INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Dr. Jamie Alexandre of Learning Equality Shares with Us How His Team is Responding to the Learning Crisis Deepened by COVID-19
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Dr. Jamie Alexandre: We’re all doing well, thank you. Most of my family lives in Canada, where the impacts of COVID-19 have been far less catastrophic than here in the United States. It’s been difficult not to be able to travel to spend time together, but we’re privileged to have Internet access that allows us to stay connected in other ways.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Learning Equality.
Dr. Jamie Alexandre: I have always been a tinkerer — with love for taking things apart and putting them back together — and a passion for learning and helping others learn. I started my Ph.D. in Cognitive Science focused on basic research around language learning and grammar acquisition, but quickly realized that I wanted to be doing more practical work that had a direct impact, which led me down the road of education technology.
During a summer internship at Khan Academy in 2012, a fellow intern and I had the idea to bring Khan Academy offline using the low-cost, low-power Raspberry Pi computer. We built a prototype of this, and then I worked with a dedicated group of fellow students back at UC San Diego to bring this idea to life, officially launching “KA Lite” that December. We knew there was a need, with 2/3 of the world still offline, but weren’t prepared for how strong the demand would be, with organic adoption spreading like wildfire around the world. This same group of volunteer students incorporated the non-profit organization Learning Equality, in 2013, to build towards a world in which everyone, regardless of connectivity, could benefit from and contribute to an equitable education technology ecosystem. Building upon the lessons, we learned from supporting the expansion of KA Lite to millions of learners across over 200 countries and territories. We developed our second-generation Learning Platform, Kolibri, which launched in 2017.
How does Learning Equality innovate?
Dr. Jamie Alexandre: Learning Equality innovates by technology-enhanced learning possible without requiring the Internet. The decision to go “against the current” and focus on building educational technology for use in places where the Internet is not available was driven by our focus on equity and social justice. Given that 50% of the world’s population still doesn’t have access to the Internet, we knew we needed to create tools that met learners’ and educators’ needs where they’re at today, not 20 years from now. Even before the pandemic hit, one in three children globally was either in or out of school but not achieving basic literacy and numeracy. These numbers have gotten worse during the lockdown. We choose to do this work because we believe that education is a fundamental human right and that education technology can be a gamechanger for those who need it most.
Over the past seven years, we’ve been working to bridge the digital divide by creating learning software and tools that are free, open-source, device-agnostic, and adaptable to serve a wide variety of contexts and learning needs. We’re building a product ecosystem centered around the Kolibri Learning Platform, which provides offline access to an openly-licensed content library and supports differentiated and personalized learning. Kolibri is unique in that it provides educational content offline that can be pre-curated to align to standards or meet local needs while providing pedagogical support to educators so they can best incorporate Kolibri into their learning environments.
Our product roadmap is informed both by feedback from a global network of grassroots users and close collaborations with our partners. We’ve always been motivated and inspired by seeing the stories of innovation from grassroots users of Kolibri, who are coming up with creative solutions to overcome the massive barriers they face.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Dr. Jamie Alexandre: COVID-19 has deepened the digital divide that Learning Equality has been working to overcome for the past 7 years. So when the pandemic hit, we knew we had an even bigger responsibility to respond, given our deep understanding of learning needs for disconnected learners and the potential for our ecosystem of tools to respond to the new global reality.
So the first order of business for us was to reprioritize our product roadmap in order to meet the most pressing needs of learners and educators. To support at-home learning on smartphones and tablets, we’re now finalizing the Kolibri Android App, which is currently being tested by some of our partners. We also created an array of guidance materials to support parents, caregivers, educators, and learners with distance learning. We expanded partnerships to provide alternative distribution models, like access via Mobile Network Operators and preloaded USB keys. More details on our COVID-19 response can be found here.
We’ve also supported community-building initiatives over the past few months to serve learners globally. We co-organized the #TranslateAStory book translation sprint back in April, through which our collaborators and ourselves recruited volunteers to translate children’s storybooks so that young readers could stay engaged with great books during quarantine, in their mother tongue. We are also collaborating with the Global EdTech Hub around the #FindFrench campaign, through which we are sourcing digital educational resources in French that we can bring offline to Francophone learners, to enable their continuity of learning while at-home.
The challenges that are now being discussed more widely, such as the lack of access to the Internet, devices, and quality, openly available, relevant digital educational materials, are not new to us. So we are also coping by using this moment in time to engage with others on joint advocacy initiatives to shed additional light on these issues, such as in our participation in the UNESCO Global Education Coalition.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Dr. Jamie Alexandre: As an organization, we have been incredibly fortunate during the pandemic that we did not need to make tough decisions about our staffing and organizational future that so many other non-profits have needed to make. The difficult choices that we had to make were instead a direct result of capacity — because the need for what we do is so great, we had to shift and reprioritize our ongoing product development to meet the current needs due to social distancing and mass school closures. As a result, certain product features have been put on hold, which has been especially difficult given that those needs still exist, but are not the most urgent, immediate needs.
What we learn from this are two things:
(1) Our roadmap and vision for our product ecosystem was always heading in the direction of where we needed to be for COVID, and we are reassured that we have been on the right track.
(2) We are re-reminded of the value in taking a user-centered approach to our work (the fact that we took a step back when the pandemic hit, to evaluate where we can be most impactful given the needs that we researched through our community and external sources, enabled us to continue in this direction).
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Dr. Jamie Alexandre: My co-founders and I were acutely aware that we needed to continue caring for our employees’ mental and physical health and ourselves while quarantined, so we’ve made some internal shifts to employee benefits to support our team with managing stress and anxiety.
Some examples include offering yoga classes via Zoom from a local studio we wanted to support, expanding our professional development fund to include acquiring work-related equipment that would support staff to work from home more comfortably, as well as implementing, twice a week, a half-hour virtual get-together where we can connect and talk about things unrelated to work.
How do you project yourself and Learning Equality in the future?
Dr. Jamie Alexandre: Our route to scale is two-fold:
● Continuing to nurture our do-it-yourself adoption model that has led to Kolibri being used in 200 countries and territories globally.
● Continuing to form strategic partnerships such as with UN agencies, governments, and international NGOs so that Learning Equality can work closely with diverse organizations to learn from and iterate on the Kolibri ecosystem, to inform the continuous development of a needs-based ecosystem that supports learning for a long time to come.
And of course, as already mentioned, feedback from our end users will shape the future of our products. In the next year, we’re continuing to focus on our roadmap, with an emphasis on supporting the learner’s user experience as they discover and progress through content at their own pace, whether at home or back in school, with support from teachers and other mentors.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Dr. Jamie Alexandre: The reality is that the needs are immense to support learning in places without consistent Internet connectivity, but these learning needs may vary depending on the context. Learning Equality is one of the few organizations that has designed a learning platform and ecosystem of supportive products for low-resource contexts. What sets us apart is that our product ecosystem is centered around an open-source solution and leverages openly licensed materials to eliminate cost barriers. We designed for the environments in which our products are used by enabling our platform to run on low-cost and legacy devices, ensuring the technology itself is low-maintenance and works for those with limited digital literacy skills, and that our approach to learning is designed to be flexible and adaptable to unique learning needs.
Instead of viewing the landscape as competitive, there is a fair amount of complementarity to our work. We collaborate with many other like-minded organizations that focus on access to quality learning materials without Internet connectivity or sourcing local content for these communities — such as Endless OS Foundation, Internet-in-a-Box, Libraries Without Borders, and World Possible. Given that we all have similar goals, many of these organizations leverage Kolibri within their own projects, on their own unique hardware devices. We focus on sharing learning resources, distributing Kolibri on their hardware, and researching different implementation models with these organizations. So long as we continue to take a needs-driven approach to develop technology for learning, we know that the work we’re doing will be in high demand for a long time to come.
Your final thoughts?
Dr. Jamie Alexandre: From our early beginnings through today, we have been blessed with an incredible community that supports our work — including developers who contribute to our code on GitHub, the translators who internationalize our products, and the users themselves who also act as champions of this cause. The COVID-19 pandemic has been unique in so many ways, but what has been most inspiring is how progress has accelerated towards the goals we have always been working towards through our products as well as in some of our collaborations. Yes, a lot of in-person work has been put on hold as a result of social distancing measures and the inability to adapt given infrastructural constraints, but as the context continues to shift and evolve, we continue to see innovation. Our progress and impact is a direct result of our community, and we look forward to seeing how our community continues to grow, during the pandemic and beyond.
You can learn more about us at www.learningequality.org and follow us on social media.
● Twitter: @LearnEQ
● Facebook: @LearningEquality
● Instagram: @LearningEquality
● LinkedIn: @Foundation-for-Learning-Equality
● Video: Google.org+ Learning Equality – Closing Global Education Gaps
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