• Simbi uses bimodal learning technique: learner reads text while listening to its audio
• It improves education in remote areas, refugee camps, and is now coming to Kenya
Aaron Friedland had difficulties in reading during his childhood days in Canada, his home country. Inspired by those difficulties in his early education, he co-founded Simbi, a bimodal learning technology to help disadvantaged children in the world become better learners.
Today, Simbi Foundation, in partnership with the United Nations, is already helping children in Canada, India and Uganda. There are also plans to expand to Kenya soon.
"While I was doing my Masters in economics, I travelled to Uganda to learn about the struggles of education there," he said.
"I realised that kids there walk long distances to school. And when they got to school, there were not enough textbooks and scholastic materials. Besides, teachers did not speak English, even though it was the language of instruction. That challenged me to do something to help these kids get a quality education."
He realised there were large opportunities to improve education in remote areas, and specifically in refugee communities.
"There was a chance to provide these children with tools and learning materials of the 21st Century, and that's how the idea of Simbi Foundation was birthed," he said.
Simbi uses a bimodal learning technique, where a learner reads the text while listening to its audio in tandem. He explains how this works.
"One logs in to Simbi platform on Simbi.io, and reads a book or text loud. Simbi captures the voice and the text being read and puts them together in an audiovisual book. A child clicks and listen to the audio and reads along, with the local accent of the original reader."
Aaron says his PhD is focused on the science of reading this way and that statistically, it's the best reading method. Its unique point, he says, is that it uses texts and voices of the locals. That way, a child can identify with the content, its culture and its accent.
SUCCESS IN UGANDA
In Uganda, Simbi Foundation has been launched in the Bidibidi refugee camp in partnership with the United Nations, and it has proven a success so far. Simbi uses solar-powered bright box classrooms, where classrooms are made of shipping containers fitted with locally made desks for the learners to sit. There are also other smaller suitcase-sized classrooms, which contain the Simbi learning software.
During the programme inception days, Aaron says, the local community in Uganda was not as supportive as they had thought they would be.
"We had to find a way of making the locals support and embrace the technology. Then we realised there was 85 per cent cellphone penetration in the Bidibidi refugee camp, with no place nearby to charge them. So we allowed them to use the classrooms to charge, and at the same time get some income while helping keep the classrooms. That way, the community assumed a sense of ownership," he said.
In the beginning, he adds, the foundation had a programme of transportation, where they would use bicycles and buses to transport children to school. They also had a nutrition programme, which made sure the kids had proper nutrition before classes.
"That is very important, but we had to remain focused with our initial goal of providing quality education to these kids. Therefore, we partnered with various charities that catered for those other needs as we handled the education part," he said.
LIBRARY SERVICE PARTNERSHIP
There has been interest from the Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya, and plans are underway to expand to Kenya.
"We have had talks with the Kenya National Library Service and they have agreed to use the Simbi model in 48 major libraries in the country and some local schools," he said.
"In the future, we hope to partner with the Ministry of Education to have Simbi running in all schools in Kenya."
For the foundation, the Covid-19 period was a blessing in disguise, since it slowed down the learning of children. Aaron says Simbi and its partners used that moment to build and improve their digital infrastructure, developing the Simbi cloud online library.
"Covid-19 was a moment of introduction and growth for us. We partnered with large corporations like Google and Salesforce to enhance the Simbi Cloud library," he said.
"For example, the 50,000 employees of Salesforce narrated books into the library, thus improving content. Salesforce also donated the digital bright boxes to us."
When it sets foot in Kenya, Simbi Foundation will seek to use the corporates in the country to do the narration of Kenyan books into its system. It will also encourage corporates to make donations towards supporting this model, he said.
Edited by T Jalio