Using laptops to distribute video sign language lessons to deaf children in Pakistan

Partner: Deaf Reach
Why this sandbox?

An EdTech Hub helpdesk response on distance learning for primary-level deaf children made some recommendations for educators working with deaf learners, who have limited or no access to the internet, hardware or software. 1) provide access to devices; 2) provide modular content; and 3) test different digital solutions. In Pakistan, Deaf Reach had created started to create short videos in Pakistani Sign Language (PSL). A small evaluation conducted after providing laptops with these videos to 44 children for 3 months showed significant learning gains.

We wanted to build on these initial results and Deaf Reach’s existing video content. The goal was to test different EdTech interventions, and find out: which ones would be most suitable for providing distance learning for deaf children?

Quick facts


average learning gains in month 1, increasing over time and as more videos were added.


of parents supported their children’s learning


increase in learning outcomes for children using a smartphone

"While they can't get to school, we want school to get to them."

There are over a million deaf children in Pakistan, but only a tiny fraction (5%) of them go to school.

Deaf Reach, a non-profit education charity, provides schooling for 1,200 deaf children across 6 schools, all of which had to suddenly and quickly close with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most of that schooling is about, or conducted in, Pakistan Sign Language (PSL).

Organisers faced an immediate challenge: how could they continue to run PSL lessons remotely?

This sandbox was set up to find practical answers, backed by reliable evidence.

Lessons on laptops

Before the pandemic, Deaf Reach had already invested in video PSL lessons for young children. Most of them are told using short animated stories. So the sandbox started in a good place, with an existing archive of high quality video material.

We couldn’t rely on children having good internet connectivity, or suitable devices, at home. So we needed a way to get the videos to the children without relying on the internet.

The simplest answer was to load the video archive onto laptops, and send those directly to the children at home.

As with all our sandboxes, this one was conducted across a series of short time-bound sprints. In the first sprint, we obtained 225 laptops and loaded each one with 56 PSL videos. Then distributed them to a cohort of grade 3, 4 and 5 primary age children, along with a timetable, worksheets, and lesson plans.

Child watching PSL lesson in Pakistan. From our sandbox with Deaf Reach.

Concerns about the reliability and suitability of laptops proved unfounded. 95% of the laptops were returned as before after one month.

Crucially, Deaf Reach gathered important data about the success of the scheme by testing children in PSL before they were given a laptop, and after they’d had one for a few weeks. Average scores before the sprint were 19/45; average scores afterwards were 32/45. A 68% increase, and a clear success.

They also conducted a survey with parents, which uncovered something even more interesting. Most parents (87%) said they helped their child learn PSL, but less than half (47%) felt capable of helping. Most parents of deaf children aren’t deaf themselves, and felt their lack of PSL understanding was a barrier. They wanted to help, but felt ill-equipped to do so.

We’d uncovered something we started to call “the capability-enthusiasm gap”.

Bridging the gap

In the second sprint, we looked at ways to bridge that gap by re-connecting children with teachers over the phone, using video calls over WhatsApp.

We provided 200 further children with laptops, and video content. Now that we knew video content ‘worked’, Deaf Reach teachers recorded and shared further videos to cover four key subjects: Urdu, Science, Mathematics, and English.

This time, half the participating children were given a smartphone, and we ran a series of onboarding sessions to help them learn how to use it. They were asked to make WhatsApp video calls to teachers, twice a week.

Again, we ran tests with the children at the start and end of the sprint, and conducted surveys with them and with their parents.

The children who had been given smartphones didn’t spend more days per week learning (as we’d expected), but they did perform 35% better in tests than the children without smartphones. 93% of users with smartphones found the expanded content ‘easy to navigate’ – compared to 73% of non-smartphone users. This might have played a part in the improvement.

Of course, providing smartphones added a lot of cost, and wouldn’t be easy to scale up. If they get used at all, the best use of smartphones might be to provide them to under-performing children, where the extra direct teacher contact can make the biggest difference.

Photos of students using smartphones to connect with teachers. From our sandbox with Deaf Reach in Pakistan.
Scaling through partnerships

One promising method of growing this delivery model is by partnering with other NGOs and grassroots organisations, who work with deaf children in other countries. In our third sprint, we worked with Atfaluna, an NGO based in Palestine.

Deaf Reach and Atfaluna worked together to adapt Deaf Reach’s videos into Arabic Sign Language. Six Deaf Reach videos were adapted overall, and this partnership was a first for both organisations. To test whether they worked in a quick experiment, Atfaluna split their children into two groups. One group was taught content by a teacher, who read stories, explained them to a class, and used the blackboard. Another group was presented with the videos, followed by a discussion between teachers and the student. Children who watched the videos showed a 20% improvement relative to the other group.

Deaf Reach provided quite a lot of support to help the partnership work. For example, there was back and forth with Deaf Reach editors as the videos were bring developed. There were also different ways of working: different email processes, different file format preferences, and different working days.

Deaf Reach is now writing a service design blueprint for playing this role of “learning consultant” to other organisations. Once it is streamlined, it could be a powerful way to spread both good practice outside of Pakistan. In this case, Deaf Reach provided the funding but in other cases the funding might come from Deaf Reach, the partner, or both organisations.

EdTech Hub’s systematic literature review on EdTech to support learners with disabilities also highlights the importance of integration with schools. Where possible, public schools should cater for deaf learners, rather than those children being streamed into a special school. The role of proven video content in this integration is an area for future inquiry.

What we've learned

  • Pre-loaded offline content on laptops is an effective way of helping children learn remotely
  • Running assessments at the beginning and end of each sprint was a vital part of the sandbox and gave us valuable insight into learning outcomes
  • This is a useful model to follow in other countries and contexts
  • Parents need help and encouragement too

Further reading

Find out more

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