Engaging parents and caregivers in EdTech is critical to foundational learning in Kenya

The International Literacy Day in one of our intervention schools – St. Elizabeth. Credit: Worldreader

Kenya, sometimes called the ‘Silicon Savannah’ of Africa, is home to one of the most vibrant EdTech ecosystems in Africa (see Otieno & Taddesse, 2020). Building on government initiatives such as the flagship Digital Literacy Programme (DLP), the country’s Covid-19 education response (Ngware & Ochieng, 2020) included tremendous efforts to provide distance learning solutions. This week, the Kenya EdTech Summit 2022 is bringing together many of those who have been making this happen to discuss the role of evidence and collaboration to accelerate the pace of progress in Kenya.

While the EdTech sector has burgeoned in Kenya, there is limited evidence (Myers et al., 2021) regarding its impact and effectiveness. EdTech Hub has identified this as a critical gap, with some half of EdTech Hub’s current research portfolio being conducted in Kenya, building on a rich range of work there over the past years.

At its core, our research is designed to address key challenges faced by Kenya’s education system, with low foundational skills being one of the most critical. Recent Uwezo research has shown that only 40% of Grade 4 learners are able to read an age-appropriate text, and many are not reading at all. One of the reasons for this is that children grow up in low-literacy environments. A few years ago, a UNICEF survey found that only 4% of Kenyan children under the age of five live in households where at least three books are present (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics & UNICEF, 2011).

Raising Readers’, one of EdTech Hub’s current research projects in Kenya and conducted in partnership with Worldreader, is designed to strengthen the vital role parents and caregivers have long been shown to play in building children’s reading skills. Yet many carers lack the educational resources, capacity, and connection with schools needed to effectively support the development of their children’s foundational literacy. Current research builds from a co-design process that identified a set of five promising interventions surrounding use of the Booksmart app, a digital library that, in Kenya, curates books and activities in both English and Swahili. We are currently testing and iterating these interventions through five treatment arms to better understand what is most effective in boosting parental and caregiver engagement with their children

Although still in the midst of research, we’re happy to share some ‘learning out loud’ insights, drawing from a baseline survey of 209 parents and caregivers across 14 government schools located in Nairobi and Kiambu counties. Insights from this baseline include:

  1. Limited numbers of storybooks — The contextual data points out that most carers who participated in the survey have low levels of education and come from households with monthly incomes that are less than 12,298 Kenyan shillings (i.e., less than USD 102). There are not enough storybooks — these households only have 3 out of an average of 10 books for children per household in Kenya. 
  2. Smartphones are widely owned and used — In spite of limited education and income, a 68% ownership of smartphones among parents and caregivers indicates that technologies such as the Booksmart app have the potential for reasonable uptake. There is high usage, with male carers using their smartphones multiple times a day in comparison to females (93% and 85% respectively). Data also shows that many parents and caregivers have access to and can use smartphones they do not own. 
  3. High perceptions of reading ability — Insights on parents’ and caregivers’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices point to a high perception among the sample about their children’s current reading ability, with 90% of them placing this ability as either intermediate or advanced. While not yet triangulated with actual reading abilities, this perception is likely in comparison to parents’ and caregivers’ own reading abilities and is a good sign.
  4. Top barriers are access and time —The survey data also shows that even though many parents and caregivers read to their children and consider this action important, they highlight many barriers to reading with their children. The topmost barriers — from their perspective — include the lack of reading material at home and the lack of time to read to their children.
  5. Mothers are more involved in reading — Overall, and particularly in terms of feedback loops, in comparison to male parents and caregivers, female parents and caregivers were found to be more involved in supporting reading to improve child performance at school by speaking regularly with their children and their teachers.

Encouragingly, while the survey also showed that the majority of parents and caregivers had not received any interventions that encourage parental and caregiver engagement with children’s reading such as training, nudges / messaging, feedback loops, incentives, and reading celebrations (those being tested in the study), the few that did had found them to be effective.

These early findings from our research point to a significant untapped resource in the form of parents and caregivers playing an active role to strengthen reading for Kenyan learners. This is very much in line with the findings of Keep Kenya Learning, which during Covid-19-related school closures and after, identified the issues of parent and caregiver confidence, communities of support for parents and caregivers, and digital literacy as critical to engaging parents and caregivers in learning.

In the coming months, using design-based research, our ‘Raising Readers’ study will continue to explore how the use of a digital reading application can play a role in linking schools, parents and caregivers, and learners to build foundational literacy skills and further take advantage of Kenya’s dynamic EdTech landscape. 

Acknowledgements for their work on the Raising Readers research and the baseline study go to Akanksha Bapna, Tony Kamninga, Ashwati Kartha, Chebet Seluget, Wendy Smith, Rachel Heavner, Wanjiku Gathoni, and Sarah Rotich.

This blog is the second in a series exploring Raising Readers, an EdTech Hub and Worldreader research project set in Kenya, seeking to understand better what drives parental engagement in learning and generate new evidence on what works in terms of learner equity, quality, and cost-efficiency. The first blog presents the co-creation process, and this one sets out findings from our baseline. 

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