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Library for All: Free Digital Content for Developing Countries

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Between the high cost of buying and shipping books and the decreasing expense of buying mobile devices and services, connecting students in the developing world to badly needed educational texts and visuals is becoming more realistic, in some cases, as a digital endeavor.

But there's no clear evidence that just handing out classroom sets of low-cost tablets and laptops—such as those manufactured through the One Laptop Per Child campaign— will bring substantial educational change. And that's where Library for All hopes to step in.

This fall, the startup-charity hybrid out of New York is preparing to pilot in a Haitian school a mobile learning library it believes can help turn access to tablets, smartphones, and legacy phones into substantially improved access to content at resource-starved schools.

While much of this content is already freely available on the Web, the Library for All belief is that a formal, centralized repository will help  teachers who otherwise would've struggled to locate them.

“A lot of the teachers we're working with, and the students also, they've never really used technology,” says Library for All co-founder and COO Tanyella Evans. “And if they're surfing the Internet to find free content they can use, it's very challenging.”


The site will provide lessons, diagrams, and other resources in a less graphic, simplified form that won't cut into a school's bandwidth or data bill—which is important since pay-as-you-go data models are still common in many developing nations. With help from partner ThoughtWorks* the platform will be developed on tablets kept, in part because of the belief is that students can intuitively figure out how to use tablets, Evans said.

The pilot will be tested in a 500-student K-9 school in Respire, Haiti. Currently, Library for All is nearing a $100,000 threshold for a Kickstarter campaign aimed at funding elements of the program. More than half of that money will go toward creating the library itself, with help from volunteer partners Amplify, while the rest will be funneled to labor and travel expenses associated with launching the pilot, Evans said.

If all goes well, the hope is NGOs who are already involved in device-for-student programs around the globe will see Library for All as an intermediary that ensures quality content delivery. Sustainability, then, would mean Library for All would provide those NGOs its service for a fee, rather than running the distribution to schools around the globe itself.

“We're never going to distribute tablets to kids in developing countries,” Evans said. “We're about empowering those who already know the community needs and already have a lab or tablets and don't know what to do with them.”

Here's more about what Evans and the team at Library for All will be evaluating during the pilot:


A key question is whether the library will be able to feature visual content—maps, diagrams, and illustrations—that is otherwise extremely rare in Haitian classrooms. Ideally, Evans said, Library for All would like to be able to at least add low-res video in some future iterations of the platform.

Also important, she said, will be how well the library's search functions are understood and used by teachers. Going forward, they will be tailored specifically for the needs of developing nations to specify for age-level, reading level, language, and subject.


Library for All will actually be testing two different models of its implementation in the school in Respire, one which requires more involvement and technology mastery from each individual teacher than the other.

In one model, students will work with the library once a week during a session at the school media center led by a specialized instructor. In the other, devices—perhaps classroom tablet carts—will be stationed in regular classrooms to push teachers to incorporate the devices and the library within their teaching, perhaps an exceptional challenge given most teachers' lack of experience with technology.


Evans says Library for All has already enlisted several proprietary and open content partners, including two well-known educational names, Penguin and Scholastic, for the pilot program. Helping to grow that partner list, especially as the project expands to serve NGOs serving a wide range of language and cultural needs, will be imperative to its success. It is expected, however, that Library for All will consider whether it can serve multiple communities with the same language needs as it expands, Evans added.

*This article originally referenced Amplify as the partner company.

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