Innovator Interview: Can't Wait to Learn

April 22, 2015Duncan McCullough

Political and economic instability in Sudan is a barrier that denies more than 1.8 million primary school-aged children access to primary education.  Untrained teachers, inadequate infrastructure and funding, and persistent violence in the region remain significant obstacles for traditional education systems.

The Can't Wait to Learn program (previously named eLearning Sudan) is using innovation and creativity to turn this tide and reach vulnerable children in need of education by providing them with digitized content on tablets, powered by solar power stations.  The program recently received  funding to support pilot implementation as part of the CEI-UNICEF global search to identify potentially transformative education programs in the developing world.

We asked Kate Radford, Innovation Program Manager at War Child Holland, to tell us about the program's inventive approach to improving access for marginalized children.

How did the Can't Wait to Learn project get started?

Successful innovations often start with two things: a huge unmet but urgent need and someone with the vision and perseverance to take on the challenge of meeting this need.  This is absolutely also the case with Can't Wait to Learn.  Dr. Aiman Badri of Ahfad University for Women was the visionary who first believed that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) methods, if used properly, may be a powerful tool which could help children access education even where there are no schools.  In Dr. Aiman’s words:

“War, droughts, extreme poverty and other catastrophes have impacted my country… We need to [think] outside the box and think of new solutions which target high numbers of children with high quality education while still having some flexibility.”

It soon became clear to all that the ambition to reach out to the over two million Sudanese out of school children and provide them with access to quality education would require very specific skills and a strong partnership approach.  Right from the beginning, the project has engaged the Ministry of Education in Sudan.  UNICEF, knowing War Child’s work in Sudan, suggested to Dr. Aiman that he might approach us to see if we would be interested in joining up with him. 

Dr. Aiman coming to us coincided with War Child increasing its ambitions to use innovation and ICT as part of our ambitions to tackle the big challenges facing children affected by conflict.  One of them being, access to quality education.  So, together with our partner, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), we started to work intensively with Dr. Aiman, his team and the Ministry of Education in Sudan.  We feel very honored to have been given the chance to join in Dr.Aiman’s dream.  Bringing TNO into the project was very important as TNO brings invaluable distance learning and applied gaming experience. 

What innovative approaches have helped you adapt to the education needs of children excluded from education due to conflict?

Can't Wait to Learn aims to prove that a viable alternative to traditional education methods exists. An alternative that is empowering, flexible, innovative and cost-effective at scale. That can provide education to children in remote areas and from marginalised communities. Even in places where there are no school buildings or teachers. This is where Can't Wait to Learn steps in: with solar power, an applied game and community facilitators. Local facilitators are trained in child-friendly approaches and technical aspects of the game and the tablet. They supervise the children while playing the games and solve small technical problems. The communities where eLearning Sudan takes place have all enthusiastically embraced the project.

We aim to support and supplement the traditional education model in conflict-affected areas in the short term, without displacing it in the long term. We aim to use education technology as part of a model of education for conflict affected regions which is both highly local and highly scalable, and which offers both certified curriculum level content and personalized pupil engagement. 

We use a range of innovative and / or results focused approaches in our project:  combining context specific applied gaming and community-based facilitation instead of waiting for formal schools to be built; a strong innovation management staged approach to growth with rigorous appropriate research; and really focusing on getting the right partnerships in place.

How has Can't Wait to Learn’s program developed as you gather more information and feedback from your work?

We have a staged approached: proof of concept, large scale trial and then adaptation and scale up.  At each stage we define:

  • The information and feedback required to prove that the objectives of each stage have been reached and
  • The information and feedback required to build the credibility to convince others to come on board in the next phase.

We always have our eyes firmly on the here and now of each phase, without losing sight of our end ambition: scaled impact.

What are some of the biggest constraints currently facing your operation?  How do you plan to meet these challenges?

When you are attempting an approach which is very innovative for the sector, one of the biggest challenges is building credibility.  Our strong partnership and research-based approach has really helped here.  We are presenting our research results and our partnership base is growing, all of this helps build a groundswell for growth.  Like all projects, managing funding streams and making sure you have the right type of funds, at the right time is a challenge.  With such ambitious projects, this is to be expected and requires careful management from day one.  This is particularly true when the project is ‘between’ innovation phases, e.g. between large-scale trial and scale up. 

What has been the impact of your program so far?

Research to date (pre and post-test data) shows that children who have previously been excluded from education can learn faster and achieve better results using the tablet-based technology than through the traditional non-formal education model. Throughout their engagement in eLearning, individual child progress is tracked and recorded on the tablets and through periodic testing. Learning is measured using Early Grade Maths Assessment (EGMA) evaluation methodologies.

In addition, we hope that through our work, and that of others like us, that the education in emergencies sector is starting to sit up and see the potential of our intervention.  More and more we are being asked to share our approach and sit down with others in the sector to look at how our methodologies and partnership model can be used in a range of conflict-affected areas outside Sudan.  

Are there plans for expansion in the future?

In conflict-affected countries, 28 million children of primary school age are out of school. The lack of access to quality and relevant education is “a hidden crisis that is reinforcing poverty, undermining economic growth and holding back the progress of nations.” In conflict affected countries, formal education is widely unavailable and when it is, it often excludes the most vulnerable children, particularly girls.

Any effort to make traditional basic education accessible for children affected by armed conflict requires substantial investment: teachers require further training, classrooms need to be constructed, and government education budgets need to drastically increase. However, the trend in the percentage of government investment in education is negative, with insufficient financing now widely recognized as one of the main obstacles to achieving Education for All.

We think our approach might be able to make a strong contribution to finding ways to provide quality education to children affected by conflict. As such, we are currently exploring expansion in Sudan itself and adaption and expansion to areas affected by Syrian conflict. We are also starting to seriously think about how we can supplement our curriculum focused learning offerings with the the psychosocial and life skills required to support children living in crises.

As your program moves forward, will research play a role in your work?  If so, how do you think this research may inform the work of other education sector practitioners?

Research has played a key role in our project from beginning, whether to inform our project design, to collect and analyze our results of our proof of concept and trial phases, guide our decision making or to provide the type of analysis and data required by the sector more broadly.  We have an ‘Open House’ policy to sharing and debating our research with the education in emergencies sector.  Our aim is to work on innovations which generate as much impact as possible. Only through engagement with the sector as a whole is this possible.   

Can't Wait to Learn’s work involves collaboration with a diverse set of partners, both within and without Sudan.  How do you navigate these differences and gain value from them?

All the partners working within eLearning Sudan share one vision and that is to work together to develop a model which offers out of school children affected with access to quality education.  This is what binds us together. Of course, there is huge diversity in the partners and collaborators involved, whether they are in Sudan, elsewhere in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, the United States or Australia.  This requires quite intensive project management but also flexibility and understanding of each other’s viewpoints.  We have been working together for quite a while now, so know and value what each collaborator brings to the table.  We are dependent on each other to realize this innovation dream.  We have also got pretty good at managing time-zones when planning project team meetings!

What are you most proud of in your work with Can't Wait to Learn?

When I visit the villages and see the children engaging with the game and then later hear how well they have scored in their tests and the positive things they say about their experiences. I am also proud of the ability of this project to capture the imagination of so many individuals and organizations, all of whom are willing to go that extra mile to reach our impact ambitions.  It is a very special project.

What types of opportunities for collaboration or support from the CEI community would be of value to eLearning Sudan?

We value learning about other CEI community projects and their experiences and results.  These projects can provide invaluable information and feedback. We are already in contact with some CEI community projects and hope to have conversations with more.  While we think we might have a lot to offer the education in emergencies sector, we are very conscious that we do not have all the answers.  The CEI community provides us with a fantastic opportunity to test hypotheses, get critical feedback and get to know like-minded organizations - all looking to find new ways to address the huge challenges facing children living in conflict today.

Images courtesy of War Child Holland and the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research

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