Written by Dr. Rhea Sanchez
Educator, Professor, and NGO Director
During my initial interview for the position of the Director of a newly formed literacy foundation, I was asked this question: “If there is an older woman, a grandmother, who has never learned how to read but still wants to learn. What would you tell her?”
Without hesitation, I answered: “I would tell her that it is never too late to learn, and I would offer my help.” This interview question became the basis of my directive: to start a scalable literacy project in a foreign country with a high illiteracy rate.
The challenge of bringing someone’s idea to fruition and completing it within the scope and budget have always been appealing to me, but this was the first time I was asked to lead a project in a foreign country from my desk in Pasadena, California. However, with the support of a great team and other nonprofit organizations, we were able to execute and to manage a global literacy project situated 7,965 miles away by completing the following seven steps.
The first step was the identification of a country with a need for a literacy project. A strong choice was Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge’s attempt to create a classless agrarian society caused the destruction of its education system which prevented an entire generation from receiving their human right to education. After choosing Cambodia as the location of the pilot literacy program, we had to figure out the most efficient way to scale our program.
To fulfill the scalability requirements of the project, we could not depend on the traditional method of a literacy coach helping one student at a time to gain reading skills. The most effective way was to rely more on technology and less on face-to-face instructions in order to reach the large number of participants within the given time frame. Therefore, the second step was finding the appropriate digital curriculum that can be accessed on smartphones and tablets to take the place of the traditional teaching. Fortunately, Learning Upgrade, a digital curriculum app that uses songs and gamification was available.
The Learning Upgrade App met all our criteria to teach non-readers to learn the alphabet for the first time and continually progress their literacy skills. This digital app also provided a math curriculum. All the courses required the learners to master each concept before moving onto the succeeding lessons. In addition, the App also included a course in digital literacy that enabled the participants to acquire the necessary skills towards employability. Learning Upgrade also provided the ability to track the progress of our participants including the time they spent on each lesson, the number of lessons completed, and most importantly when a participant was stuck on a lesson which enabled us to intervene and offer help. This information was available through reports that were updated daily and accessible anytime from the Learning Upgrade website.
The third step required us to justify the need for a literacy project. The justification became the platform for conversations with potential partners. Currently, there are 750 million adults worldwide lacking basic reading, writing, and numeracy skills. In Cambodia, only 80% of its population are identified as functioning literate. The urgency for a literacy project was self explanatory, but it is still important to convey the reason.
The sense of urgency and our project’s mission of breaking the cycle of generational poverty helped us in starting conversations with nonprofit organizations to be able to complete the fourth step. This vital step required cooperation from local organizations to implement the literacy project, but the partnership was contingent on the agreement that its focus remained on acquiring English literacy and numeracy skills. A mutual agreement was necessary regarding the participants’ use of the digital app to learn and to acquire literacy skills.
A key factor for our success was the partnership with reputable local organizations that had already established positive relationships with the local communities. They were instrumental in providing the fifth step which was to establish credibility since scams are rampant in developing countries. Unfortunately, Cambodia’s most vulnerable low socio-economic population has been abused by micro loan sharks and other educational fraudulent predators. Even if we were offering a free program, the locals knew based on their experience that foreign organizations including those with nonprofit status were not to be trusted.
Furthermore, we were fortunate that our partner organizations were very helpful in our ability to complete the sixth step: the recruitment of participants for the program. These same participants also vouched for the credibility of our program, and the word-of-mouth marketing gradually increased the number of participants. As we established more partnerships with other organizations, the program continued to expand to other literacy campuses as well as a virtual campus.
Although we relied heavily on technology in teaching the participants; we knew the value of a compassionate person supporting the participants was just as important and significant. The internet made it possible to manage a program in another country. However, a human contact provided by someone who was physically located in Cambodia was required to reach the specific population that we were targeting. Most of whom have never used computers, smartphones, or tablets; the devices that were used to access the Learning Upgrade digital app. Human interactions were necessary to teach the participants how to use the devices and get them capable and comfortable in using the digital app.
Thankfully, our local partners also assisted in accomplishing the seventh step which was to recruit facilitators who acted as liaisons between us and the organizations as well as facilitating the learning of our participants. The facilitators also served as recruiters, literacy coaches, and provided support for technology issues in the local language. Initially, they were available in person or by phone for the participants. However, as participants became more literate and more comfortable with technology, they were also able to use text and other messaging devices to communicate, and we (the team from the US) were able to communicate with them on Facebook and post congratulatory messages for completing their courses.