Hacking Literacy: Three Reasons Early Literacy Initiatives Should Partner with Local Tech Community
by Matthew Vanderwerff, IREX
For 250 million children around the world, getting access to high-quality, relevant, and interesting reading material is a huge barrier to learning how to read. Many of these children are already enrolled in primary schools, but they don’t have sufficient access to quality materials – or the time to enjoy them. How can technology help connect children with the right materials to enrich their reading experience?
Today, the vast majority of global early reading investments using technology are focused on tools that make delivery of existing programming more effective. That’s the great impetus behind USAID’s Track and Trace initiative and Tangerine — a mobile Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) application. At IREX, we have been testing ways to build on this foundation so that early readers are able to use and benefit from new technologies as well.
In Ethiopia, IREX along with partner CODE Canada has piloted a new approach to link the local tech community with early literacy programming. In October 2015, we co-hosted a hackathon with local coders in which we challenged them to create early literacy apps that respond to gaps in the current app market. Working with literacy and programming experts, we selected the most promising developers and provided them iterative feedback to improve their designs. We are now testing the apps with partners and expect to launch the apps through shared tablets at up to 25 community libraries this year.
Our “Hacking Literacy” guide explains this approach in detail so that others can mobilize a broader range of creators in their communities to create and distribute reading materials.
Here are three reasons we think literacy programs should consider deeper engagement with local tech communities:
- Shared technology is a cost-effective way to deliver relevant materials to communities. It’s no longer true that physical books are cheap and technology is expensive. Supply chain challenges, environmental considerations, and procurement hurdles all mean that getting quality books to kids is resource intensive. In Bangladesh, where IREX and Save the Children are using tablets to deliver early literacy materials, the estimated cost per use is less than $1 (assuming the technology is refreshed annually). Technology costs are making shared community devices like tablets a much more cost effective way to make materials available to a wider community. In many countries, a 10-inch Samsung tablet can be purchased for under $250. This tablet can be updated with new materials from organizations like WorldReader, the Africa Storybook Project, or even new literacy apps.
- Literacy promotion should happen through communities. It’s not enough for early literacy programming to simply improve national book procurement policy and distribution channels to ensure content gets in the hands of kids. If a central goal of literacy initiatives is to broaden the range and availability of relevant and useful materials, communities should be given a greater role in creating and distributing those materials. This approach mobilizes a broader section of the community by applying the local technology community’s skills, experience, and networks to help create and distribute literacy materials.
- Kids—and their communities—should see reading as fun. When kids are taught that reading is a skill to pass tests, they are unlikely to see the real value of literacy--and as adults that perspective is difficult to change. Although overall literacy rates have increased globally, there’s evidence that adult literacy is stagnating or even declining in some places. Tech—especially interactive tablet and mobile based apps — does particularly well at engaging kids in literacy activities that are interesting and different than what kids encounter in school. Kids who need a bit more support or learn better with simultaneous visual and audible feedback can benefit as well. Turning literacy activities into games means that kids spend more time interacting with new concepts. And, contrary to how school tablet programs have been managed in the United States, our experience in Myanmar and Bangladesh suggests that kids and caretakers use tablets together as a shared learning and entertainment tool. These activities don’t replace printed text, but they do create another avenue for kids to engage with and learn early reading concepts.
 Education for All, Global Monitoring Report, 2015.
Matthew Vanderwerff is the Project Director for Beyond Access at the Center for Collaborative Technology at IREX