A proof of concept for the Regional Learning Hub
Building a platform to allow governments to quickly select, approve, and reuse existing Open Educational Resources
As the Covid-19 crisis led to school closures in March 2020, governments all over the world scrambled to move to remote teaching. But many countries struggled to find enough content to cover large parts of their curricula. Especially in Eastern and Southern Africa, fragile school systems that rely heavily on in-school activity needed to start using some form of remote education. A major stumbling block to this shift to remote teaching and learning was the lack of resources.
In 2021 the UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office (ESARO), UNESCO, UNHCR, the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) and EdTech Hub began collaborating to develop a Regional Learning Hub (RLH).
The aim of the RLH was to create a platform to provide teaching and learning content aligned to the curricula of different countries in the region that is appropriate to local contexts. The RLH was envisaged as a platform where digital learning content has been pre-aligned with national curricula to enable use by governments and education stakeholders to facilitate quick selection of content for educational use in their regions.
The effort to curate relevant, existing learning content that covers these different curricula and offer it to students came with many challenges. It is clearly difficult to take apart a curriculum and define its constituting curriculum standards in a structured way. And finding appropriate Open Educational Resources that fit those curriculum standards requires expertise, not to mention the technical problem of preparing and presenting those resources so they can be offered through any learning platform.
All you need to do is go online, find resources, align them with your curriculum and offer them to your students. That’s all.– Any partner to any government, March 2020
Over the past year, we created a proof of concept where we curated existing, openly licensed content, aligned with the curricula of four countries — Kenya, Somalia, South Africa and South Sudan — and made it available to education stakeholders in these countries. They can then make their own selection of this content and easily use, or not use, content per individual curriculum standard and add it to their existing remote learning offerings: through TV, radio, feature phone, or digital platforms.
For the proof of concept, we curated only two small content modules in the subjects of Primary Grade 2 Literacy (‘listening’ or ‘oral comprehension’) and Secondary Level Biology (‘photosynthesis’).
The proof of concept
The RLH has been created as a minimal viable product (MVP) that demonstrates the principle and can be tested. The RLH actually consists of two products: a friendly interface on the Learning Passport, and a database with all resources, including metadata, on AirTable.
What did we learn?
While developing the MVP we asked if an RLH was feasible, what problems might we encounter if we pursued a full version, and how should we proceed? We learnt a lot — including things we did not expect! So what did we learn?
There is not enough open learning content
First and foremost, we found that there is a dearth of good-quality, openly licensed content that can be used in different modalities and contexts.
Let’s take that statement apart.
First, there is not enough openly licensed educational content to offer a complete remote curriculum. For the proof of concept, although we tried to curate content for the two small modules from large repositories and through our network, we simply couldn’t find most of the content we were looking for.
When we found resources, they were usually instructional materials directly aimed at learners. Resources for other uses, such as activities, workbooks, assessments or lesson plans, often simply weren’t there.
When we did find resources, they were mostly for digital consumption. For modalities such as TV, radio, printable books, or feature phones — through SMS or interactive audio — there is much less openly licensed content. But sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t have a high penetration of digital devices, and learners often rely on lower-tech technologies to access education.
Finally, we tried to find context-appropriate resources with content that learners in sub-Saharan Africa can relate to, that is sensitive to local norms, and offered in local languages. With the exception of reading books for early grades literacy, there was very little available that was tailored for the region.
Why are there not enough relevant resources?
We were initially surprised by the challenges we faced in finding enough resources. The lack of resources means that governments that don’t already have remote learning content, cannot quickly build an education response during disruptions. Now that we have been through this process, we think we better understand some of the reasons for this challenge.
First, most governments in the region don’t openly license their own content. In some cases, even large content providers with a policy of open licensing sometimes transfer ownership of the content they have created to governments, which means that other websites, platforms, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or companies cannot offer this content when they build learning platforms.
We also found incomplete collections of resources or complete collections of resources that didn’t contain any information besides file names. The absence of any meaningful tagging made it impossible to align and use these resources. We also believe much more content created for past projects has been effectively lost to the world once the projects ended.
Sub-Saharan Africa is clearly underserved in general when it comes to learning resources and content. Most learning resources are made for learners in high-income countries and it is mostly in English.
Curriculum-alignment is an issue
Our initial idea was to present content exactly aligned with each country’s curriculum standards. Education stakeholders — primarily governments but possibly schools, NGOs or companies — could then simply decide which of the preselected resources to use and adjust and add these to their own offerings. Following the development of the proof of concept, we’re not so sure this is the best approach.
For non-governmental partners, such as our consortium, aligning content with country curricula proved difficult since you need a high level of local expertise. Curricula and even textbooks don’t always answer all questions on terminology or detail of content.
You need local expertise to be able to align with a curriculum. For example, should we use the term ‘Krebs cycle’, the ‘citric acid cycle (CAC)’ or the ‘tricarboxylic acid cycle (TCA cycle)’?
Besides, not all types of content can be precisely aligned. Literacy curricula, for example, sometimes repeat the same curriculum standards for months or even years, but gradually go up in difficulty.
And some governments seemed to stress that curriculum alignment is their remit. Our approach to try and offer content aligned to different curricula may be unfeasible and counterproductive.
How should we proceed?
What we learnt through our work on the proof of concept will help us decide how we continue with the RLH. While we’re not set on the exact next steps, we can identify some tentative conclusions.
Refrain from aligning content at too granular a level. Aligning content with curriculum standards requires more effort, a level of expertise that non-governmental partners don’t have, and may in fact threaten the autonomy of some governments.
When the RLH goes to scale, focus on continuity and sustainability. We have seen many content creation and curation projects that have been abandoned, and their resources either cannot be found or are no longer used. When the RLH goes to scale, it should be a continuous service, with a budget for maintenance and development.
Work with governments that express a clear need. Some government representatives told us that their country already offers enough content, while others told us their country doesn’t have the necessary digital infrastructure anyway. We’ll need to get a better understanding of the exact needs in the region, but continuing this work with countries that voice a need for an RLH seems most feasible.
Build ‘curation’ capacity and provide tools and guidance. Curated content needs a different treatment and another approval process than content that’s created in-house, and it requires expertise to make simple and quick changes.
Make open licensing the default. Keeping content proprietary rarely, if ever, brings revenue to governments. And there are good examples of governments that openly license any content that’s been paid for with public money.
To find out more about the development of the proof of concept and MVP of the Regional Learning Hub, read our five reports on the process: