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Innovation in times of crisis: Designing the Audioclass System

No matter how connected you are, everyone should have access to learning opportunities

In one of the most unprecedented events of the 21st century, the world has been forced to change dramatically under a new health threat: the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. In humanitarian settings, the pandemic has introduced severe logistical challenges to delivering aid and services to the world’s most vulnerable. For instance, in Colombia, all in-person education programs have closed their doors to students since April 2020, and they are not expected to reopen until early 2021. Current figures show that there are 12.9 million learners out of school in the country. In 2019, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) identified over 9,000 out-of-school children and adolescents in the area of Norte de Santander in Colombia, the main area of entry for refugees from Venezuela. Combined with school closures, the number of children who are receiving little to no education at this moment has grown exponentially. While Colombia has quickly shifted to online learning and adapted content for the web, many vulnerable children are without computers or access to the internet and therefore cannot continue their education using these tools.

The IRC’s research and innovation arm, the Airbel Impact Lab, has begun to run design sprints with our country offices to identify new opportunities to their most pressing national issues.

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A design sprint during a pandemic?

Developed by Google in 2010, a design sprint is a process that helps organizations rapidly solve problems and validate new ideas before investing heavily on a concept. The usual timeline is five 8-hour workdays. Running a design sprint during a major global crisis in a humanitarian aid organization with staff who are actively responding to a pandemic was a difficult challenge. We needed to remain agile, flexible, and very understanding of the shifting priorities of our teams — it can be hard to invest in a long term vision when near term needs are so pressing. More than ever we needed to ensure that this sprint addressed immediate needs in addition to providing a long term, cost-effective and scalable solution. To accommodate the workloads of our global stakeholders, the Airbel team adapted the original design sprint timeline by reducing the intensity of engagement and adding more time in between sessions. Instead of 40 hours in one week, it was 20 hours over the course of two weeks. We also modified the process to be completed remotely, identified the needed roles and level of effort for each participant to ensure sprint success while still maintaining the necessary flexibility to continue providing essential services to our clients. An appropriate and feasible ask for most of the team was two hours a day for two weeks.

In order to design rapidly, we created a small and nimble local team that was steeped in the challenges faced by our clients, interested and curious about the design process. The team of seven included a local designer, four local experts made up of program officers and coordinators, and one Airbel designer as the facilitator (me!). Two of our local experts were from partner organizations, UNICEF and NRC, who brought a different focus and awareness of the challenges in Colombia. By including partner organizations in our team, we created buy-in and potential scale from the start as well as a team with diverse experience.

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Designing for a refugee crisis, a pandemic, and envisioning a brighter future.

In Colombia where at least 4 million Venezuelans have crossed the border to seek refuge, there was a 509% increase in school enrollment for Venezuelan students in 2019. Currently, Colombia’s education system is not able to support the influx of students, and as a result, there are many local and immigrant children who are not receiving education. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing problems in the educational system, especially for out-of-school students. As a humanitarian aid organization, we are eager to design solutions that are impactful, scalable and valuable. It was critical to identify solutions that not only solved for the current needs of education during a global pandemic, but are also future forward and could be used in years to come.

We began the design sprint by understanding what was happening on the ground. The team discussed and mapped the various programs, focus areas, and adaptations during COVID-19 of each organization as well as the local education cluster. A cluster is a group of geographically neighboring, interconnected companies and organizations working in a certain area and characterized by common activities and mutual reinforcement.

When we completed our mapping, it was easy to see that there was a group of students whose educational needs were being ignored: Adolescents. They have been left out of educational programming, even before the pandemic started, and there was no plan to include them. If we could create a solution that resolved the problems of this extreme case and responded to the pandemic, we could create something that could be used for years to come.

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The NRC assessments held in 2019 show that 60% more adolescents dropped out of school, and 80% of the out-of-school population were above the age limit to enroll in remedial programming, which hampers their advancement in formal schooling. Some of these problems are caused by a lack of documentation to enroll; lack of capacity; youth being behind in their grade levels; inability to attend remedial programs; family responsibilities; and those living in rural areas are affected by all the above as well as a lack of access to schools and educational programming in their area.

Now that we had identified a specific user with an extreme need who could benefit in the short and long term, it was time to learn how the pandemic was affecting education for the lucky students who could go to school. We scheduled calls with students aged 12–18 who were formally enrolled in school to understand their challenges with learning remotely at home. In the span of one day, we quickly learned that:

  • Students are learning through monthly stacks of printed materials. There is limited guidance and students have more questions than answers. There is no form of immediate feedback, since they only have a once-a-week call with their teacher who has little time to teach them.
  • Students are overwhelmed by their assigned homework. Due to the lack of instruction, students aren’t able to complete their homework without accessing the internet, which many do not have access to. They don’t receive feedback on their homework until a month later when the teacher is able to collect and grade it.
  • Teachers are overburdened with the social-emotional needs of their students and their families. They take the weekly calls as a chance to check in and extend their emotional support.
  • Teachers cannot optimize their use of technology to teach. Between creating new printed material, grading vast amounts of homework, and calling each student individually, they don’t have the time or resources to tailor homework to the technology available to each student. Students who have smartphones aren’t receiving visual materials and students with the internet aren’t receiving online resources and videos. The phone and WhatsApp is strictly used to share the printed material as PDFs and to call or text the student to check in on them, not as a teaching tool.

The Audioclass System

According to a 2019 Signpost study by the IRC, 66% of the population in Norte de Santander had access to a cell phone, with 50% of them having access to a smartphone. The sprint team, therefore, found it feasible and attainable to use low-medium technology, such as cellphones and limited mobile data, as a method of sharing educational material with a high number of children. Moreover, by using channels such as WhatsApp, there was high potential of reaching families across the border, who currently cannot be reached through printed materials.

The sprint team created a concept called the Audioclass System that uses automated communication technology to share educational audio material to different types of devices. The system is able to reach children and adapt content for whatever device they have available, be it radio, basic phone, or smartphone. It can also reach children in rural and urban areas, augment access to quality educational materials, and provide interactive learning activities The system defaults to audio to cater to low-to-medium technology devices, instead of high-tech devices, such as computers that need strong internet connection. Low-tech devices such as radios will share audio lessons, medium-tech devices such as basic phones will receive audio lessons plus some interactive audio activities, higher-tech devices such as smartphones will receive audio lessons, interactive activities, plus visuals. This allows us to reach the most vulnerable students and give them access to high-quality learning experiences that are as technologically advanced as they can be for their device. We envision a future where students can learn using accessible and responsive technology that meets them at their educational level, wherever they are.

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The Audioclass System solves for the problems identified above by:

  • Creating interactive learning content that provides instant feedback. If a student is stuck or chooses the wrong answer to a question, the system is able to reply with more information, guidance and support.
  • Sharing content that is motivating and exciting. The system is gamified and able to track points based on responses. We use audio storytelling to create educational content that is entertaining in a context where children might have no internet, television or other forms of amusement while inside.
  • Automated mental health check ins and connections to local resources that can help caregivers and students, as well as teachers ensure they are taking care of themselves during these trying times.
  • Automated lesson delivery that adapts to each device on its own. Teachers can now spend their time doing what they do best: teaching! They can follow up with their students and cater to their learning needs by looking at the student dashboard, instead of calling each one by one.
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From problems to solutions in two weeks

We are now in the early stages of creating a minimum viable product that uses Interactive Voice Response and WhatsApp chatbot systems to share educational media with children alongside NRC. Using these automated technologies, we can dramatically reach more children and actively create valuable at-home educational experiences. We will be designing the foundation of a system that can be used across various programs to reach those we serve, not only in Colombia, but in other countries as well.

We know that smartphones and social media are the communication technologies of the future. According to a 2020 Hootsuite and We Are Social data trend analysis, smartphone subscriptions in Colombia have increased by 3.3% (1.9 million) and social media users increased by 11% (3.4 million) from 2019–2020. During this pandemic, we have observed educational institutions all over the world pivoting to social media and digital platforms to reach students. These channels are useful not only in moments of crisis, but can be leveraged systematically to strengthen our educational systems and support the most vulnerable. Digital tools that can increase access to learning opportunities shouldn’t be reserved for those with the highest level of connection, instead we should use a multi-channel approach to reach those who are looking to learn, no matter how connected they are.

Written by

Product Designer at Airbel Impact Lab

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