Texting for better policies
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham tells youth: speak up and be heard through U-Report

Written by Eun-Young Jeong, Education Officer, UNICEF Uganda

UGANDA, September 2015 – Textbooks are rare possessions for children living in northern Uganda’s resource-impoverished refugee settlements. For children here, it’s difficult to imagine life beyond the refugee settlement where they have lived since fleeing from South Sudan when conflict broke out in December 2013.

But even in this dusty and sun-scorched camp without electricity, there is a source for children to connect to the bigger world. And it’s delivered weekly in a black pelican suitcase called the “DigiSchool.”

The DigiSchool, also known as the MobiStation, is a portable, solar-powered multimedia kit fully equipped with a speaker, projector, and a document reading camera. DigiSchool, an abridged form of “digital school in a box,” refers to devices with pre-uploaded education content. At a glance, the DigiSchool looks like an ordinary plastic suitcase with wheels and a pullout handle. But inside this black pelican case, you can find video clips, cartoons, music videos, math lessons, an offline Wikipedia, and much more.

The current DigiSchool is a fourth generation prototype. Progress has been made since early 2013 when the Global Innovation Lab in Uganda produced the DigiSchool hardware and carried out the first user testing. On the software side, the DigiSchools’ digital content library continues to be enhanced with more educational content.

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A caregiver explains shapes to children in an ECD class. Photo credit: UNICEF/Eun-Young Jeong

Because the DigiSchool is still a work in process, UNICEF Uganda deployed the DigiSchool in emergency settings through a pilot. The pilot’s objectives are twofold: (1) provide refugee children and adolescents with multimedia content that can enhance their learning; and (2)  test the applicability of the DigiSchool and its relevance in program activities in emergency settings.

So far, the pilot results have been inspiring. In Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centers, DigiSchools have significantly expanded the audio-visual library of young children. Children between the ages three and six who previously learned numbers by counting objects drawn on a chalkboard now play interactive numeracy games with a sound and moving images projected on a screen.

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Caregivers have wider access to educational content through the DigiSchool. Photo credit: UNICEF/Eun-Young Jeong

“We’ve had parents come and ask why their children are saying that they’re learning from a TV,” said a Kiryandongo district-based field staff working with Africa Development Corps (ADC), one of the implementing partners of the DigiSchool pilot.

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Children learn about colors using the DigiSchool. Photo credit: UNICEF/Eun-Young Jeong

Child participation in ECD classes has skyrocketed with the introduction of the DigiSchool. But a cautionary note here: increased child participation has not yet resulted in improved learning achievements. Children are excited to come up and point at a colorful screen, not because they always know the answer, explained another ADC field staff. But it’s too early to observe improved learning outcomes: the pilot has only been implemented for 12-weeks. More time is needed to see if and how the DigiSchool impacts learning outcomes.

It’s not just young children who are excited about the DigiSchool. For all six ECD caregivers participating in the pilot, the DigiSchool was their first proper exposure to a computer. Although computer illiterate, these ECD caregivers have shown great enthusiasm to incorporate the DigiSchool into their classes.

A sketch of the pilot in ECD centers

In a typical ECD class, the DigiSchool is operated by an NGO field staff who is familiar with computers. This is to ensure that caregivers are not overburdened with the task of operating a computer and engaging a class of sometimes more than seventy young children. Moreover, having an NGO field staff as a primary operator of the device enables caregivers to give full attention to the children and continue lessons uninterrupted. This doesn’t mean that caregivers don’t learn to use the DigiSchool: during break time, caregivers learn to navigate and browse through some software applications relevant to their teaching.

Logistics of transporting the DigiSchool back and forth from the ECD centers have limited the overall use of the device. Stationing the DigiSchool in an ECD center can make the center a target for vandalism, especially in resource-deprived refugee settlements. For this reason, an NGO field staff always transports the DigiSchool.

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Caregivers have wider access to educational content through the DigiSchool. Photo credit: UNICEF/ Eun-Young Jeong

Transporting the device frequently makes it difficult for caregivers and field staff to have sufficient time to browse through the DigiSchool’s content and discuss what to use for upcoming lessons. Fortunately, the lack of planning opportunities hasn’t been a big barrier for using DigiSchools in classrooms. In fact, caregivers and NGO field staff have demonstrated great creativity when it comes to spontaneously incorporating the DigiSchool into their lessons.

One example was demonstrated in a clay modeling class where children learned about different shapes by modeling them with playdo clay using their hands. The caregiver was explaining each shape from a small hand-size book that she raised in the air for the class to see.

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Children learn about different shapes through clay modeling class. Photo credit: UNICEF/ Eun-Young Jeong

When Lyn, an ADC field staff, rolled in the DigiSchool to class that day, she wasn’t sure how she would use the DigiSchool and considered not switching the device on. But, after some thought and a brief discussion with the caregiver, she began projecting images of different shapes on the wall using the DigiSchool for the children to model with clay. Soon, all sixty-five children in the class had a clear view of the shapes they were modeling. “It was great because the children were learning to translate what they see visually and model it with their hands,” a colleague added.

More learnings are expected to come from the DigiSchool pilot as we expand it to settings with different target audiences.

Texting for better policies
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham tells youth: speak up and be heard through U-Report