Dispurse Education

Development is shaped by the needs of participants

“By taking the circumstances, environment and everyday lives of participants as our starting point we can more easily help to ensure that they receive support to initially develop basic literacy and at the next level functional literacy.”

I am meeting with Beatrice Johansson, project leader and development coordinator for Dispurse application development.

“Hi Beatrice, what is your function with regard to application development?”

“Our mission is, via external social and environmental intelligence, our own studies and collaboration with the research community, to constantly develop Dispurse educational activities and methods so they can create measurable development and validated knowledge.”

“Tell me more about yourself and your background?”

“I am an educator and qualified teacher in social studies, history and Swedish as a second language. I have been involved in literacy studies at the University of Gothenburg and I am also a certified project leader at IHM Business School. I and my partner have two children and we live on Öckerö in the northern archipelago of Gothenburg.”

“How long have you worked at Dispurse?”

“I have been involved in the project from the start, since autumn 2011.”

“You previously worked as a teacher, and you still work in education but with a completely different focus than teacher-controlled tuition. What made you decide to begin working with Dispurse?”

“It was a number of things. It actually began when I was asked by Dispurse if I wanted to assist with a preliminary study in connection with my parental leave. The reason for the study was that Dispurse had decided to develop an application that would give the user basic knowledge within reading, writing and arithmetic.”

“Didn't several such applications already exist?” 

“Oh yes, there were a huge number of applications out there, but what was completely lacking - and still is – was applications that teach adults to read, write and do arithmetic from scratch without any support from a teacher or supervisor. Our target group is young people and adults in vulnerable areas who for a variety of reasons lack basic reading, writing and arithmetic know-how.” 

“I realise that there must be challenges in this.”

“Yes, there are many challenges. One major challenge is that we use tablets as tools for learning. For many of our students, tablets and the digital world are not accessible and they have very little experience, if any, of using a tablet. Another challenge is lack of teachers, which of course is one of the reasons why we have developed our education process to work without teacher support. Many of our students live in isolated locations with no access to a teacher. Many also have to work, which means that they cannot attend formal schooling. The big issue for us has been – how can we reach them? The solution has been to develop a form of education that does not require access to a teacher and that our students can accomplish on their terms, individual education.”

App tested over 4 years on 400 test students in 4 countries

“How does development work proceed, how do you prioritise and how do you measure improvements, and the effect?”

“Over a period of four years we have tested our education app among 400 students in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. During this time we received continuous feedback from our users and adjusted the content of the app accordingly.”

“How did you select the participants?”

“Our target group is young people and adults in vulnerable areas who for a variety of reasons lack basic reading, writing and arithmetic know-how. Our test groups have mainly been made up of women who have not previously had the opportunity to participate in formal schooling. We noticed quite quickly that it is customary for the women to have full-time responsibility for their children and consequently we chose to also include children in our groups, and happily they have shown good results.” 

“How do you ensure that your students have access to the app, IT, hardware and wifi?”

“Our app, which is called Focus, is a learning aid where the user learns to read, write and do arithmetic at a basic level. The program has been developed to be used on tablets and smartphones. During the pilot project the students each received their own e-reader with the app downloaded. Data feedback is naturally essential to enable continued development work. In instances where wifi is patchy locally we make use of locally-based supervisors who collect the e-readers on a regular basis and travel to a location where there is access to the internet.”

“How does the process work when we choose to focus on a specific area?” 

“We have our own staff on the ground in these countries on a regular basis as well as collaborating with other development organisations operating in the region who have good knowledge of local needs. Naturally we work together and try to help one another to direct our efforts to where they will do the most good. When we then make a decision, we always engage someone with a connection to the region who can act as supervisor and coordinator.” 

“You talk about aiming for future versions of the tool to help participants develop functional literacy? Can you define this concept?”

“We are facing a huge challenge in that in several of the areas where we use the program we have to ensure that it can be used without a teacher and using a learning tool, a tablet, that is new to many of our learners. This is a challenging project in every respect. 

“In simple terms, you could say that functional literacy involves developing reading and writing skills so that you can manage everyday activities and function in the society in which you live. UNESCO defines the concept of functional literacy as follows: “A Person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his or her group and community and also for enabling him or her to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his or her own and the community’s development.”

“How do you ensure that you include the right content in development work?”

“Our starting point has been to create an education process that, as far as possible, is derived from our users’ needs. This sets tough demands for us as developer of an education process via an application with no teacher support. To be able to do this, we have continuously visited our groups and studied their thoughts and ideas regarding the content of the app via reporting. Our education process is unique in its method, as it is individually adapted to enable it to be used without any teacher support. The system constantly monitors the level of knowledge of the user and adapts the learning process accordingly.”

Social and cultural context influence development

“Can you give examples of feedback that has influenced development?” 

“Over the years that the app has been tested we have received feedback on areas that the users want to work on, based on their needs. Among other things, we have looked at users’ needs with regard to writing their own name and the significance of signatures, pocket calculators that many of our users have but are uncertain how to use, as well as their needs to be able to write by hand. Another example is adding fables for participants who want to learn to read well-known tales that they have only heard narrated and now want to be able to read to their family themselves. Crossword puzzles are a further example of what the app now also contains.

“Another benefit is also that our education process gives users the opportunity to learn to use a tablet and type on a keyboard. These skills are also something that can make it possible for them to view information on the net as the world becomes increasingly digitalised.”

“What methods form the basis for the development work?”

“The programme is built around what we call trees. Trees are a common designation for work areas and are symbolised in the app by different visual symbols. We have chosen to base the first part of our education process on the phonic method, the synthetic method. We have chosen this method, as the circumstances, that we cannot rely on access to teachers and that participants must be able to go through the education process themselves whatever their level of development in reading and writing, demand that we give everyone a foundation to stand on before we can make use of the analytical method, which comes more in the reading comprehension tree, “tree of knowledge”.

“The idea is that we, dependent on purpose, combine the synthetic and the analytical method through our education process and that the emphasis is on the synthetic method at the start and gradually shifts to the analytical method. We consider combining both these reading and writing learning methods to be the best choice, given the circumstances.”

“Do you measure the results from all individual modules and exercises?” 

“Naturally, collecting data to continuously find new, more effective learning methods is essential to our work. The app follows every user through the education process and detects, through included diagnostic tests, what the student needs to develop and what they already know. Based on this mapping the app adapts and moves the student on to exercises suited to their areas of development. As a result the education process will be different for every student.

“The local supervisor can follow the students via our administrative tool that allows you to follow every student’s progress. This tool helps make it easy for the supervisor to keep track of their students.”

Rapid feedback essential

“How does feedback on progress for individual students work when there is no teacher to give specific feedback?” 

“In order to successfully stimulate and motivate participants it is essential to provide rapid feedback on results. Results are rewarded with up to 5 stars. If a student is unsuccessful with an exercise or is borderline, they are encouraged to practise and try again. An exercise can be repeated any number of times, and only the highest mark will be registered.” 

“What level does completing and passing the programme equate to?”

“You could say the Focus programme equates to the first 3 years of compulsory school in reading, writing and arithmetic. The objective for us is for more people, after completing the basic education process, to be able to read and write simple texts and be familiar with and handle the four rules of arithmetic.”

“Do participants receive any kind of diploma that, over and above the achievement in itself, can be validated purely in terms of knowledge?” 

“With our app now ready to be launched in large volumes it is obviously extremely important for Dispurse that there is a high level of confidence in our education process. Even though our own studies show very good results, we have entered into a partnership with Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima, and in spring 2017 they will conduct a study that we hope will give us a “stamp of approval” within this form of education brand new to many.”

The target is 25,000 students by 2020

“But the development process doesn’t just stop now, does it? What are the most important objectives looking ahead?”

“The fact that the app has now been tested and is ready to be put into full production is an important intermediate objective, but we will, of course, continue to develop the app so the content supports functional literacy. We are now venturing to set proactive objectives and we are aiming to reach 25,000 participants by 2020. We are also looking at how we can reach users in more countries and more languages.”

“Impressive, but how do you work this out in financial and practical terms? It doesn’t just involve a digital download of an app but also e-readers, smartphones, supervisors, selection processes and loads more.”

“Yes, when talking about such volumes Dispurse will need help from various sources, from companies and in the long term also from individuals who want to support us on a small scale.”

“Very interesting to talk to you Beatrice, it will be really intriguing to follow future progress. Good luck with your continuing work!”

“Thank you!”

Thank you for sharing!

And you will be helping people to read, write and do arithmetic!