As he walked by a classroom in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, Jamie Alexandre, co-founder of Learning Equality, saw something he’ll never forget. In a class of at least 80 students, a teacher walked around letting each student, one by one, view an image in a textbook. Children barely got a glimpse of the image, and precious class time was wasted as other students waited. Unfortunately, this situation is not unique. As digital learning tools become ubiquitous in some parts of the world, children in areas with little or no connectivity are falling further behind. In fact, more than 600 million children and youth around the world lack access to quality education, and these are the populations that could benefit most from edtech.
While there is an abundance of educational resources online, without access to connectivity, children and educators are denied online tools to support effective learning. But rather than waiting for the Internet to reach everyone, Learning Equality is building inclusive edtech products that work completely offline so today’s generation of children won’t be left behind. Co-founded by Jamie Alexandre, Richard Tibbles, and Liz Vu, Learning Equality builds technological tools and provides services for educational programs in places with little to no resources. Their flagship products, Kolibri and KA Lite, are designed to be contextually relevant, adaptable, and used offline, and are reaching students and teachers in almost every country on Earth.
The Big Idea
Globally, 1 in 3 children lack access to a quality education. Learning Equality is changing that by building dynamic tools for students and teachers to use offline.
A Life-Long Learner Connects the Dots
In 2012, Jamie was sitting at his desk as a Software Engineering Intern at Khan Academy, and noticed something in his periphery. It was the newly released Raspberry Pi, a small, affordable device capable of storing information offline. Jamie recounts, “Here was this low cost device. If we could put the right content and tools on something like this, we could bring it to places that didn’t have internet access.”
Two factors made this seem feasible. First, Khan Academy was a treasure trove of the best educational content available online. Second, there was a surplus of legacy hardware in disconnected places, and the cost of new devices was plunging. But having been a student for 28 years, earning his PhD in Cognitive Science and having been a coder since his youth, Jamie knew he could use his unique skill-set to build a platform that could reach the most remote places on Earth.
A Prototype is Built
The month that followed was full of sleepless nights, as Jamie devoted himself to building a prototype of KA Lite, an offline version of Khan Academy that would become Learning Equality’s first product. KA Lite could run on any device, so if it worked, it would shift access to education across the globe – from remote communities, to prisons, to refugee camps.
Jamie demoed the prototype to the Khan Academy team at the end of the summer. They were thrilled, because KA Lite had the potential to dramatically expand Khan Academy’s impact. Jamie returned to UC San Diego to finish up his PhD, and continued working on KA Lite. That’s when he teamed up with fellow graduate student Richard Tibbles.
An Opportunity to Effect Real Educational Change
Across the pond, Richard Tibbles had been knee-deep in the UK education system. He’d spent his early education unconventionally learning advanced Latin, “that was my idea of fun, apparently,” he said. After years of studying while working in edtech, Richard moved to the US and began working towards a PhD in Cognitive Science at UCSD. “My personal mission was to shift education practices towards student-centered learning,” he shared. “I was shocked at how many US classes I’d sit through with the weird thing where the chairs are attached to the desk and it’s impossible to collaborate.”
Richard’s mission became a reality when he met Jamie at a programming bootcamp. Richard was enthralled by the prospect of working on KA Lite, because “it was an opportunity to make real change in educational systems. Especially in places where having more effective education practice could give you the largest results.” Richard was sold, and joined Jamie shortly after to continue building KA Lite.
Supporting Remote Populations with Tech
Meanwhile, Liz Vu was thousands of kilometers out at sea when she read about a scrappy group of UCSD students working on KA Lite. At the time Liz was using cheap technologies and non-traditional methods to study remote populations of baleen whales as part of her PhD thesis. She loved the work, but became disillusioned by the slow pace of research and the lack of immediate impact.
In stark contrast to her PhD work, KA Lite was an open-source project immediately adding value to the lives of teachers and students. She hopped on board the KA Lite boat. With a heavy research background, “I had a natural curiosity about who was actually using the platform,” she recalls, “here was a unique challenge to try to get real user feedback and make sense of who and how KA Lite was helping people around the world.”
KA Lite and The King of Subtraction
The group of PhDs dubbed their team Learning Equality, and officially launched KA Lite in 2012. The success was astounding. For instance, at the Idaho Department of Correction, among 20 inmates using KA Lite, all 20 passed the math portion of their GED course. This was the first time that had ever happened in this facility.
KA Lite’s adoption rapidly spread across the globe. A world away in a Guatemalan mountain town, a young student named Jonathan was struggling in school like many of his classmates. According to Jamie, “Jonathan’s confidence was low. He wasn’t engaged in his learning, and his teacher didn’t have the resources she needed to help him succeed.” Without internet connection, their teacher couldn’t use edtech tools like Khan Academy. Luckily, KA Lite was installed onto refurbished computers in Jonathan’s school. It changed his educational trajectory and his confidence soared. Volunteers heard him yell down from the balcony, “I am the king of subtraction!”
An independent evaluator studying the tool’s effect in the mountain town of Sacatepéquez, Guatemala found a 10 point increase in student math scores compared to those without access to the same resources. Today, KA Lite has reached 200 countries, and served 6 million learners.
In early 2017, the Learning Equality team received a game-changing grant from Google.org. It enabled them to grow their team of student volunteers to 25 employees and build a dynamic new product – Kolibri. KA Lite’s success proved the dire need for offline access to high-quality education materials, but the Learning Equality team knew they needed a more robust platform that could equip teachers with the training and assessment tools needed to support students all over the world. So they shifted focus to build Kolibri for teachers. Expanding upon KA Lite’s best features – offline accessibility, open-source, and real time feedback – Kolibri offers new features enabling educators in any community to be as effective as possible. Kolibri empowers teachers to design curriculum using its high-quality educational materials, assessment tools, and real-time comprehension features.
“A lot of edtech assumes the teacher can be replaced,” Liz remarked, “but we understand the teachers are a critical part of the learning ecosystem.” Being hardware-agnostic, once Kolibri is downloaded to a device (using an internet connection), the “seeded” device can dynamically share new content and updates with other devices over an offline network. This empowers teachers to share best practices (and best content!) with other teachers and administrators.
A math teacher in a Rajasthan school remarks that using Kolibri allowed him to instill accountability and curiosity in his students. After every class, students check out their progress, and the teacher focuses on acknowledging students who have shown improvement. Since December 2017, Kolibri has been installed 6,000 times in 119 countries, and offers over 100,000 offline and interactive pieces of content.
Leveling the Educational Playing Field
“When we started out in 2012, we were just a group of students with a vision of what could be, forging ahead despite not knowing how we would get there,” Jamie shared. Today, having helped over 6 million learners in nearly every country on Earth, Learning Equality is focused on ensuring that students across the globe have the means to learn, and teachers the means to teach. According to Jamie, “The time is now. Otherwise, we’re leaving generations behind.”