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School calendar interruptions show need for digital learning support

school girl

Recent interruptions in the school learning calendar have exposed the need for an alternative learning pathway that allows our children to continue learning, even when circumstances beyond our control like the pandemic and its resultant effects such as the compressed catchup learning calendar, necessitate the need to suspend learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the recent Kenya General elections are cases of unfortunate scenarios where learning had to be interrupted to enable global and national responses, respectively.

These two events have had wide social, economic and political impacts. It will take time to recover and catch up.

The pandemic created a severe learning crisis with children, many already struggling to access quality educational resources, seeing these opportunities dwindle due to the competing needs at the household level, the reality of a shrinking economy and access to (financial) resources.

The solution lies in integrating and scaling up digital reading and learning as a complementary pathway to delivering uninterrupted learning opportunities for learners across the country. The positive outcomes of digital reading interventions are numerous, whether implemented at home or at school.

Studies already show that there’s a bigger problem of an underdeveloped reading culture that pervades our society, and Africa in general.

The reading culture across the continent is lower when compared to other continents, especially the global North, mostly tending to focus on reading and studying for exams, leaving very little room for building a culture of leisure reading.

As with any other practice, the more it is done, the better one gets at it. Reading is no different; The more one reads widely, the better one gets at it, the more one’s mind opens up to possibilities.

The World Bank reports that 53 percent of children in low-income countries do not have reading proficiency at the age of 10 years.

Across the continent, the fundamental foundation of reading is reflected strongly in the early grades; Yet proficiency is not achieved at benchmark and reading cuts across all sectors and needs to be appreciated as a lifelong activity.

The state of the reading culture can be attributed to a combination of reasons, among them:

Inadequate financing in early learning leading to inadequate resources to support a strong integrated reading foundation that cuts across the spectrum of learning. In-servicing educators to deliver optimally is costly. To do a stellar job, teachers need resources.

Parents and caregivers don’t see their role in the reading ecosystem, relegating it to a school-based activity despite the fact that there is so much support that can be offered from home. Digital can and should address this gap. These parents and caregivers already own a device which they can leverage to provide support at home.

The government of Kenya has had an ICT in learning policy from the onset of the Digital Learning Programme. Working with Community and Development Partners, the EdTech environment is expanding in scope and depth, facilitating a responsive e-learning space. The Kenya government has been in the forefront of promoting digital learning.

Worldreader, an international NGO, has been working with partners globally to support vulnerable and underserved communities with digital reading solutions that provide early reading experiences which help improve learning outcomes.

Worldreader work in East and West Africa, Latin America, the Middle East-North Africa, and South Asia has shown that positive outcomes of digital reading interventions are numerous, whether implemented at home or at school.

BookSmart app which is easily downloadable on data-connected devices, feature or smartphones, provides a library of culturally-relevant digital books in 5 languages, integrated support and strong data insights to ensure children gain access to quality reading and learning materials, in school or at home, in order to help maintain their learning outcomes and become lifelong readers and informed decision makers.

Worldreader’s digital learning program has been able to significantly improve mother tongue oral reading fluency and familiar word recognition and at the same time help improve English reading skills. Girls are also enjoying significant benefits with the narrowing of educational and social gender gaps.

We’ve also observed that the program leads to higher teacher satisfaction rates and improved teacher retention.

There is also an increase in numbers of enrolled students and lower dropout rates as well as greater student participation in reading activities and general confidence. This learning comes from specific programmes implemented in different countries.

Many challenges still exist when deploying digital reading solutions at the national level. These require concerted efforts by various stakeholders including the government, development partners, communities and the private sector to address.

For instance, there's a need to streamline the policy environment to allow more seamless engagement between government and partners where cooperation is needed to roll out a digital reading solution.

At the same time there’s need to strengthen the existing infrastructure to enable the deployment of digital learning solutions including reliable connectivity across the nation and good support for offline solutions.

Technology solutions are still not so affordable therefore initiatives are needed to incentivize importers or local manufacturers of hardware so that they’re encouraged to play their part in availing gadgets for digital learning.

COVID 19 exposed deep capacity issues in the consumption and integration of digital solutions. While we appear to be a digital economy, digital skills are very unevenly distributed with the majority of the country lacking adequate knowledge and skills to support reading and learning at home, especially educators who were tasked with remote learning.

This calls for more investment in remote solutions and a better definition of what appropriate technology is for different communities. It is important also that the process is all inclusive and takes special consideration to the needs of the disabled and the vulnerable.

All in all, there’s need to ingrain digital as an essential mechanism to enhance home literacy and school learning environments, helping establish a hybrid model that will allow children, parents, caregivers, teachers and educators to use these tools to improve learning outcomes, cultivate knowledge, empathy, resilience and help them build a strong local community.

It is through this complimentary digital learning pathway that we can ensure children continue reading and learning at all times.