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Engaging with equity: insights from our first sandbox meetup

a screenshot of a video call with the EdTech Hub Sandbox members.

Talented, committed innovators are working with EdTech all over the world to make sure children continue learning amidst the school closures caused by Covid-19. 

At the EdTech Hub, we are lucky to work with six such initiatives in Sandboxes. From experimenting with telephone helplines in Afghanistan to testing Whatsapp in refugee camps in Lebanon, to working with an advocacy campaign in Kenya to empower parents to keep their children learning, we are adapting and growing contextually appropriate technologies to solve the global learning crisis. 

Our Sandboxes all face common challenges, and last week we brought them together on one Zoom call around one of the most complex: How can we engage caregivers and communities when introducing EdTech interventions? 

The meetup was hosted by Craig from Mango Tree Literacy Lab and Tori from Ichuli Institute, who are leading a Sandbox exploring interactive radio models in northern Uganda. As part of the bigger topic, they requested a special focus on engaging equitably. Here are our top four insights from the meetup:

1. Providing clear guidance and support to parents can build trust and lead to more effective distance learning. 

In Pakistan, our Sandbox is working with the grassroots organisation Deaf Reach to test laptops and smartphones for deaf learners. They’ve found that parents fall prey to common misconceptions, particularly about the cognitive abilities of deaf children, believing their children are ‘deaf and dumb’. In Lebanon, another of our Sandboxes with the NGO Jusoor has found that the first step to using Whatsapp to connect a teacher with a child is persuading the child’s parents to allow them to use their smartphone. 

These stories demonstrate why Richard (from Deaf Reach) and Suha (from Jusoor) have found that building trust and empathy with parents is crucial to their EdTech interventions ‘working’. 

Richard talked about how Deaf Reach has set up Saturday sign-language classes for the parents of deaf children and is exploring a socially distanced version of this ‘safe space’. They also empower ‘parent ambassadors’ in the communities they work in, to support other parents in understanding their child’s needs. 

Where Sandboxes partner with community-led organisations, they tell us that the government’s classic parental engagement mode — providing uniforms, shoes, and books — isn’t enough. Parents need clear instruction on how to support their child — and the impact of any EdTech intervention can be amplified if it does this.

2. Using local language is vital for learning — but other languages have their uses. 

Equitable engagement goes hand in hand with power, dignity, and local ownership. As such, using local languages — those actually spoken within a community — is important. All of the interactive radio literacy instruction that Mango Tree is testing in their Sandbox in northern Uganda uses local language. 

One of our Sandboxes, based in Kenya and building a campaign for parental engagement called #KeepKenyaLearning offered an interesting counterpoint: often, they have found English to be more trusted, and therefore more effective at changing the behaviours of parents.

3. We should go beyond caregiver engagement, to create a culture of learning more holistically. 

Rather than thinking about ‘engaging caregivers’ alone, our Sandboxes urged each other to think about creating a culture of learning at home and in the community. This involves working through a broader, more holistic set of questions: Who is the entry point advocating learning at home, or in a community? How do we reach them? What messaging should we use? Who should set the tone? What are the power dynamics to consider? 

Sandboxes were inspired by the Mango Tree model of bringing together 5–15 children with a dedicated ‘co-teacher’ in listening centres while the radio was broadcasting literacy lessons. Getting learners in communities together to learn while schools are shut during the Covid-19 pandemic, could help children retain or even improve learning outcomes by introducing much-needed interactivity and motivation. 

It’s noteworthy that in a Sandbox, where we have set up 100 of these listening centres, 85 of the co-teachers have been older siblings, rather than parents.

4. “All parents want their children to have a great teacher, nobody wants their child to become one.” 

How might we improve the ‘market’ for teachers in the communities in which we work? While most of the discussion around engaging caregivers and communities has been focused on the child, our Sandboxes are also grappling with the perception and sustainability of teachers — who should not be forgotten during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While it’s good to engage in interesting discussions, the goal of our Sandbox meetups is always to catalyse collective wisdom that is practical, actionable, and that helps Sandboxes on their journey to growth and impact. If you have wisdom to share or want to be part of our journey, contact Taiye at taiye@edtechhub.org.

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