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Big Ideas: “A global competition to find edtech solutions to help all children learn to read” with Deborah Backus of World Vision

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Backus. Deborah is World Vision’s project director for All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, an initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Vision and […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Backus. Deborah is World Vision’s project director for All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, an initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Vision and the Australian Government that runs global competitions to source edtech solutions that help children in developing countries learn to read. All Children Reading then tests these solutions and seeks to scale what works.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m not a traditional techie, but I like to work on hard problems and collaborate with others to find solutions. I’ve spent my career working around the world on complex development challenges — as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan, later working with refugee communities in the U.S., Thailand and Cambodia, and on government reform in the Middle East. I’ve consistently seen the need for creativity, innovation and partnership to solve systemic challenges. Child literacy is one of those big challenges.

We live in a world in which 387 million children are not learning to read. Literacy unlocks human potential, and children who do not develop reading skills during early primary education are likely on a lifetime trajectory of limited educational progress, which in turn limits their economic opportunities.

As you know, technology is changing almost every aspect of our lives. As more people around the world have access to technology, it can be leveraged as a tool to support learning. While we recognize that technology alone isn’t the answer, we know that it can facilitate learning opportunities at scale and in accessible formats to help reach children with disabilities, who are often not provided with education opportunities or accessible education resources.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Since our initiative launched in 2011, we’ve funded more than 80 innovative solutions and approaches to barriers that prevent children from learning to read, particularly the lack of quality reading materials in languages children use and understand, as well as the lack of accessible learning materials for children with disabilities.

A few examples of world-changing innovations that have emerged from our competitions include easy-to-use Bloom software that allows people to easily create and export children’s books in any language, while automatically guiding the author to keep the content at specific reading levels. We also ideated a concept that later was developed by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and the Norwegian Digital Learning Arena called the Global Digital Library — think of it as a free “Netflix” for high quality, free children’s reading materials in languages in which there are little to no reading books for children.

When we talk about All Children Reading, we really emphasize “all,” which is why serving the literacy needs of children with disabilities — who are often overlooked or marginalized — is central to our work. We’ve funded two innovators who developed cost-effective solutions for publishers to incorporate accessibility at the onset of book development. Making books accessible is a very costly, time-consuming process when done after book development. Additionally, because 80% of the deaf community are not provided with access to education, we recently announced awards to three innovators who are now field-testing innovations to improve access to sign language-enabled learning for deaf children.

ACR GCD has also sought to fill gaps where traditional education structures don’t exist. That includes conflict situations like the ongoing war in Syria, which has displaced millions of children who no longer can attend school and suffer from long-term stress. To address the needs of these out-of-school children, we sourced two free gaming apps that build foundational Arabic literacy skills and increase psycho-social wellbeing. To encourage use in other contexts, the code for these open source games was made available and have already been re-versioned in nearly 40 other languages so other children can benefit.

How do you think this will change the world?

Within each one of the 387 million children who are waiting for the opportunity to read, untapped potential exists. Literacy unlocks that potential. We believe the next Steve Jobs, Malala Yousafzai, Nelson Mandela, or Marie Curie could very well exist within this population of children whose contributions to the world is contingent on their opportunity to learn to read.

The prospect of all children reading also has economic and societal implications. The Global Partnership for Education estimates that GDP per capita in low-income countries would increase by nearly 70 percent by 2050 if all children were learning.

To accomplish this, we’ve developed an approach that addresses major gaps and barriers that keep children from learning to read. For instance, many children do not receive reading instruction or reading materials in the languages they use and understand. There are little to no books in their language. This is unfathomable for those of us who recall gaining our love of reading from going to schools or libraries or having a home filled with exciting books written just at our level — in the language we use. We also know that only 2 percent of the 32 million deaf children in the world receive education in sign language — the most accessible pathway to a language foundation for deaf children. So our focus has included improving the development and access to reading materials in underserved languages, to leveraging edtech to enable literacy and learning for children with disabilities, to engaging families and communities in children’s reading. We believe addressing this can change the world — and the lives of millions of children.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Because unlocking our full potential is contingent on literacy and because of the staggering statistics I mentioned earlier of the number of children — both in school and out-of-school — who are not learning to read, child literacy was identified by USAID as a Grand Challenge for Development. In 2011, USAID, World Vision, and the Australian Government formed the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development partnership to jointly address this challenge. What’s important about the Grand Challenge for Development initiative is that it’s is rooted in two fundamental beliefs about international development: science and technology, when applied appropriately, can have transformational effects and secondly, engaging the world in the quest for solutions is critical to instigating breakthrough progress. We used the grand challenge model to engage new solvers across many disciplines, locations and areas of expertise, increasing the odds of finding and accelerating revolutionary, cost-efficient advances.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Several of the innovations we’ve sourced are available for widespread use and adoption. Bloom software can be downloaded and used for free by anyone wanting to create books in underserved languages or willing to translate books already available in the Bloom library.

Books on the Global Digital Library are available for free use on the web, mobile and for print. The goal is to have books in at least 100 languages available on the platform by 2020. ACR GCD has funded dozens of high-quality, accessible and open-source books to be included on the platform, but we encourage more authors and innovators to contribute to or translate content already on the platform. By 2030, the hope is that every child in the world will have access to books in their language to practice and enjoy reading.

We also recognize that there is reticence to adopt technology due to potential costs and risks. When All Children Reading was established, there was less research to clarify the impact of technology on child literacy. We soon realized that to achieve widespread adoption, it was critical to equip Ministries of Education, funders, policy makers, and education practitioners, and others with the data they need to make informed decisions about the best tools for teaching children to read. To that end, we have had an extensive focus on research of our innovations, including project evaluations, guidebooks and landscape reviews, to help support decision-makers in their adoption of technology for education and ease the associated risks.

We challenge innovators, education practitioners, ministries of education, and others to explore how they can develop or adapt solutions that help more children around the world learn to read, and we welcome them to join us in addressing this challenge.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

One philosophy that has guided me throughout my life and into my career is the undying belief of the potential that lives within each person and a curiosity to explore the possibility that may unfold within each life if provided with the right resources and opportunityThat is why I first chose a career in social work that evolved into social policy and international development. I am continually awestruck at the challenges people overcome and how they build the social capital to do so. That philosophy aligns well with the mission of All Children Reading as we believe in the potential that lives within each child, and know that, if they’re given the right resources and opportunity to learn to read, literacy leads to better health, broadens employment opportunities and creates safer and more stable societies. We also believe in the potential that lives within the global community — including those within the communities we seek to serve — who submit ideas to our competitions.. We’re delighted to be a liaison between this community and their potential to create world-changing solutions and the children whose potential can be unleashed through literacy.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can follow @ReadingGCD on Twitter and @AllChildrenReadingon Facebook. They can also sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive updates about our work, including the launch of new prize competitions.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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