2015-10-31 11.34.34Held over three days in Washington DC, the mEducation Alliance Symposium brought organisations using mobile technologies for education purposes together. Participants included leading international donor organisations, major research institutes, key policy makers, project innovators, large international nonprofits as well as smaller ones, like FunDza. The aim was to deepen knowledge exchange and collaboration for sharing and scaling project impact. The Symposium was designed to create opportunities for conversation and collaboration, with game-like elements included.

The first day, held at The Grand Hyatt, featured a range of pitch presentations by organisations as well as an exhibit fair. I presented on behalf of FunDza as part of the Promoting Learning segment. The pitch was specifically for FunDza’s new programme – Deepening Reading Practice, which is building a series of online reading curricula for use by schools, organisations and other groups that are keen to use FunDza stories, articles and content as a means to improve literacy, grow vocabulary, impart language skills, and deepen understanding of text and meaning.

Other notable organisations also pitching were Pratham Books which has built StoryWeaver – an open-source platform for developing, sharing and increasing the availability of multi-lingual stories for children. Touchable Earth – an initiative to share children’s stories and experiences with one another through recorded videos. Mobility Labs Nu’s Treehouse – an app for early literacy, numeracy and SEL. Pixatel Systems’ low-cost adaptive learning tool. IICD’s programmes to bring primary education on tablets to Malawian students through offline solutions.

The early part of the day included opportunities to meet and chat with other participants. One of the challenges was talking about technologies that 30 years ago we thought would be available now and then also thinking about the technologies that would be ubiquitous in 30 years time. We chatted about how technology is likely to become even more seamlessly integrated into our lives – through smart-machines, -houses, -devices. But also the potential downsides of these innovations – privacy concerns (particularly in terms of children and their information), lack of human contact through too much virtual stimulation, etc. And, we also considered the growing digital divide: while bringing these sorts of technologies to smart-cities may be easy, bringing them to rural, far-flung spaces would be hard. What impacts would this have on inequality?

The day ended with a Writers Block, where participants were put into four groups and taken through a process of creating a children’s book with a STEM subject. There were four different interactive stations. One was hosted by two local authors who worked with the participants to collaboratively write a short children’s book. The next was with the National Science Foundation looking at how to integrate STEM concepts into stories. The third was demonstrated the BLOOM technology (winner of the All Children Reading Challenge), which allows for the easy production and re-versioning of open source children’s stories. And, the final station called on participants to consider distribution processes and debate the benefits (and the drawbacks) of print versus digital production and distribution.

The second and third days of the conference were held at the United States Institute for Peace. During the Plenary Discussion, Richard Jones of VSO spoke about a project in Papua New Guinea that used SMS to send teachers short stories and activities for use in the classroom. Click here for the full research report.

At the breakaway sessions, I looked at projects that promoted education in crisis and conflict zones. One of the highlights was VOTO Mobile, which used its software to provide education to children who couldn’t attend school during the ebola crisis. The solution delivered voice communications to basic mobile phones as a way to access relevant, interactive and personalised education content. It also integrated Bluetooth technology into the solution for interactivity and monitoring.

Another innovation worth mentioning is FHI360’s K-Mobile which allows for the monitoring of education information via mobile phones. The solution works in both a connected and an offline environment.

Other interesting presentations were from some of the leading international donor agencies, which spoke about the projects they were doing, their strategies for impact and the type of projects they’re interested in pursuing in the future.

The following day, I attended the breakout session with Bridge International Academies, eKitabu and blueTree Group. eKitabu is providing e-books to schools in Kenya, while blueTree Group provides consulting advice and research services for governments, organisations and publishers around access to books. Bridge International Academies is well-known for its innovative use of technologies inside the classroom and outside too – to reduce costs and increase efficiencies in the school management system. They are now reaching 100,000 children in East Africa. FunDza plans – through its publishing partner Cover2Cover Books – to make its hugely popular reading material available to children in Kenya through eKitabu’s services.

Another interactive and exciting breakaway session was one around providing girls with better access to education. As Rob Whitby, of DFID, noted there are two particularly important times in a child’s life: the ECD stage – during which if there are the ‘right’ interventions a child’s future can be that much brighter; and, then adolescence, specifically for girls. In groups we considered a wide range of problems that girls face – from gender stereotyping, to violence and safety, to menstrual and reproductive health, to lack of opportunities to access education, etc – and then at possible solutions to these issues.

I was able to share some of FunDza’s experiences in using stories as a way to introduce discussion on these topics. We believe that stories are powerful vehicles for personal development and growth. While we’re keen to get girls reading, so we’re keen to ensure that the boys that read our stories can learn to feel empathy for girls and their experiences, and for both boys and girls to be exposed to positive role-models.

The conference covered a wide range of topics but perhaps the greatest benefit were the conversations that took place over coffees and lunches as people shared their stories and experiences from different parts of the world.

It was a deeply enriching experience which has helped me to focus on areas where I think that we can contribute more to the development of the young people we reach, and it has also introduced me to other technologies and platforms that may be useful in deepening and scaling our impact. Watch this space for how we take these ideas forward!