In 2014, I visited Lascahobas, a small market-town in the center of the Haitian countryside. As coordinator for Unleash Kids, I was there to help a local school get their laptop program up and running again. The Lascahobas school was the latest version of a pattern I’d been seeing throughout our projects in Haiti: donors invest in technology for education, without considering infrastructure like electricity, content, trained teachers, and curriculum.
At Unleash Kids, we worked hard to develop solutions that made sense for Haiti, like solar power and offline copies of Wikipedia. We created a customized software system, and I worked with our teachers to craft an after-school curriculum to accompany it. When schools had the funds to pay someone to stay after school and work with the kids, things went great. But for the moment, the creative lessons we offered on the computers didn’t really correspond to what schools saw as their top priorities, subjects like reading and math. We tried to find Haitian Creole books to add to our digital library, but there didn’t seem to be much out there.
Then, for me, things started shifting. I returned to Lascahobas that winter to test out our app for writing books. Shortly afterwards, that app was selected as a finalist in the Enabling Writers competition, and we had a new idea about what to work on next. Our previous app focused on teachers writing books for their students. What about something that would get the students themselves writing? At most schools I’ve visited in Haiti, students rarely get the chance to take ideas from their own heads and put them down on paper. How will students grow when you do give them that opportunity? I teamed up with other students at my college, and we came up with a plan for testing what impact computers can have on literacy.
We found support in many places. Library for All already has an app specifically for Haitian Creole books, and worked to adapt it to our computers. When that didn’t work, Educavision generously donated access to their books for our pilot. Big Ideas @ Berkeley, a student innovation competition, awarded us $13,000 to make our project possible. Students at Randolph-Macon College volunteered to install solar and Internet and repair computers at one of the project schools.
So, this summer, we launched our pilot at three schools in Lascahobas. Each school received laptops in 2008, but none of them were using the computers in the classroom. We worked with 18 teachers to write lesson plans for the books and practice new techniques for teaching them. Those teachers went on to teach a total of 270 students in a six-week literacy camp. We divided them into two groups: one group learns with laptops, and the other group covers the same books and the same lessons using paper books and notebooks.
Now that the pilot is over our team is currently hard at work analyzing exam scores, writing samples, and teacher surveys and feedback. We’re looking forward to sharing those results and putting a lot of thought in to how we can adapt these ideas to a school-day setting (shorter time period and more students).