….
Innovators like Curious Learning are shifting perspectives on using devices like smartphones from communication tools to learning tools, especially for hard to reach learners. The organization localizes, distributes and measures use of digital learning software, including Feed the Monster–a literacy app created through the ACR GCD EduApp4Syria competition in 2016–which is 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.
“The traditional model views schools as the single entry point to children’s learning,” says Creesen Naicker, Curious Learning’s Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, “but we take a ‘fit for purpose’ approach.”
EdTech enables literacy content to be easily adapted to different situations, explains Naicker. Giving children access to learning through apps like Feed the Monster can fill gaps in support of traditional education–or the absence of it–and high-quality content featured in Feed the Monster, digital libraries and other learning applications don’t need to be delivered by a trained facilitator and can be used alone, in groups or in school, Naicker points out.
But EdTech faces challenges in getting into the hands of children. Naicker says there’s a need to shift paradigms in the education sector. “There are several limiting beliefs that hold individuals and institutions back from pursuing innovative and potentially game changing solutions using new mediums like smartphones,” he says.
Naicker and other innovators often find themselves mythbusting misconceptions about EdTech, like it’s too expensive, it isolates children, children don’t have access to devices, or that it has little educational value or just doesn’t work–the last being a misconception too often encountered by Rama Kayyali of Little Thinking Minds and Nedjma Koval of INTEGRATED, ACR GCD grant awardees in 2014.
“There are so many naysayers out there, which is shocking in the post-COVID environment,” reflects Koval, who says the issue is compounded by the wide range of EdTech available, some of which does not work, and the need to help people distinguish between those and evidence-based and tested EdTech that is extremely effective in improving reading and learning.
Below are several key concepts and examples around when and how EdTech can provide access to education and support continued learning for children in low-resource contexts, including crisis and conflict situations.
Edtech is a game changer when appropriately applied
Over the past 10 years, ACR GCD has compiled a range of research and resources showing that EdTech with high-quality content, when applied appropriately, enables access to learning for marginalized populations, significantly lowers the cost of providing reading content and exponentially improves reading outcomes. Our technology-based literacy projects have not only effectively disseminated new or existing learning materials to underserved populations in languages they use and understand but also enabled equitable access to teaching and learning materials for children with disabilities.
In particular, EdTech with high-quality content can be a game changer in contexts where it provides access to education and learning materials for a child who previously did not have access, where it significantly lowers the cost of providing access as compared to the status quo, and where it can significantly increase relevant learning outcomes as compared to current programs.
Increasing inclusive access
When applied appropriately, EdTech can be an equalizer for access to literacy, particularly for girls and children with disabilities.
For example, digital literacy games and apps can increase reading outcomes in out of school settings for girls, particularly those who are denied other educational opportunities. When evaluating the impact of two of the literacy apps created through the EduApp4Syria Prize, Feed the Monster and Antura and the Letters, data on both apps show girls making gains, particularly in oral reading fluency, which is a strong predictor of reading comprehension. A recent World Bank study that distributed $40 cell phones preloaded with Feed the Monster and the Global Digital Library to 3,000 children in Northern Nigeria indicates that literacy apps in homes have a spillover effect, increasing literacy skills in siblings (including sisters) at a just slightly lower percentage than the main child using the app.
Producing high-quality digital books with accessible formats and features–like text highlighting, audio, eBraille, large print and sign language–ensures children with disabilities have the same opportunities to participate in education. The World Around You platform, created with funding awarded through the ACR GCD Sign on For Literacy Prize, includes an online library of digital sign language storybooks as well as open source software that enables communities to create literacy content in local and national sign languages. These storybooks are easily accessed on smartphones, tablets and computers in homes, classrooms and other settings, and can be downloaded as ePubs and used offline. In Malawi, ACR GCD innovator eKitabu is creating 220 eBraille storybooks, which can be uploaded on Orbit readers (a refreshable braille display and stand-alone reader device). With funding from ACR GCD, Benetech’s human narrated stories on Bookshare provide students who are blind and low vision with accessible educational content to listen to on low-cost audio devices while simultaneously reading braille. (Learn more about reading materials for children who are blind and low vision.)
EdTech grounded in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles is particularly effective in advancing inclusive learning with accessible digital content. UDL is a theoretical framework that focuses on assisting teachers in planning to meet students’ diverse needs and developing flexible learning environments and learning spaces that can accommodate individual learning differences. Last year, ACR GCD awardee eKitabu trained teachers in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps how to apply the three UDL principles through the use of hands-on examples using the android tablets provided by Humanity and Inclusion and loaded with accessible digital content.
Improving psychosocial outcomes and social connections
EdTech can also impact a child’s emotional and psychological well-being as well as build connections in communities.
Feed the Monster and Antura and the Letters were designed to not only build foundational literacy but also improve the psychosocial well-being for Syrian refugee children. Parents of children using the apps reported that their children were not only improving their reading skills by using the app but were happy afterwards.
In 2018, Little Thinking Minds implemented the Live in Harmony multimedia project in 100 public schools in Jordan as part of the Ministry of Education’s work to provide an innovative approach to educational needs of children, with a focus on instilling social values and improving social cohesion through multimedia learning. The project not only resulted in an increase in literacy performance and awareness of social cohesion vocabulary, but also an increase in social and collaborative behavior among Syrians and Jordanians children attending double-shifted schools.
According to the World Bank, EdTech can also create new connections between teachers, students, parents and broader communities to reform and reimagine the way education is delivered.
Taking advantage of growing mobile phone ownership and use
Estimates of how much of the world’s population own smart or mobile phones ranges from 50% to more than 80%, and the number is growing. Smartphones and the ability to access social media platforms through them are now an essential part of a refugee’s toolkit. In 2016, UNHCR reported that 71% of the world’s refugee households at that time owned a mobile phone, and 93% of all refugees lived in areas covered by either 2G or 3G networks, representing a potential way to communicate with and provide resources to these populations.
And, according to Curious Learning’s data, children are using their parents’ phones. “Either millions of adults are playing our early learning apps, or their children are,” says Naicker.
Making a low-cost, big impact
A substantial amount of evidence-based, effective EdTech reading and learning material is available for free use, adaptation and distribution. For example, online libraries like the Global Digital Library, Bloom, Let’s Read Asia and others house thousands of free high-quality, accessible digital reading and learning materials that are available online and offline, downloadable, adaptable and able to be translated online as well, making reading material easily–and cheaply– accessible in languages children use and understand.
Social media has proven to be a powerful tool in promoting high-quality digital apps and games. “We’ve been able to put apps in the hands of children at very low costs,” says Naicker. In Nepal, Curious Learning spent $10,000 on Facebook promotion and reached 135,000 children. During their promotional push to Ukrainian refugees, Naicker reports that the average advertising cost per download was 15 cents.
Innovators, humanitarian organizations and others serving populations where smartphones and digital devices are scarce might consider whether programs that distribute devices preloaded with literacy and learning apps may be effective. The World Bank study that distributed inexpensive cell phones preloaded with Feed the Monster and the Global Digital Library to children in Northern Nigeria provides compelling evidence that high-quality EdTech can improve reading outcomes in as little as five days, with learning outcomes continuing to improve one month out–leading researchers to recommend similar EdTech interventions to address literacy and education.
The World Bank study that distributed inexpensive cell phones preloaded with Feed the Monster and the Global Digital Library to children in Northern Nigeria provides compelling evidence that high-quality EdTech can improve reading outcomes in as little as five days, with learning outcomes continuing to improve one month out–leading researchers to recommend similar EdTech interventions to address literacy and education.
Thinking beyond 1:1 child/device ratio to increase access and impact–and address the digital divide
To increase impact and usage of digital books and content–and address the digital divide, educators and innovators should also consider thinking beyond the one-to-one child-to-device paradigm.
For example, using digital, open source and accessible teaching and learning materials on smartphones connected to PICO projectors can turn any environment into a learning environment, complementing printed books, when they are available, and extending access to reading materials especially for children who use underserved languages and children with disabilities.
In contexts with no functioning community or school libraries, an e-library with collections of as few as 5 tablets that can be lent out to or used by children in community centers, reading camps and child friendly spaces. This type of lending library is attractive to children, provides personalized learning and ICT skills acquisition.
Both of the above strategies not only increase impact and usage but also address barriers to using digital learning materials and books.
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