Re-defining Innovation: Using the Offline EdTech Platform Kolibri to Support Learners Globally

GlobalEd Leadership is excited to bring you this blog by Laura Danforth. Laura is the Global Community Lead at Learning Equality, where she drives program implementation, training and community management. She is motivated by the dual goals of creating equal access to educational opportunity and utilizing technology to help meet the needs of all learners. Laura holds an Ed.M. in Language and Literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has previously taught elementary school in Chicago.

For many educators in the Global North, daily life has become more interconnected digitally than ever in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with an array of challenges brought about by rapidly shifting to online education and hybrid learning practices. At our non-profit organization Learning Equality, we have been thinking deeply this past year about how to support learners and educators for whom the resources to pivot are not always readily available, or when turning to Zoom was not an accessible option. An estimated 3 billion people globally still lack Internet access, and in many communities the connectivity available is not reliable enough to support a fully online distance learning model. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in every five children, adolescents and youth around the world was out of school, and one in six was not reaching minimum proficiency in reading or mathematics. These same learners, as well as the educators who serve them, face barriers accessing the wealth of quality, relevant educational experiences that exist online. The education gap has widened even further as schools around the world experienced intermittent closures in 2020 and into 2021. More than 188 countries, which encompasses around 91% of learners globally, have at some point closed their schools to try to contain the spread of the virus.

The number of learners who could benefit from Learning Equality’s solutions to help close the digital divide is around 400 million. The scale of the problem and the potential for impact on learning outcomes for disconnected and marginalized communities are motivating factors for our approach and daily work. Our mission is to bridge this digital divide by distributing educational resources and fostering innovative pedagogy in disconnected communities in a variety of diverse contexts, ranging from formal and rural schools, community centers, refugee camps, and detention centers.

Through the Kolibri Product Ecosystem, we have worked to provide tools that support existing pedagogical structures, particularly through guidance in the integration of different kinds of blended learning practices. Depending on the models and resources available in each context, we have seen this take a variety of forms, from individual exploration of resources on a tablet in non-formal settings like community centers, to structured assignment of lessons and quizzes within the Kolibri Learning Platform with formal school curricula in classrooms, to supplementary learning after school with individual learners or small groups. We have designed Kolibri with low resource contexts in mind, intending it to be adaptable to meet the needs of educators and learners in a wide range of contexts and use cases.

What has stood out to our team as we heard stories from school leaders and organizations around the world responding to the pandemic is that the concept of innovation in education stretched far beyond the idea of “modernizing” towards the latest technology. Innovation during this period has looked like the rapid ability to pivot, think creatively, and work with the tools at hand.

We shifted our own work in parallel to support administrators and educators in thinking about how the use of Kolibri could support gaps while using existing resources available. For programs that were using Kolibri regularly in-person, but needed to shift to a distance learning model, we developed “how-to” guides for families to set up Kolibri easily at home if a computer was available, guidance templates for facilitators to use in low-connectivity environments, and strategies for teachers to send Kolibri resources over WhatsAppto families with access to a mobile device.

An example of a resource developed during COVID-19 for learners to use alongside Kolibri while learning independently at home.

We also pivoted some of our engineering focus to build out the Kolibri Android App, which would enable Kolibri to run self-contained on an Android phone or tablet and thus better support learners with mobile devices at home. Shoulder to Shoulder, an organization based in Honduras who has been a long-time implementer of Kolibri in the schools they support, became one of the first teams to pilot use of the Kolibri Android App in order to support learners during school closures. They loaded tablets with Kolibri and with the support of dedicated teachers, made visits to students at home to deliver the tablets and provide 1-1 facilitation support.

Other organizations and implementers deployed unique models to reach a wider breadth of learners. In Uganda, the National IT Authority (NITA) in collaboration with UNICEF and the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) provided their national Kolibri server containing content relevant to the national curriculum to support at-home learning. The server was made available for free through zero-rating for MTN (a local telecom company) subscribers. This zero-rated model to access Kolibri on an online server has also been utilized by Vodafone Foundation across multiple Sub-Saharan African countries, and saw expanded use particularly by Vodafone DRC after recommendation from the Ministry of Education for use during COVID-19.

Photo credit: Shoulder to Shoulder

While a majority of the organizations implementing Kolibri have been in the Global South, we saw an uptick in inquiries from schools and organizations domestically here in the U.S, in communities where Internet connectivity is prevalent in school buildings but not for all families at home. “Approximately 15 million to 16 million K-12 public school students, or 30% of all public K-12 students, live in households either without an internet connection or device adequate for distance learning at home, a higher number than previously recorded.” For some programs, Kolibri afforded a means by which content traditionally only offered online could be loaded onto existing devices at home for learners without the Internet. We also connected with TIU11, an organization based in Pennsylvania, who worked with a local county to load 1,000 Rasberry Pis with relevant, organized content from Kolibri to students with limited or no connectivity.

As we look ahead and plan out our roadmap for the Kolibri Product Ecosystem, research continues to support the notion that “students themselves should be seen as agents of their own learning, and their roles in learning should be reimagined to leverage and cultivate their agency, purpose, self-direction and independent learning.” Upcoming development work on Kolibri will center around features that enable this sense of agency in learners to better navigate and have ownership over their learning experiences. This will be beneficial not only only for contexts where we see a longer term shift to hybrid learning models where part of the learning takes place at home, but also for fully in-person environments under the direct support of a facilitator. Outside of the importance of recognizing the academic benefits of students having self-direction over their learning, we commonly see learning environments with large class sizes of 100 students or more, and we work to provide tools and structures within Kolibri to best support educators in managing their resource capacity and pedagogical practices.

Getting started:

For educational leaders who see a potential benefit in integrating Kolibri into their programs, we provide resources to help facilitate adoption with as few barriers as possible. I have worked over the last few years with some of my colleagues on developing the Kolibri EdTech Toolkit, a collection of openly licensed materials that educators, administrators, learners and education programming staff can use to think through everything from hardware, to installation, to content and best practices for implementation.

We hope educational leaders will feel empowered about the opportunities Kolibri can provide in a range of learning environments, and would love to hear from those who are thinking about starting their own programs by reaching out on our Community Forum.

A variety of resources, including video tutorials such as this on using Kolibri as a learner, are available for getting started.

Take a look below at some of our other resources for getting started and let us know how you make Kolibri fly in your community.

A big thank you to Laura for sharing the exciting work of Learning Equality with us!

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