Models for deploying content in Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs)
The internet has been a revolutionizing tool for education by providing access and availability to digital resources for teachers and students. However, in many low and middle-income countries (LMICs) access to the internet and the devices and training necessary to properly utilize the resources found online are not a given. This is due to a number of reasons including lack of infrastructure, lack of effective distribution methods and lack of implementation with teachers and students. Compounding this issue, accessible digital content to support the curriculum in local languages in these regions is severely lacking, ultimately leaving students with disabilities without equal access to education materials as their peers.
When we look to deliver an effective accessible content strategy, and distribute materials to students in schools and at home we must consider the entire accessible digital content ecosystem. See the ecosystem. 1) Production, 2) Distribution, 3) Infrastructure, 4) Implementation. If any part of the ecosystem fails in its accessibility strategy, then there is a high likelihood that the students who need it most will not receive the materials they need. As with any system, it will fail at the weakest link in the chain. In the case of LMICs, this weak link is often 3) Infrastructure, particularly connectivity and access to devices, but that is not to say that there are not equal challenges across all four parts of the ecosystem. To address the issue of connectivity, a global initiative, GIGA project, has been launched in 2019 to connect every school to the internet. You can learn about the progress of GIGA project here. https://gigaconnect.org/.
Models for deploying content in LMICs
The production and distribution of accessible digital materials is often seen primarily from the point of view that if you are able to produce and host an accessible digital file online, you will be able to reach an end user through the structure below:
Figure 1: High connectivity, high resource, web-based content.
This model describes curricular content produced by a publisher or government agency, housed on the cloud on a learning management system (LMS), which then a student who uses a device connected to the internet can access.
This presumes internet connectivity is a given, power is a given, device access is widespread/well supported/up to date, appropriate content is available in local language and in accessible format, and the students are trained to use the technology and digital materials. That is to say, it requires a high resource/high connectivity environment.
But what if this is not the case? How would you bridge this gap if, for instance, internet connectivity was intermittent or non-existent but you had computers in the school? Or if you had no power and no internet but students that needed digital materials? Or if the students accessing the content required assistive technology or accessories to access the materials? The model may then look more like the one below:
Figure 2: No/Intermittent connectivity, web-based content.
This model describes curricular content, housed in the cloud, which is placed onto a content access point before it is shipped to a school. The student then accesses the content through the CAP and uses AT and accessories to use the content.
In the example above, the accessible content that is compatible with target devices is still stored on the government cloud; however, it is loaded onto a portable server/router called a content access point (CAP) and physically sent to schools that have no or intermittent internet connectivity. This allows students to connect to the CAP as if it was the internet. Nonetheless, those students may also require assistive technologies like screen readers, or braille keyboard, or accessories like headphones and computer keyboards to assist with navigation.
Below are listed several solutions, including the CAP, that can help bridge the gap in certain contexts and ensure accessible digital resources are accessible in schools where connectivity is non-existent or unreliable:
- Content Access Points - Small Wi-Fi enabled portable server devices that create an offline enabled ‘micro-cloud’ in any location. They act as both a router and hard-drive, allowing students to connect to specific resources through a browser, even with no internet connection. These require power to run, but some can run off battery. They can be pre-loaded with accessible content and sent directly to a school or loaded with content through portable storage devices.
- Video content on TV - Displaying video content on a TV or a computer screen can reach children in a classroom when an individual device is not available for each of them. Care must be used to ensure the content is accessible: for example, for students who are blind, a transcript of the video should be provided, while students who are deaf will benefit from closed captions and sign language interpretation.
- Projector - This allows the content to be projected onto any surface that can provide enough contrast for the images. A projector can be used to include all students in the activity projected from a single source, without the need for a device for each student.
- Self contained solar-powered learning kits - When there is no power or internet connectivity, a solar powered learning kit like MobiStation can provide access to digital materials in a self contained package.
- Battery powered devices - Battery powered devices like mobile devices and tablets can be charged and used for a limited duration in the case there power is intermittent.
- Portable Storage - USB keys and hard drives can provide ways to distribute content where there is no internet connection. Content can be run directly on the portable storage, or downloaded from the unit, or used to update content libraries on site.
- Shared computer resources - Computers in common spaces such as computer labs can host a collection of resources that all students can access from a single device.
- ePub - ePubs are a well developed accessible format that can be directly loaded onto devices for offline consumption through a piece of software called an ePub reader. ePubs support some learning tools like highlighting text with read-aloud audio.
- Offline Readers (assistive technology hardware) - Offline readers like the Orbit reader, allow for the user to load materials onto the device for permanent access. In the case of the orbit reader, it has a refreshable braille display and navigation buttons.
These solutions can be used to distribute different materials in different contexts. The type of solution also is dependent on the media format, the accessibility features and the learning requirements. In some cases, a specific solution must be used when distributing alternative formats like braille, for example the Orbit reader. If the material is to be distributed in an accessible format like ePub 3, the target accessibility features, like highlighting and read-aloud audio, are dependent on the reader software used. It is important to consider the target ePub reader software that will be used, and whether it is in the cloud or offline and on the device itself, like the diagram below:
Figure 3: ePub distribution, online + offline distribution through single format.
This model describes distributing an ePub 3 read-aloud book by hosting it on the cloud. The ePub can be accessed in a cloud-based reader OR downloaded from the cloud directly onto the device to be accessed in an offline reader. The student may then use accessories like headphones to listen to the read-aloud book particularly in a classroom environment.
In this case, the ePub that is housed in the cloud is both accessible in an online ePub reader and can be downloadable to the device where it can be opened in an offline ePub reader. It is important to note here that the cloud online reader may not support the same features as the offline reader. In fact, there are a variety of ePub readers, and although the ePub 3 format is a standard, it is not implemented the same in all readers. As such, you cannot guarantee that every ePub that uses the extent of the standard (features like media-overlay for instance) will be compatible with each ePub reader. Being mindful of this fact may guide your choices when developing ePubs with accessibility features.
Offline compatible formats like ePub are a useful solution when dealing with intermittent or non-existent internet connection because, after the initial download, the material remains on the unit for the learner. This can be a major benefit for students with disabilities, as offline ePubs perform particularly well with screen readers. Other accessible offline formats include Word documents, accessible PDFs, mp4s with captions and PWPs (progressive web publications). When possible, providing resources in a format that can be downloaded onto the user’s device increases the availability and accessibility in low-resource environments where connectivity may be lacking. Of course this is not always possible due to copyright and licensing concerns, particularly if the material is owned by a publisher who restricts the ability to view the content to a cloud based platform.
A hybrid solution is present in PWPs (progressive web publications) a standard developed on top of PWAs (progressive web applications). This presents a way for the user to access web applications online and ‘download’ or cache them onto the device for future use in an offline setting. This is done using a stack of technologies notably a service worker that handles downloading assets and serves them to the browser when there is no internet connection present. It is a newer technology and thus not supported by older versions of some browsers.
Figure 4: Distribution of materials as PWP, Online/Offline access.
This model describes distributing a PWP (progressive web publication) by allowing the user to access a website with a browser that supports service workers. The browser downloads/caches the resources and provides the resources through offline access to the device if no internet connection is present.
The models explored thus far require a range of devices that some students may not have access to. As such, even with the best intentions, students may not be able to access these resources. To explore alternative solutions to deploy accessible learning through technology in LMICs please review the implementation examples.
Remote Learning in the Home - access to digital learning devices
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were required to learn from home, we saw that access to the devices required for learning decreased dramatically, as many students only had access to them in school. In Kenya, it was reported that only 10% of students were able to access the government learning platform, while 70 - 90% and more were able to access government programming on television and radio (reference UNICEF Kenya).
Hosting accessible materials online and making them available has only a limited impact if the students who require those materials do not have access to the infrastructure/devices necessary to utilize them. However, consumer electronics like Television, Radio, Mobile Phones, Smartphones etc. provide a wealth of access points for children. In some cases, accessibility can be a little more challenging and may not work for all learners, particularly in the case of radio, which is not accessible for learners who are deaf. Television, on the other hand, can both have descriptive audio, sign language interpretation, visual cues etc. In the Kenyan context, KICD (the Kenyan Institute of Curriculum Development) launched educational programming over the television, including a channel that broadcast sign language story books ‘Digital Story Time’ produced by educational technology company eKitabu.
In some contexts, a mobile phone is far more likely to exist in the home than a tablet or a personal computer. The mobile device is accessible especially with modern version of the operation systems. Both Android and iOS feature many accessibility features by default that enable the user to navigate, read-aloud text and customize visual settings. The group messaging features of mobile apps like Whatsapp have been used in an education context to facilitate classroom discussion. Specifically, through these apps, classrooms of students and teachers are able to ask questions, share materials, and chat with each other. Even access to resources both government and private resources is available through the mobile browser for students with an fast enough internet connection.
Another major barrier to successfully reaching students with the content they require is high data costs in LMICs. These costs can be prohibitive at times as much as $10 USD per gigabyte. This can prevent students from feeling secure enough to access data intensive resources like videos and large publications. To combat this issue, content providers and governments can strike ‘zero-rated’ deals with telecoms to allow for educational content served from specific sites to cost nothing to download. As in, it does not contribute to the data caps.
Of course, not all sites are created equal, and often the better resourced publishers are first to receive zero-rating of their materials, driving subscriptions and access to their platforms. In the Kenyan context, the publisher Longhorn was among the first to gain a zero-rated status from the telecoms, which resulted in a 300% increase in users accessing their materials. Other cloud platforms, including government platforms, were granted zero-rated status later in the pandemic, leaving users without data allowances limited access their materials online in the meantime.
These solutions for overcoming the last mile must be combined with an understanding of the ecosystem in each country and context, and the connectivity landscape. We can learn more through examining real world implementation examples, which detail how accessible digital content and tools can support learners in a variety of contexts and learning environments.