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A Merger with Library For All

When I applied for the Rotary Peace Scholarship, I was intent on finding educational solutions that could reach the most marginalised and vulnerable communities, in particular displaced populations. Undertaking a Master’s in Educational Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship combined with a Post-graduate Certificate in International Development and Peace Studies set me on that path. The challenge would be to find well designed educational tools that would be inclusive, accessible, scalable, but still remain practical in low resource settings. By low resource settings, I am referring to communities that lack basic infrastructure such as electricity, internet, schools, teachers or transport. Technology is often deemed as redundant in such settings, even problematic, however there are solutions available which allow for education to reach marginalised and remote communities, some of which I will introduce in this article.

Little did I know that my current studies would align with the largest education emergency in history. It has been interesting to learn about educational innovations whilst experiencing first hand, the pros and cons of embracing alternative modes for delivery. It has highlighted to me the importance of sound educational design but also the absolute necessity to understand student needs and to personalise study accordingly. 1.6 billion children have had their education disrupted during the COVID-19 crisis. There is no one quick fix to this. National governments have responded as best they can, under the guidance of global education clusters which provide guidelines and advice, however we have yet to determine what combinations produce the best learning outcomes for children.

Just under 10 million children are predicted never to return to school again because their families will fall into poverty and children will be required to help sustain family livelihoods. Just under 3 million children were not in school prior to the pandemic. Girls were three times more likely not to be in education and 16% of school age children are dealing with a disability. As a community we must find ways to ‘build back better’ and ensure we provide education that is resilient, equitable and personalized so that children of today have a future tomorrow.

Indeed, with the release of the Save Our Education report in July, a spokesman from the World Bank said that we have to be bold enough to “re-imagine education as we know it” and “drive transformational change”. But how can we do this in highly bureaucratic organisations with well entrenched ways of working that sustain fixed mindsets? How do we generate growth mindsets? How do we create work environments that support thinking outside of the box, encourage new ideas at all levels of an organisation and give employees permission and trust to be creative? Because that is what we need to re-imagine what already exists!

Innovative spaces have to be cultivated by leaders. Organisations can only be as agile as the mindsets of those that create the systems that they must operate within. My task during my internship became less about introducing the capabilities of a small, innovative and passionate organisation, where any new idea was viewed as a possibility, to navigating the complex structures of a hierarchical global organisation where the ways of working were well entrenched and less agile. Persevering, despite constant road blocks, was sometimes cumbersome work but key to achieving results. The task became about finding the right language to build trust and help others identify synergies that they hadn’t quite seen as options previously. It was about finding pockets within the workplace where creative thinking was encouraged and spending time with those individuals to generate energy and some momentum around embracing something new.

I had initially negotiated my internship with Save The Children in Bangladesh where I was tasked to undertake a feasibility study for the introduction of educational technology into Cox’s Bazaar, the largest refugee camp in the world. COVID-19 steered me on a trajectory quite different to what I had imagined for 2020. Like my peers, and so many other fellow humans impacted by COVID, I was gutted. As I watched that opportunity fall away, my visions for pivoting my career towards work directly in refugee camps faded, and I had to ask myself “What’s important? Why am I here?”. My response helped calm my own personal anguish as the answer is always the same, “To reach as many vulnerable children as we can”. And so, this has been my mantra these last few months. Every time I’ve felt disheartened because something is completely out of my control or beyond my sphere of influence (not from a lack of trying), I remind myself of the Stockdale paradox, and what my purpose is.

Resilience is more than just surviving; it is finding a means to thrive when faced by an adverse situation. Deciding that Australia would be my best bet to thrive in a COVID world, I turned to Save The Children Australia (SCA) where I was introduced to a not for profit organisation that SCA had recently merged with called Library For All (LFA).

Save The Children Australia chose to merge with Library For All (and other social enterprises) as a means to leverage global strengths. This partnership allowed SCA to harness technology, drive innovation, find creative solutions from an organisation that has proven successful, with an eye to scale. Paul Renolds, the CEO of SCA, openly recognises that the humanitarian and development world is evolving swiftly, and that INGOs must be resourceful or they will come undone in this current environment. Global humanitarian needs are greater than ever before, yet there are less funds available, and donors want more control and accountability to how funds are spent. In a sector where organisations often find themselves competing, or operating in silos, mergers like this are about leveraging comparative advantages to improve efficiencies in program delivery. Collaboration and integration are key and as an intern, part of my role was to identify where synergies existed.

Library For All develop innovative education technology and culturally diverse books to improve learning outcomes for children in low-literacy communities, including refugee communities. I was asked to ascertain how LFA solutions and capabilities could best compliment or add value to programs and alliances within the wider Save global network. This included Save programs but also alliances such as the Global Book Alliance and the Global Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience in the Education Sector, as well as Save partners such as Ministries of Education in sponsored countries.

The nature of my work allowed me to dive deep into the belly of a large and complex organization, with a particular focus on Education in Emergencies and Disaster Resilience. These are both areas I have worked in and I am very passionate about.  First we needed to understand the needs and challenges across different programs so as to establish relevant solutions. It wasn’t long into my investigation that I realized Library For All was in a unique position to offer a means for cross program integration, and to be a catalyst for bridging development and humanitarian programs where silos normally exist. There were also obvious opportunities to create cross thematic content such as education on disasters, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation, as well as opportunities to supplement and even digitalize existing global common approaches.

The challenge would be getting the buy-in from the right people given the existing programs were well entrenched and respected with the organization. Change is always difficult, especially when we’re all trying to get by in a pandemic. Library For All was new to Save The Children but this is not an organization that waits for change, much like myself. This is an organization that drives change and there was opportunity to have an impact right then.

While the focus was right up my ally, it was slow progress working from my make shift office in Perth. It’s challenging working in a new organization when there is no one to throw quick questions to. Technical education staff were mostly unavailable due to the COVID emergency, LFA staff had not yet been integrated into SCA and workloads were high for everyone. Being introduced to ‘bold ideas’ was almost unbearable for those operating in survival mode. I needed to find another way to communicate potential synergies and muster support from those who might be open to embracing our technology solutions. So, I set about creating a series of webinars to introduce LFA capabilities, their products and services. The webinar outlined themes presenting in literature around global education needs amidst COVID, how different programs might utilize the solutions and potential for value-add opportunities.

Some of the themes presenting in reports amidst the COVID educational response include educational continuity, the provision of alternatives modes for delivery and the need for flexibility in delivery including no-tech, low tech and high-tech options. Multi-pronged approaches across the globe have been successful with online and offline options, radio and tv educational programs, however many children are still not being reached.

Literature also outlined the need for cross programmatic integration, partnerships and co-funding to streamline humanitarian and development initiatives. With predicted shortfalls of $US 77 billion dollars for education these next 2 years this is essential.  Other themes included the need to bridge humanitarian response efforts with development agendas to continue towards meeting sustainable development goals for 2030. This means driving resilience programs with the hope of reducing the need for large scale humanitarian response. There is a call for scalability, for building 21st century skills, for supporting teachers and for collecting reliable data for reporting on interventions.

It’s not just about every child having a right to education that is of concern here. It is the fact that without it the cycle of poverty persists. Young girls are more susceptible to forced marriage and pregnancy, boys are at high risk of being recruited into armed groups, feeding programs through schools cease, malnutrition persists, as does disease, and the ripple effect goes on. This generation of children in school will also come to bear the responsibility of servicing the debt created by COVID now; an estimated 16 trillion dollars. These are unprecedented times which calls for an unprecedented response. We cannot respond to this situation by operating the same way we have always operated.

Save The Children and UNICEF are co-leads for the Global Education Cluster which manage humanitarian response efforts to ensure educational continuity during emergencies.  Save The Children also undertake a number of educational development programs to support early learning and a basic education. A set of recognized common approaches focused on education are used to support this, namely Safe Schools, Enabling Teachers, Ready to Learn, Literacy Boost and Numeracy Boost. With 53% of children leaving primary school still not able to read a basic sentence, literacy is a high priority. Access to books, whether printed or digital is crucial for literacy development. Providing a means to support teachers operating in under resourced environments sets up both teachers and students for success. Library for All books, Spark Digital Classroom Kits, Literacy and Numeracy applications and dashboards do just this.

Often the books children have access to are limited and of very poor quality. Library For All carefully curate culturally relevant, age appropriate books which are sourced, written and illustrated by communities for communities. To make knowledge accessible to all, equally, the vision is to create libraries of 500 books in every country. These books become free enduring resources for everyone. Each book published is available through google play or in print on a cost recovery basis. Where internet is not an option, yes there is print, but a library can be downloaded onto an SD card and read by children on durable tablets which is what makes up the Spark Digital Classroom Kits.

These classroom kits provide an Integrated software and hardware solution for schools and communities. What’s more, the kits have an in-built safety and charging mechanism and we are currently testing a solar version. To support other programs there is potential to harness the hardware for other means such as service access, cash vouchers and other applications.

Each library of books is made up of “mirrors and windows”. Most of the books in a library are mirrors where the children are able to see their own lives reflected in the stories they read.  ‘Mirrors’ make stories meaningful, which in turn increases the motivation to learn and thus improves learning outcomes. ‘Windows’ offer a means to learn about other worlds and experiences. In a refugee camp, as an example, mirrors offer a means for children to engage in stories in their own language, with images and stories that make sense to them and help keep them connected to their own identity, thus improving mental wellbeing. Likewise, windows into the world they find themselves in could help for foster integration, reduce conflict and misunderstanding and also improve mental well-being as a result.

Likewise, Elevate has an amazing potential to change lives. Elevate is an award-winning independent learning application for students to rapidly acquire literacy and numeracy skills in resource-constrained classrooms and at home. Studies show this tool delivers rapid attainment of literacy, numeracy and writing skills. Children have gone from illiterate to literate in 18 months by using the app for just 30 minutes a day. This includes children who had never attended school before and also refugees transitioning to a new language of instruction. The app is game based, intuitive, requires very little supervision and highly engaging. This is why it has worked so well in low resource settings.

With well-established common approaches like Literacy and Numeracy Boost being delivered face to face by Save The Children, Library For All are in a position to compliment or supplement existing models by offering an alternative mode of delivery. What’s more there is huge opportunity to build cross thematic libraries. We know that children’s literacy improves dramatically “just by having a library”. What’s more, a library can be anything whether it is teaching material, children’s books, common approaches or organisational procedures. All very useful if they can be updated, accessible via a cloud and used in low resource settings.

Navigating a large complex organisation requires patience. If we had hesitated at every ‘stop sign’ presented to us, we would not have got anywhere. There will always be those that resist the unfamiliar however it is possible to build cultures where people are open to new but it takes visionaries to lead an organisation down that path. The trick was to stay on the road until one of the gate-keepers showed a ‘give-way sign’. My biggest advocator and supporter, Rebecca McDonald, the Founder and CEO of Library For All, trusted that together, with time, we would find momentum.

On this journey I have also been exposed to Paul Ronalds, CEO of Save The Children Australia, another visionary who believe in collaboration, innovation and agility. I have worked with a team people I call passionate ‘movers and shakers’. They are constantly evolving and adapting as they kick milestone after milestone. I’ve learnt from people with highly technical skills and invaluable insight into global education. I’ve been confronted by large, complex bureaucratic machines that don’t always allow for agility. The biggest lesson I have learnt from this is to show compassion and persevere.

During the final week of my internship Rebecca and I co-presented a series of 60-minute webinars to Save The Children technical working groups, communities of practice and their partners across the globe. We focused on leveraging off existing assets and harnessing the opportunity to digitalise and scale common approaches for Save The Children. I am excited to report that the webinars have created a stir and technical working teams are indeed looking to collaborate with Library For All. We have momentum!

This has been an amazing experience and I am so grateful to have fallen into a team of bright minds, full of passion and energy. I have been offered the opportunity to continue with the work we have started.  Being selected for CEO round table with Save The Children is also a privilege and I am incredibly grateful. 40 individuals showing potential are chosen every year to attend these round tables in recognition of their work. The topic of cultivating cultures that drive collaboration, innovation and change is where I hope to gain insight and spark debate with Paul Ronalds later this month.

Lessons Learnt While Interning during COVID.

It is a delicate dance staying focused on your goals, persevering, finding solutions that keep you on track whilst also being flexible and adapting to change. When does being driven, sticking to your guns and remaining steadfast on your aspirations and dreams morph into ‘being inflexible’? When must we stop challenging decision makers and organisational cultures that sustain ‘fixed mindsets’ and expect the world to operate on rules and procedures that worked yesterday, but do not fit today’s circumstances? How do we ensure that we advocate inclusively and collaborate on decision making to involve everyone participate in making solutions?

It is a natural response for a person, organisation or a government to fall into survival mode when disaster strikes, however resilience is not about simply surviving. Resilience is being able to thrive when faced with an adverse situation. How can we thrive in such an environment if we refuse to think or operate differently? How can we count on a process that worked yesterday but is not applicable today? How do we foster a culture of growth where people embrace the new and are not afraid to try and fail?  It is a delicate dance indeed challenging redundant systems whilst still remaining flexible enough to allow for those same systems to be adjusted.

These are contemplations that I have had on a daily basis through COVID, not only whilst advocating for my own education and future, but most importantly when confronted by organisational hierarchies and barriers which might hinder the adoption of solutions that could help ensure the continuity of education for children right now.

And so next time you’re asked to consider an alternative to what has been ‘the norm’, I encourage you to sit with it, digest it, consider it and maybe even be bold enough to do something a different way!

More Information on Library For All:

Save The Children Internship