Lessons Learned: Expanding technology-enabled approaches for out-of-school children and refugees

February 08, 2017The CEI Team

The Lessons Learned series highlights practical takeaways from CEI’s Journeys to Scale report, produced in partnership with UNICEF, that tells the story of innovative education interventions as they attempt to scale. To see past volumes of Lessons Learned, click here. To find additional details about any of these innovators’ journeys to scale and more, be sure to check out the Full Report.


Seeking to avoid the mistakes of past interventions that attempted to parachute technology in as an easy solution, the Can’t Wait to Learn (CWtL) program has created a mathematics game that is engaging for children living in pastoralist societies. The CWtL team works with stakeholders to ensure relevance and traction, leveraging community resources to promote impact and seeking to support government systems with an alternative delivery model for official curricula. The initiative also crafted design and implementation plans with scalability in mind from the beginning, and team members showed a relentless commitment to measuring the effectiveness of their intervention, thereby holding themselves accountable for demonstrable improvements in children’s learning and self-esteem.

Planning for scale from day one

As one CWtL team member put it: “We had scaling up in mind from the beginning of the project. We felt we couldn’t invest in a game that wouldn’t be scaled up.” The CWtL team started small but thought big, recognizing that the innovation’s promise rested on reaching as many children as possible within and beyond Sudan.

education technology innovation development international game mobile learning play Sudan refugee displacedThis early-stage consideration of scaling is reflected in the team’s approach to game development and research. From the start, the CWtL team sought to identify threats to scaling and address these threats to make the program as widely applicable as possible. Rather than tailoring their intervention to the most promising pilot sites, CWtL designed a model that would meet these identified threats head-on, and could succeed across communities with disparate electrical and Internet infrastructures.

The CWtL team designed their intervention to reach children who lack access to existing schools by providing tablets in a central village location, thus enabling children to participate without leaving their community. Many of these rural communities do not have access to electricity and/or Internet, so the program trained and supported community members to build learning centers equipped with solar panels. The learning application also has two management systems—one in which the game can always be used offline, with student performance data gathered manually, and another in which the game is played online, while it automatically uploads data. Finally, the team created a research plan that would provide regular data on the innovation’s major risks and demonstrate CWtL’s effectiveness for a broader international audience.

Customization vs. Replication

The CWtL experience reflects the tension between customizing an innovation to context to enhance its effectiveness and creating a highly replicable, quickly scalable program. “The strength, but also the weakness, of the [CWtL game] is that you have to adapt it to every setting where you will use it,” one stakeholder said. “But once it is adapted properly, you can scale it up within a country. The process of doing the adaptation could be somewhat templated, but with context-specific adjustments needed.” CWtL has navigated this trade-off by making its mini-games replicable by using generic math content, while the meta-game world is highly customizable.

The time and resource costs of redesigning CWtL’s game world for new countries are likely to be significant. However, Can’t Wait to Learn’s experience indicates that given careful planning, such additional costs may be worth the benefits. For example, CWtL is currently planning to expand its game into urban communities in Middle Eastern countries, in contrast to the more rural environments served in Sudan. Despite the added costs of redesigning the game’s visuals to better tailor it to the experiences of urban-dwelling children, CWtL believes that such customization is worth the extra effort and cost, and is updating new versions of the game accordingly.

Differentiated approaches in a complex, multi-stakeholder partnership

Even when humanitarian sector partners share a sense of urgency to provide education to out-of-school children, differentiated approaches are needed to obtain support from and manage many partners.

To gain backing from partners, War Child Holland, the overarching manager of CWtL, drew on an understanding of their strategic priorities, strengths, and incentives to identify alignment of CWtL’s goals with those of each partner — doing so without sacrificing the aims and integrity of the innovation. For certain data-driven partners, War Child Holland showcased empirical evidence; for others, site visits were facilitated. Different team members also played specific roles in executing these approaches, with TNO presenting data to partners while War Child Holland managed administrative and financial logistics. As McClure and Gray note: “Sustainable change requires insight into what people need in order to buy in and where the barriers to adoption lie. With this insight, these individuals can then create win-win stories that guide action and bring people along on the journey.”

War Child Holland also took a holistic view of partners, recognizing the importance of their technical expertise, relationships with national policymakers, advocacy platforms, and convening power, in addition to their financial support. War Child Holland thus involved partners fully in the intervention and took pains to ensure that their contributions were valued, whether through bilateral communication or public recognition, such as through branding of program materials. In doing so, War Child Holland enabled all partners to become champions of Can’t Wait to Learn.

However, the Can’t Wait to Learn experience shows that successful management of partnerships requires sufficient capacity and can involve high transaction costs. Partner management is an indefinite necessity, rather than a one-time task, in the ongoing scale-up journey. Though the shared imperative to address the needs of out-of-school children brought partners to the table, War Child Holland, as overarching manager, has had to negotiate, inculcate, communicate, and adjust a shared vision of the innovation and ensure that each contributor’s responsibilities are well understood. This included initiating challenging conversations about the scope, reach, and pace of Can’t Wait to Learn’s development with financial and nonfinancial partners alike.

Looking Ahead

Can’t Wait to Learn hopes to reach 170,000 children in marginalized communities in multiple countries over the next five years. The program’s partners are currently developing and testing an Arabic reading curriculum for first through third grades. Also, recognizing that the links between learning and psychosocial factors are bidirectional, the CWtL team is planning to add an explicit psychosocial component to the intervention.

The program’s future plans are ambitious but deliberate, and there is a strong support structure in place for the program to grow. In a world that is increasingly perilous for millions of refugees and out-of-school children, the Can’t Wait to Learn example is one we can’t wait to continue following.


Photo Credits: War Child Holland


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