Pivoting in a Pandemic in Kenya: eKitabu Provides Sign Language Video Content For Students

For the past several months, the global pandemic has forced more than one billion children out of school, requiring governments across the world to quickly develop virtual or remote options for children. Some students are learning online via video conferencing software like Zoom, but in countries like Kenya, many students learn via state-sponsored television programming. While this may seem like an excellent solution for many Kenyan children, for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, viewing television content without Kenyan sign language is a frustrating challenge. To address this issue, eKitabu, through All Children Reading Grand Challenge for Development which is a partnership between DFAT, World Vision and USAID developed a solution to make learning more inclusive and equitable.

Video Content for All
After Kenya closed all schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) requested that eKitabu, a Kenya-based education content organization, support students who are deaf by developing sign language videos that support early grade literacy for deaf children. As an awardee of All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD), eKitabu had already developed video storybooks for literacy and has brought digital content to more than 1,500 schools across all 47 counties of Kenya and 13 African countries.

Through the Sign on for Literacy prize in 2018, ACR GCD funded eKitabu to develop Studio KSL and adapt more than 100 early grade books into accessible EPUBs, including 51 with embedded KSL and RSL (Rwandan Sign Language). Many of these storybooks were originally developed by USAID’s Tusome early grade literacy project in Kenya. In response to COVID-19, eKitabu rapidly built on these materials and produced Digital Story Time, a daily 30-minute broadcast for children and families. To date, the program currently reaches four million households via eKitabu’s Youtube channel, eKitabu’s website, and EDU Channel TV (a channel operated under KICD as part of Kenya’s Ministry of Education).

Each episode of Digital Story Time includes storytelling in Kenyan Sign Language, with captions in English and Kiswahili, music, and an audio narration. The episodes also feature an introduction from Studio KSL Director Georgine Auma and a tie-in to interactive online learning resources. Parents have reported that their children, both deaf children and hearing children, have been watching Digital Story Time and practicing Kenyan Sign Language together. Georgine Auma says “inclusion should begin at home, and accessibility enhances communication for all children to be able to learn together.”

Distributing Digital Story Time
Because the majority of Kenyan households do not have access to a television set, eKitabu has distributed the Digital Story Time content on DVDs and flash drives. Studio KSL is also providing online teacher training and supporting teachers with data connectivity so they can access the content on their phones.

“We believe the most important thing we can do during this pause in education is to make the shift to distance learning as inclusive as possible. By applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to bring early grade reading books to life, we are not only making these books accessible to help deaf children acquire language, we are also finding ways with government, teachers, and families to widen access to literacy for all children,” said Will Clurman
CEO of eKitabu.

The feedback from Digital Story Time content has been so positive that Kenya’s Ministry of Education has added the broadcast to the primetime slot on EDU Channel TV, so it now airs twice a day. In Rwanda, eKitabu is working to adapt storybooks in Kinyarwanda into Rwandan Sign Language, scaling its work to children and families at home in Rwanda during the COVID-19 pandemic. eKitabu is also exploring scaling opportunities with collaborators in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, and Tanzania.

Leah Nguata, a parent to a son who is deaf said, “There must be an intentional effort to provide access, accommodate needs, and adjust new learning environments to serve all students. And this is the role that Digital Story Time is playing.”