Silver Bullets and Sleeping Giants

February 21, 2019

Note: This article was originally published in ElementsEd: Research, Insights, Strategies

Technologies and applications abound to educate children in remote and hybrid settings, but how we use these tools and who we use them with may be more important than what is on them.

Sarah wears the eagerness of youth on her sleeves. Sitting in a plastic chair, the kind that are a feature of countless backyards and garages around the world, her legs are too short to touch the ground; instead, they hang from the edge, moving constantly. Sitting there, she held breakthrough insights into educational equity. Sarah and I only had a brief conversation, in fact, it lasted just a few questions. Sarah, like all other 7-year-olds, had other things on her mind. She answered the first two questions carefully and quietly. The third question was about assessments - did she like taking them? Did they take too long? She answered with her own question. “When will we start again?” with eyes that carried both concern and excitement. 

Sarah lives with 5 other siblings in a “child-led household” —their oldest sibling oversees the home while her parents remain at the border of South Sudan. Sarah and her siblings live in the Imvepi Refugee Settlement. You would struggle to find Imvepi on a map. Until 2017 it did not even exist. Imvepi is situated in the northwest corner of Uganda in a region called West Nile. West Nile sprawls west from the River Nile to the borders of The Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. The region hosts one of the highest concentrations of refugees in the world, nearly 1 million people in an area the size of Massachusetts. Most are children like Sarah - children under the age of 18 comprise 64% of the population in Imvepi.

The Imvepi Refugee Settlement is a community characterized by impermanence. Residents like Sarah’s parents shift back and forth to the nearby border, constantly contemplating repatriation, or whether returning home is a possibility. Most homes and classrooms are a combination of mudbricks and tarpaulin. Classrooms made of temporary materials are still waiting for permanent structures and teachers. Despite herculean efforts of government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the settlement still lacks adequate infrastructure to educate children five years after its opening. 

These resource limitations have created a difficult environment for children to learn. In 2017 Imvepi began with a student-to-teacher ratio near 200:1. Five years later, it still has an overwhelming student-to-teacher ratio of 133:1. This becomes a challenging environment for any teacher to help students like Sarah receive individual support. 

Project Backpack

Sarah and her siblings are enrolled in Project Backpack, an at-home learning program for children in Imvepi. Project Backpack was launched as a partnership between Avenues The World School (Avenues) and Pangea Educational Development (Pangea) in 2019. Given the large number of students per teacher, limited resources, and children out of school entirely in Imvepi, the project aimed to identify whether an untraditional approach to education can lead to meaningful learning for highly motivated families.

Pangea has been operating a Mobile Library service in Imvepi since 2017. Families sign up for a ‘Netflix-style’ subscription to books. Each month, children choose 8 books to read at home. The next month the Mobile Library returns and children exchange their books for 8 more. The approach has provided more affordable access to books around Uganda, where families and schools pay a subscription fee for books. In Imvepi, it has been offered entirely free of charge and provided some of the richest access to level and context appropriate books for miles. Across all locations, Pangea’s Mobile Library service has delivered more than 400,000 books in its first 4 years of operation. 

Families in the Mobile Libraries are highly motivated and the program reaches most children outside of traditional classroom settings. Pangea and Avenues joined together to explore the limitless potential of learning beyond books alone through the Mobile Library model. The answer began with delivering tablet devices that were capable of not only holding multiple books, but other tools for learning. 

Project Backpack was launched to explore these possibilities as a partnership between Avenues The World School (Avenues) and Pangea Educational Development (Pangea) in 2019. Given the large number of students per teacher, limited resources, and children out of school entirely in Imvepi, the project aimed to identify whether an untraditional approach to education can lead to meaningful learning for highly motivated families.

Based on a Lifewide Learning framework, it recognizes the importance of integrating learning in all spheres of a child’s life. Lifewide learning highlights additional opportunities to learn and interrogates traditional assumptions of how education should be done. Project Backpack engaged parents as critical facilitators of learning, from engaging them in the curriculum selection to ensuring they serve as teachers and learners in projects along with students.

In Uganda, students only spend 27% of their annual waking hours in school. While structured, intentional learning happens at school, children continue learning outside of school walls, at home and in their communities. Sometimes this happens in the form of play — critical to the development of social and complimentary academic skills. Other times children learn skills in practical roles, helping with tasks at home or in family businesses. In Imvepi, many families are motivated to help their children learn foundational skills. 

“Most of their parents never had the opportunity to learn. Most parents in the settlement really don’t know when they are going back. What is in their mind is that each parent is putting in the effort to encourage their children” shares one Learning Guide. She notes that there is a particular hope placed in education that is both practical and aspirational: “When they are educated they will become leaders, politicians, doctors and build a new South Sudan.” As a first step, many families are particularly motivated to help their children learn to read.

The tablets are shared on a rotational model. The model is based on evidence of the impact of social accountability witnessed in Village Savings Loan Associations (VSLAs). VSLAs rotate loans between neighbors who provide accountability and continuous feedback to ensure repayment occurs. In Project Backpack, tablets are rotated in groups between 3 different families every two weeks. All groups are neighbors situated around a nearby water tank, usually living within eyesight of each other. Given that there was no way to repair the tablets, there was a large emphasis placed on tablet maintenance.

Through Project Backpack families receive a tablet and solar charging equipment. The tablet software choices have been intentional and changed with each step of the program. Most participants have not used a tablet before. As a result, software and applications have been added gradually, to scaffold familiarity with each. Tablet applications are added as tools to complete projects and the tablets are disconnected from the internet both because of the unsustainable cost of data and distractions that the internet can pose. Some assert that unrestricted and unsupervised learning leads to breakthrough outcomes. However, research finds only few learners are autodidacts, those who can learn entirely on their own. This program believes that learners benefit from some teaching support.

The program has been designed as multi-phase projects for students to complete. Participant feedback during each project guides both the forthcoming project and new tablet applications available for them. Pangea’s Mobile Librarians, who themselves are refugees, serve as ‘Learning Guides’ who provide clarity and limited teaching support to help students complete projects.

Phase I began as a supplement to in-class instruction with project-based learning activities. Engagement was high, even as an at-home after school learning initiative, with families averaging more than 1 hour and 20 minutes on the iPad per day.

COVID-19 Adjustment: A Unique Research Opportunity

As the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in early 2020 and evolved, these projects entirely replaced structured, in-person schooling. For months, they were the only documented learning activities taking place in the Imvepi Refugee Settlement. After six months of no formal schooling, families began to suggest the need for an increased focus on literacy skill development.  Embedded within Pangea’s Mobile Library program, literacy was already a prominent focus in Phase I, but this new phase elevated the development of important core reading skills like letter knowledge, phonics, and ultimately reading comprehension, as the highest priority.  During this time, engagement with the devices more than doubled, soaring to 2 hours and 45 minutes per day on average, with some families averaging over 4 hours per day. 

To our surprise, engagement did not stop with iPad usage. Families also wanted to know - empirically - if their children were learning. Given the typical skepticism in Imvepi (and other refugee camps in this area) about data being collected and “taken from them,” not to be shared back, we wanted to empower these families to engage with their assessments, their data, and their progress. 

Together the families, learning guides, and our team examined the impact of this shift to learning as an out-of-school solution. Can sharing data back with parents, who themselves struggled with reading, help their children learn? What could we do differently where other projects have failed — time and time again — to realize the potential of technology, especially considering the extreme circumstances and limited resources? To do so, we used frequent formative assessments that helped identify specific skill development. They also gave targeted feedback on what areas of literacy development students should spend their time practicing. Students in the treatment group were given waterproof flashcards with pictures of specific apps and lessons that they should practice. This allowed even illiterate parents to supervise their children to ensure they were spending time on the suggested task. 

Importantly, all students in the program grew in their ability to read. Further, those with the improved feedback loop (the treatment group) flourished, including — somewhat surprisingly — the parents. Continuous assessment with limited guidance had a statistically significant impact on developing literacy skills, regardless of prior literacy level or parent literacy level. 88% mastered letter knowledge, the first of three key literacy skills and 55% became functionally literate within 9 months. This approach also had a positive impact on how students saw their abilities to learn to read: between initial and final testing, perception of reading ability increased by 19% in students. 

There was, however, one critical factor to control for: the other participants that students were learning with. There was a statistically significant impact of group learning in families and between the neighboring families between which the tablets rotated. This insight was noted by Learning Guides as well, “We find that there are some families that are doing better than others. (the parents) are supportive to the children.” While we do not yet empirically understand what successful families do and what unsuccessful families do not do, the team noted anecdotal evidence that could guide future studies. For example, successful families were engaged with their children’s lessons, set a schedule for learning time, and saw that it was taken seriously. 

How did Sarah do? When Sarah began the program she could accurately identify 4 of a list of 100 letters, 0 of 100 sounds, could not read a word fluently, and answered no comprehension questions correctly. Within 9 months Sarah mastered letters, identifying 99 of 100, the first of three key literacy skills. She reads at a functionally literate rate of 60 words per minute and answers 80% of questions accurately about what she is reading. The same is true for her 5 siblings.


Technology is often seen as the silver bullet to learning and educational equity, but it cannot reach its potential without education’s sleeping giants: family. Remote and hybrid learning can play an important role in the future of educating children and adults alike. While applications abound to educate children, how we use these tools may be more important than what is on them. Remote and hybrid learning not only has the potential to include stakeholders, it is reliant upon them to fulfill its potential. 

 To achieve this, the following was observed from this study:

  • Collaborative development of the program has been essential to participation
  • Continuous feedback loop, giving children and their parents feedback and their data to support their children is essential to building committed practice from student and support from parents alike
  • Learning occurs within a social framework. Groups of learners, whether at the family or neighborhood level, new learning can occur by sharing with others - by discussion, observation, or imitation.
  • Remote and hybrid learning evolves the role of the educator no longer as an instructor but as facilitators of learning and including stakeholders like parents regardless of their prior knowledge, and empowering them to support learners. 
  • Rotational model of sharing tablets created social accountability between participating families that only led to 1 of 17 iPads being broken beyond repair over a 2 year period. This is particularly important where there is no opportunity to replace devices.


  1. Sarah is a pseudonym. Given that she is a minor and a refugee, who faces a well founded fear of persecution, her name has been changed to protect her identity
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