Ariam's ARCADE

Many Abilities//Many Paths//Many Communities

Whoa.. it’s been a minute since I’ve have had a chance to write, reflect and post anything here, and the holidays are a great time for it. 

One of the coolest and challenging projects I had the opportunity to work on in 2019 was the Kenya Education Cloud. In late 2018, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development wanted to expand the content offerings on the Kenya Education Cloud (the country’s national digital learning platform), in a cost-affordable way for students, teachers and school communities. Digital learning content can be costly, and KICD wanted to understand how Open Educational Resources (OER) could be leveraged for the Kenyan context. It was fantastic to join KICD on this journey as a digital learning consultant. 

The Challenge

70% of OER globally are only available in English and because OER emerged to disrupt tertiary education, few OER exist for primary education, particularly in Kiswahili, Luo, Kikuyu and other indigenous languages of Kenya. After an extensive review of available OER, it was established early on that it would be critical for success to approach proprietary content developers and build strong partnerships within the local ecosystem. There was just a dearth of high-quality interactive OERs. Through a multi-pronged approach which consisted of reaching out to local content producers and global content producers, we mapped about 1,000 resources (a mix of local and global) to Kenya’s new competency-based curriculum. Some offered KICD no-fee licenses for either full repositories or select repositories of content. As expected, there was a bigger bulk of OER in Mathematics, Science and English Language, and scarcity in KSL (Kenyan Sign Language), Indigenous Languages and Religious Education. Locating interactive OER which were gender-responsive in line with national policies (Education and Training Sector Gender Policy) was also very challenging. And we hadn’t even gotten to the vetting process yet…

Quality Assurance: Will these hold up to our standards?

Once we had a set of OER, we designed a series of hands-on trainings to build the capacity of KICD curators, subject matter experts tasked with vetting content across Kenya’s 9 learning areas for grades 1-3 to meet quality assurance standards. While KICD curators were experts in their domains and in content creation, OERS were new terrain for most of them. Curators were taken through creative commons licenses, the remix/reuse/share/reduce OER model, and practical exercises of how to use OER in the classroom. They also engaged in project-based activities to explore OER expected to be available in the KEC, and reviewed them against existing OER standards established by KICD. There were great learning moments around defending decisions to recommend or not recommend content for the KEC, which also made us re-evaluate some of the standards.  It was good a time. 

IMG_5087 2

This PD expanded into a larger session a few months later with 63 public schools teachers from across Nairobi, Garissa, and Turkana on how to integrate OER into the classroom. The professional development took teachers through a cycle of evaluating and selecting an OER, designing a lesson plan with it for their students, and a dynamic facilitation of the lesson plan with peer feedback. Many teachers expressed that with more practice, they felt confident they could integrate OER into the classroom. One of the highlights of the session was watching teachers immerse themselves in the design process and recognize their own creativity. 

Over the project period, we created a full circle strategy encompassing interactive content mapping, partnerships and acquisition all the way through interactive content use in the classroom.

Key Outcomes, Lessons and New Questions

  1. It can be a fruitful endeavor to source OER, but due to the dearth of OER for primary and even secondary education, particularly OER that are of high-quality, it is equally important to mobilize time and resources to build relationships with content producers, donors, community-based organizations and other stakeholders. KICD and international organizations like UNICEF can be key conveners and play a critical role in building a sustainable OER ecosystem that can rapidly support demand with more supply, and ensure that for all involved there are clear incentives. For this initiative, this means working with global content producers and actors like the Global Digital Library and coordinating localization sprints for high-quality OER that is not in accessible formats or available in Swahili and indigenous languages. Creative Commons who have communities across the world and in Kenya could also be great partners. It also means building strong relationships with local content producers who are creating high-quality interactive content and tapping into the local/regional ed-tech community for information on new resources, technologies and opportunities for collaboration
  2. Decades of educational research has shown that ICT in Education initiatives often fail due to poor teacher training and low teacher adoption of technology. We learned through this process that teacher training can benefit from undergoing a full design process. This could include follow-up trainings to build on previous skills acquired, classroom observation paired with real-time feedback, establishing digital communities for teachers to share challenges and successes, etc.  I’ve written about this before, and recognize that government institutions sometimes don’t have the resources to make it a priority. How can we do better on this front?
  3. While it may not have been the focus of the teacher PD, incorporating basic digital literacy training for teachers is a must, especially when working with teachers from more marginalized parts of the country.  Teachers from certain counties in particular, struggled with basic digital literacy functions (ex: opening a new tab in a web browser, locating a file on the hard drive). With basic digital literacy skills, teachers will have more confidence in their ability to use the devices and it will also accelerate the speed of training to cover other important topics.


Last month I attended the first ever Africa Play conference in Pretoria, South Africa hosted by the Department of Basic Education, UNICEF South Africa, ADEA and the LEGO Foundation…it was playful to say the least. The conference organizers (I suspect LEGO in particular) went big and bold with the production. There were playgrounds with various hands-on activities (with and without LEGO’s), traditional cultural dances, oral storytelling about the history of Mathematics and an impromptu visit from Elmo!

It was fun to see government, civil society organizations, international organizations and others get down and dirty together in the lego pit.

4th Industrial Rev: Are we Killing and Commodifying Play?

A recurring theme of the conference was the Fourth Industrial Revolution and equipping children with the skills for the future. I’ve read some very valid and much needed critiques on the social construction of the Fourth IR that as usual, are being used to benefit the few. One silver lining has been the urgency to overhaul the detrimental and colonial education systems on the African continent with systems and pedagogies which promote creativity and critical thinking, but at what cost and for who? Should the priority be dismantling archaic systems because they don’t work and children aren’t learning or because the machines are coming? The discussion on how to assess and measure creativity at this stage was a bit alarming. If we’re already jumping to “how much are children producing” versus focusing on “how can we create the best learning experiences for children”, it seems that we will maintain the status quo and re-create old systems in new forms.

I remain hopeful…but concerned. I still had a blast building #thingamabobs!

My scribbling #contraption!

A few weekends ago I participated in a Wikipedia editathon at the Interference Archive, in support of their newest exhibit “Free Education! The Free University of New York, Alternate U, and Learning Liberation”. It closes January 27th and is one not to be missed.

The curation includes wonderful archival documents from various education projects primarily across the 1960’s and 1970’s which led to the formation of FUNY (Free University of New York) and also evolved from FUNY. Exposing past efforts to democratize Education is important, especially in light of today’s sky-rocketing student debt and the further commodification of what should clearly be a public good.

It was also fun to peruse some of the brochures and pamphlets from programs which emerged from the “unschooling” movement like Not Back to School Camp. Overall the exhibit asked many questions about how communities at different intersections (local and global) can build an Education ecosystem together which is affordable, representative, equity-focused and places the learner front and center.

The highlight of the exhibit (for me) was this map of student protest across the African continent from the 1960’s onward. Great inspiration for Nairobi Play and other projects to come in 2019.

The focus of this year’s mEducation Alliance Symposium was the role of the teacher and community educator, and how technology can provide greater support for their professional development, motivation, networking, and delivery of instruction in traditional and non-traditional educational settings.”

I was embarrassingly excited when the announcement was made a few months ago. I’m not sure there’s anything considered less sexy at an ed tech conference than teacher PD (…although I would disagree), but more critical for student outcomes.

Florian presented on UNICEF Kenya’s overall work around education technology (universal accessible textbook, Kenyan Education Cloud etc.) and then we dove into our presentation on Prototyping Professional Development: Upskilling Teachers for Digital Literacy. It was fun to present our approach on designing, delivering and iterating on quality PD for teachers, and learn from what others were doing at the conference. I was particularly interested in the landscape review of large-scale teacher PD models produced by TPD@Scale Coalition.

They identified five key factors that continuously arose in the landscape review critical to scaling TPD: scale, spread, depth, sustainability and shift. The emphasis on implementing immediately at scale was one that clashed with our design principles around iterating and testing for different needs and contexts (and then of course scaling what works), but I’m open and curious to see what comes forward from the final landscape review in February. And last but certainly not least…


I got to spend some quality time with the Muppets thanks to Worldreader.

Reposting this from ICTworks : )

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a discussion that quickly shifts from a failing ICT for Education initiative, to the assumed root cause: “teacher technophobia”.


Two superstar educators who rock the use of technology in the classroom.

There is a widely held belief that education technology interventions could be successful if not for the resistance from teachers who have irrational fears of technology. Larry Cuban has written about this flawed narrative for decades. Teachers are often blamed for failing to integrate technology into the classroom, but are those of us who are responsible for preparing teachers really equipping them to do this and how?

Maybe we’re the point of failure, not teachers…

We know that teachers are a key part of any solution. Yet, there is less critique and analysis of professional development processes and support given to teachers to support ICT interventions.

Professional Development Patterns:

Here are a few ways we fail teachers in our professional development processes:

  1. Ignoring PD Needs: Teachers are handed technology and expected to know how to integrate it into the classroom with no professional development or training.
  2. Poor PD Practices: Teachers are provided with basic orientation on a technology with very little practical application. Imagine PowerPoints and lots of talking, no doing.
  3. Limited PD Interventions: Teachers are provided with one PD session which involves practical application before an intervention begins, but there is no follow-up to understand what happened during the intervention and no other PD sessions for the remainder of the intervention.
  4. Tech-focused PD: Teachers are trained to use a specific technology which might or might not accompany content/curriculum. This is often very structured and teachers are provided a play by play of what should happen in the classroom.

Some might argue that scenario #4 is a model for success. To that, I ask, if your teachers were provided with a different piece of technology (that’s well designed), would they be able to create and facilitate a successful learning experience? If not, then you have not built their capacity to integrate technology into the classroom, only their capacity to use one tool.

If teachers appear to be “technophobic”, they often have very good reason, all of which are rational. These include:

  • Not believing in the technology or its application, because sometimes there really is no need to use technology.
  • A prior poor experience using technology in the classroom with little to no curriculum or educational support.
  • Trained to be a technology keeper/administrator versus an empowered educator, and therefore marginalized in the classroom.

Enough on our collective professional development failures. What are some solutions or approaches we can take?

Principles for Professional Development

Designing high-quality and engaging teacher professional development is a core focus of Nairobi Play. To truly build the capacity of our teachers to use technology effectively, our goal is not only to transform classroom practice, but transform how teachers approach and think about teaching, regardless of technology (because we know ICT4Edu is just an amplifier).

Based on our experiences and research others have conducted in the field, here are just a few principles we’ve borrowed and created to enhance our professional development (more to come in a follow-up post):

  1. Model. We want teachers to show not tell, but that means our professional development should reflect that same practice. Limit the powerpoints and presentations. The best way to help teachers understand what good facilitation with technology looks like is to model it for them (I DO/WE DO/YOU DO). For a more immersive experience, try Japanese lesson study. In 2015, while at Global Kids, my team and I used the lesson study approach to work with educators from the NYC Parks and Recreation Department and it produced many valuable learnings.  
  2. Teachers are designers, not just deliverers. For technology to be an amplifier in the classroom, teachers need the skills to design the learning experience. If you are working with teachers who have only used rote learning techniques, they need to be exposed to and trained in new pedagogies which empower them to be creative, flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of their students. Good professional development equips teachers with the skills to design their own lesson plans, be creative with technology, reflective on their facilitation techniques, and leverage the interests of their students while at the same time meeting learning outcomes.
  3. Not one Tool, Any Tool. Good professional development takes a pedagogy-first approach. This goes back to the point above, have you trained your teachers to use one technology, or any technology? This also means that teachers know how to adapt a digital activity into an analog activity and achieve the same learning outcomes.
  4. Professional Development has no end, ever. Yes, there may be budget constraints, but PD cannot be designed as a “one-time thing”, otherwise it will never be effective. PD should be incremental and iterative, continuously building on new skills and responsive to teachers needs and areas for growth. Maybe that’s six face-to-face PD’s a year, monthly educator meetups, and an active whatsapp group.

Professional development  has traditionally been neglected in the ICT for Education field not because it’s not important, but because of the classic argument that it’s too expensive and doesn’t produce enough quick wins.

Considering all the money that’s been dumped into technology without producing any wins, it’s time we act on investing in human potential as our top priority if we expect to make progress and deliver on the promise of technology’s ability to amplify real learning.


A few additional readings/resources:

Last weekend I saw Morgan Neville’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, an intimate portrait of the passionate life and work of Mr. Rogers. To say there were a few tears in the audience would be an understatement. A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times accurately describes the film’s “curious melancholy”. He writes:

“What Mister Rogers tried to teach us — how to navigate “some of the more difficult modulations” in everyday life — might now be classified as emotional literacy. He acknowledged that anger, fear and other kinds of hurt are part of the human repertoire and that children need to learn to speak honestly about those feelings, and to trust the people they share them with.”

Emotional literacy and the demonstration of other SEL skills is what our global community needs right now. My own nostalgia for Mr. Rogers and that feeling of “curious melancholy” stems from our shift away from navigating through difficult “modulations”, and a dangerous draw to other “isms”, alienation, fearmongering and ethno-nationalism.


Copyright PBS.

Most recently, Denmark’s passage of a new set laws which force immigrants living in low-income neighborhoods to assimilate illustrate how fearful, angry and desperate Western countries have become to control their cultural narratives and histories. If immigrants do not comply with the law, which requires them to spend time away from their children and receive mandatory instruction in “Danish values”, they can lose social benefits and even receive prison time.

Denmark is a good example of a society acting from a place of fear, rather than a place of empathy, understanding and sincerity. How can immigrants integrate when they are physically and socially alienated? How can immigrants integrate if there is little to no exchange of cultural values, perspective-taking or communication between communities? The Danish government and parts of the society believe that immigrants are incapable of integrating, and maybe that’s by design. Sarah Schulman’s book “Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair” is an exciting text to pull from which provides a useful framework to explain some of these dynamics. Look forward to writing about this in an upcoming post and how it has influenced the underpinnings of the Nairobi Play model around global citizenship and intercultural competence.

I visited Lamu after a fun week of Nairobi Play PD in Kakuma, and while taking a walk on the beach I stumbled upon two children with a bicycle. One of them was half-seated on it, and the other one was demonstrating or modeling how to ride it. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen or experienced before, but it reminded me of our innate sense of learning by doing and gaining new skills. It’s strange that we often fail to incorporate this approach in our capacity-building of others (I’m specifically referring to guiding educators on how to adopt learning technologies in the classroom).


Two children in Lamu (Kenyan Coast).

As the boy on the bicycle flailed off the path due to his lack of balance (panicking with his hands off the steering wheel), his friend immediately came to his side to set him straight, give him feedback and reinforce what he had demonstrated at the beginning of their journey. With every trial, the new cyclist gained more confidence, momentum and skill, and his friend gradually inched back. Eventually he took off on his own down the path, with his friend jumping and cheering in the background. After a few minutes of successful cycling he fell over, but it didn’t matter, he was all smiles. It was clear he felt a sense of pride and accomplishment, and this experience was only the first of many adventures.

This iterative process of building the capacity of others is natural, whether it’s teaching a toddler how to walk, a child how to read, or an adult how to drive, but when we build the capacity of educators to learn how to use technology in the classroom, this iterative process seems to be non-existent, and I’m not sure why. What I’ve seen in the development field has often been no professional development or an initial training (poorly designed lecture) with no follow-up. More to come on this in a follow-up post.

This doesn’t mean that better learning doesn’t involve strategies and processes. This article from the Harvard Business Review, “Learning is a Learned Behavior”, provides a nice overview of the importance of organizing goals, metacognition and reflecting on learning to strengthen mastery of a skill, all which should be embedded in good professional development.

Looking back at the last few weeks, this is one issue I hope the Nairobi Play Project can generate best practices around and contribute to the field. What can a successful model for iterative educator professional development look like, and specifically for educators in low-resource contexts with little to no experience with project-based learning or using technology in the classroom? And the research begins…