Why ‘offline’ digital learning is key to impacting children around the world

As thousands of educators, entrepreneurs and investors gathered at the recent ASU+GSV Summit, the premier event for innovation around human development, a growing number recognized both the need and the opportunity for educational innovation in low-income countries, especially for the more than 250 million people. children who do not have access to school.

But many of the proposed solutions still focus on internet-based solutions. The landscape is glaringly lacking in adaptive digital learning solutions that are offline.

As we work to increase universal internet access, the edtech ecosystem cannot ignore the hundreds of millions of children currently without connectivity but eager to learn.

The offline opportunity

To illustrate this need and opportunity, consider the case of Africa.

The continent’s share of the world’s population is expected to increase from 17% in 2020 to 26% in 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Dynamics. The need for scalable, efficient and technology-enabled learning will also increase significantly, as there will be 450 million children born in Africa in the 2020s and over 550 million in the 2040s.

The International Finance Corporation, however, reports that only 22% of Africans have internet access, and probably less than 5% of the most marginalized children.

Even if these children could have access to the Internet, most would find the cost prohibitive to learn how to use it. This is because the cost of data would not allow them to learn on these platforms, let alone learn well, in the same way that individuals in high-income countries had access to the internet 15 years ago but weren’t using it to stream movies.

Therefore, these children need an offline digital solution that adapts to the learning needs of the child.

“Access to world-class learning that isn’t dependent on internet connectivity or the power grid is critical to serving hundreds of millions of children right now,” said Joe Wolf, CEO of the nonprofit. non-profit Imagine Worldwide (of which I am a board member). ).

Imagine Worldwide, which I’ve talked about here before, is currently partnering with local organizations in seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa to deliver technology-enabled, accessible, effective and affordable learning.

Children drive their own learning at their own pace using interactive software that provides comprehensive, research-based curriculum and pedagogy. The learner accesses the software on a tablet, which works without connectivity and can be recharged using solar energy. Intermittent internet access allows the software provider to collect data and update content accordingly.

Plus, it costs less than $10 per child per year, which includes the cost of the digital learning program, accessories, power plants, shipping, and implementation support. As these interventions evolve, the cost also decreases.

Increasing evidence of impact

This learning solution that works for offline students is extremely promising. A two-year randomized controlled trial Imagine Worldwide conducted with children in Malawi showed statistically significant learning gains in literacy and math despite multiple COVID-induced disruptions.

The highlights were:

  • 4.2 months of additional literacy learning after 13 months of interrupted schooling;
  • 72% of students achieved emergent or fluent math status;
  • 50% more children are progressing according to national literacy criteria;
  • Girls benefited at least as much as boys, which contrasts sharply with the results obtained in the standard classroom in similar environments.

There was also promising evidence of improved engagement, with data showing better attendance, behavior and attitudes towards learning.

Galvanizing action

For students in these environments, they will likely eventually gain internet access, but it will take some time. Investments in these offline solutions can fortunately pay off immediately for these children and provide many of the benefits of online solutions at a lower cost.

And, in classic disruptive innovation style, those same solutions will improve as those students gain internet access over time, so there won’t be any wasted investment.

That means it’s time to start scaling those edtech solutions that meet the needs and conditions of tens of millions of the most marginalized children.

Imagine Worldwide reports strong demand for its program across sub-Saharan Africa, with significant opportunities to expand to millions of students in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Malawi and Tanzania, both in public schools and refugee camps.

It also means funders should start looking for ways to invest in more edtech solutions that address this need and opportunity.

Some of these solutions may be local for-profit opportunities that leverage the ingenuity of entrepreneurs to create solutions tailored to local circumstances. By analogy outside of education, these examples might look like Copia, a Kenyan e-commerce start-up that helps rural people buy basic goods or Metro African Express, a Nigerian ride-sharing company that uses motorbikes. , not cars. It is better suited to the African context than carpooling companies, for example.

Others may involve engaging the best information technology companies to design solutions for the hundreds of millions of children who are offline or creating open source solutions that local entrepreneurs can build on.

All these avenues are extremely promising. But they demand that the edtech sector not only think about online learning solutions, but also about digital solutions that are offline and put kids in the driver’s seat.

The need is acute, the technology is accessible and massively scalable, and evidence backed by solid research exists. It’s time to act.

Patrick L. Williams