In this day and age, it may come as a surprise that more than a billion people on the planet still lack even the most basic literacy skills. International Literacy Day was created to draw attention to these people, who are so often marginalised as a result of their illiteracy. With the theme of “literacy in a digital world”, the world community goes even further this September 8th, asking which skills are truly required in a heavily digitised world and how to most effectively teach them. Drawing from our own extensive experience in this regard, Avallain Foundation offers the story of the Kakuma community and the adjoining refugee camp as an example of the unique educational challenges posed by the 21st century – and how technology can be the solution.

The challenges of education in a crisis setting

According to UNESCO, to this day, more than 750 million adults and 264 million out-of-school children lack basic literacy. A significant percentage of these is made up of immigrants and refugees. In turn, the majority of these are classed as LESLLA (Low-Educated Adult Second Language and Literacy Acquisition) learners with no ability to read and write in their own native language, let alone the languages which they need in order to integrate into their host communities.

Moreover, many LESLLA learners do not possess any digital literacy skills at all. This might sound like an insignificant problem in comparison, but it is a major disadvantage in the 21st century. In a world which relies on technology extensively, from day-to-day life to work and education, being unable to operate technology can be as much a marginalising factor as illiteracy and innumeracy.

In Kakuma, we were faced with these challenges while educating both a rural community of Kenyan villagers as well as refugees from neighbouring countries. Both groups needed to be taught day-to-day life and vocational skills as well as literacy, numeracy and digital literacy skills. As an added challenge, they needed to be taught in English, neither group had native speakers and there were not enough fully fluent English teachers on-site to help.

Educating LESLLA learners requires embedded learning strategies

We realised that, like most LESLLA learners, the people of Kakuma did not need education for the sake of education – they had specific goals in mind, such as being able to communicate effectively within their host community every day or to use computers to run business endeavours. We decided that the best way forward would be to embed and contextualise our learning materials within the learner’s living environment and experiences. This approach would not only increase their motivation to engage in lengthy learning activities, but also support them by drawing from concepts they were already familiar with from their day-to-day lives.

The benefits of self-structured collaborative learning

Another significant challenge of educating the people of Kakuma was posed by the LESLLA group’s large number of young adults who naturally wanted to learn at their own pace, focusing on the topics and skills which they deemed important to their day-to-day lives and aspirations. Under such circumstances, a strict teacher-student hierarchy can potentially affect the learners’ intrinsic motivation very negatively. We knew we would have to find a way of allowing learners to choose the direction and pace of their education themselves, while also enabling a collaborative learning atmosphere.

How technology helped overcome these challenges

Embedded digital literacy was the solution to many of the challenges we faced in Kakuma. Our education software a-ACADEMY Skills4Life, consisting of two distinct apps for literacy and numeracy training, enabled us to follow a blended learning approach by providing learners with contextually appropriate high-quality learning materials. By using images, videos and audios of their living environment, we linked each skill taught to the learners’ own everyday experiences. At the same time, our use of multimedia elements notably improved English-language acquisition within the group. As Rose Chelia, a literacy teacher in Kakuma has noted: “My students could connect words and phrases with the images and sounds from the computer. It was really astounding to see how much this helped everyone when compared to choosing individual students to translate in the classroom.”

In addition, as a digitised learning experience, a-ACADEMY Skills4Life switched the role of the teacher to that of a facilitator. Since the program allowed each learner to choose topics they wished to learn about freely, they were empowered to guide themselves along their individual path of education. This collaborative approach increased their motivation immensely, as they were given free reign to learn according to their own needs and interests. No wonder, then, that teachers using a-ACADEMY Skills4Life reported that on any day designated for digital learning, they experienced 100 % attendance every time.

LESLLA learners in Kakuma were also passively improving their digital literacy skills – simply by engaging with the software. As we noticed, when engaging with a well-structured, high-quality learning environment, simply navigating the software provided learners with the experience and understanding required for successfully using computers in their day jobs, for example. When Benson Ajikon from Kakuma told us: “I have never thought that I can get access to computers. I’m very motivated to learn more and get even better in using the computer” we knew we had found a way to teach literacy, numeracy and digital literacy while making the learning process captivating at the same time.

Our message for Literacy Day – What we learned while we taught

Our experiences in Kakuma have shown us that the day-to-day challenges of a rapidly digitising world can be met by correctly integrating modern technology into the education effort. It is the most effective way to educate LESLLA learners in the 21st century and we will use our findings to contribute to UNESCO’s efforts of promoting literacy throughout the world. As Ursula Suter, President of the Avallain Foundation Board of Directors says: “After the success of our first computer literacy project developed for Germany in 2004 and the many literacy projects that followed, we created Avallain Foundation to bridge the digital content gap which to this day prevents many people across the world from accessing high-quality digital education. We know that education is the most effective and positive way to impact poverty, inequality and health care. That is why we hope to help bring about a world in which we can all celebrate steadily decreasing illiteracy rates every Literacy Day hence.”


Miriam Ruiz