DRIVE Project Light Touch Evaluation May 2021
1.1. Introduction and Background to the Project
DRIVE (Digital Reading for Inclusivity, Versatility and Engagement) was funded by the UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund under its Digital Innovation for Development in Africa strand. The project ran from 1 May 2020 to 30 April 2021. DRIVE was one of 24 new networks aiming to explore the impact and application of digital technologies for development challenges in Africa.
The first round of funding was originally intended to establish new networks who would then go on to apply for a further round of funding to develop and implement large scale transformative projects to benefit communities across Africa. In early 2021 UKRI announced that due to cuts in the UK Government ODA budget, the second round of funding was cancelled.
Objectives for the network were set out as follows in the project proposal:
The project was led by Professor Bronwen Thomas of Bournemouth University in the UK, with Professor Joseph Kavulya from Chuka University in Kenya as Co-Investigator. Project partners included the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Worldreader (a charity dedicated to providing digital reading solutions to help readers build a better world) and DigiTales (a participatory media company based in the UK and Portugal). Shortly after the beginning of the project, Prof Kavulya took up a new post at Chuka University, so a period of negotiating his new role meant some delays in getting the project underway.
Network members included academics from Kenya, the UK and the US, public librarians and reading advocates from Kenya, community development workers and specialists in accessibility and disability inclusion. The project aimed to examine whether technological advancements in the development of digital reading platforms and devices can increase accessibility for readers from underserved communities and contribute more broadly to the development of robust and inclusive reading cultures beyond the confines of the classroom.
A project planner was shared on google drive to help schedule meetings and to encourage network members to come forward to lead sessions based on their interests and expertise. Over the course of the year, network members met regularly to share expertise and discuss how we could build on existing programmes and initiatives and address gaps in provision for readers who are so often ‘left behind’. Workshops on accessibility and inclusivity also introduced network members to some of the latest off the shelf technologies for reading and their practical applications, hearing from people with disabilities about how these technologies benefited them in their daily lives.
Project partners assisted throughout the process in delivering workshops (DigiTales and Worldreader), helping us to connect with readers for the blog, the storytelling workshops and providing administrative support (CUEA). Network member Joseph Odhiambo provided technical support throughout, designing and maintaining the project website, providing data packages for members and helping with supply and set up of iPads.
Meeting reports, blogs and news items were written by network members covering key topic areas and issues and feature on the project website (www.drivenetkenya.com). In addition, network members kept in contact via a dedicated email discussion list, a Facebook page, Twitter and WhatsApp. All zoom meetings were recorded and distributed amongst network members and the project Advisory Group.
The above activities all addressed and met key objectives 1-5 and 8. Objectives 6 and 7 were met by hosting 3 digital storytelling workshops in April 2021 facilitated by DigiTales leading to the production of 12 digital stories disseminated via a dedicated channel on YouTube and via the project website.
1.2 Impact of COVID
The start of the DRIVE project coincided with the global pandemic and complete lockdowns first in the UK, then in Kenya. The project team had to adjust rapidly to online delivery, quickly becoming adept at ‘zooming’ and redesigning planned activities for emerging platforms and ways of working. A network member with expertise in inclusive design was able to advise on accessibility features of online platforms, and on his advice the project website was upgraded to include an accessibility widget.
Certain features of the online platforms facilitated interaction, for example the chat function on zoom, while accessibility was also aided by automatic captioning and transcription of meetings and chat functions.
Data costs particularly for members and participants in the host country had to be factored in to accommodate zoom meetings and use of other online resources. Mitigating zoom fatigue was also discussed early in the project and the decision was made to host regular, short meetings, and adjustments also had to be made to accommodate time differences between East Africa, the UK, Central Europe, Syria and the US. Lockdowns and curfews in Kenya affected members and participants, while for large parts of the project universities in both the UK and Kenya switched completely to online delivery, significantly increasing staff workloads and adversely affecting all university processes. In the PI’s institution, a formal process of resuming research activities had to be undertaken mid-way through the project, holding up progress at the beginning of 2021.
For the digital storytelling, adjusting to the impact of the pandemic meant totally rethinking how we could deliver storytelling workshops remotely, training facilitators in Kenya to take the lead and redesigning the workshops to make them COVID secure. One facilitator has commented that they feel one benefit of participating in this project is that they have learnt to, ‘adapt using technology for challenging times’. Throughout, partners in Kenya advised on the latest restrictions and suitability of venues etc. So instead of one workshop based in Nairobi, we delivered three smaller workshops in different locations, each facilitated by someone with knowledge of the local communities, their languages and cultures. Facilitators also had an enhanced role in recruiting participants as workshops had to be organised around COVID restrictions, but also because they were best placed to identify community members likely to have an interest in the project’s themes. Our aim to achieve gender balance across the workshops was maintained (5 female, 4 male participants). One participant has lived experience of visual impairment and stigma due to a genetic condition, while other participants also had experience of working with people with disabilities. No specific adjustments were required in terms of accessibility for the chosen venues.
Facilitators also helped to redesign activities and methods to ensure that they reflected African and indigenous storytelling traditions and practices and to ensure accessibility for all participants. Postproduction was handled by one of the facilitators, and the facilitators collaborated to provide subtitles for the stories. All three facilitators provided support throughout with translation and providing photographic documentation of the workshops.
We also introduced training on accessibility features as part of the workshop process and planned to deliver the workshops working as much as possible on the iPads provided for participants. This worked both to maximise the safety of participants, avoiding the need to share devices, but also ensured that participants could continue to develop and enhance their digital storytelling skills on their own devices after the workshops ended.
Temporary COVID restrictions in Kenya in April 2020 meant that we were unable to organise public screenings as originally planned. A screening was held in March to showcase the facilitators’ stories via Zoom. Facilitators undertook preparation for screenings in April so that when restrictions were lifted, informal screenings could be arranged locally to include participants without access to the internet at home.
2 Evaluation Methods
The PI and Co-I met regularly with project team members to review activities and objectives, particularly to address the impact of the COVID pandemic. The PI also reported on activities to the project Advisory Group and the Project Delivery Officer at Bournemouth University maintained a close overview of the project budget, meeting regularly with the PI to discuss spending and matching actual expenditure to the projected budget submitted to the funder as part of the proposal process.
Members were able to feedback on meetings and progress via email. For example, several members commented on meetings and resources providing useful information and education on key issues and provided positive feedback on the growth of the network.
The chat function on Zoom also facilitated feedback and interaction. In particular, the sessions provided by Ruh Global and Inable prompted a lot of discussion both during the meeting and afterwards.
At the conclusion of each digital workshop, participants were asked to reflect on their experiences, and these were captured via video. Comments demonstrated a high level of satisfaction with the workshop process and with the opportunities for training made available to participants. There was also positive feedback on increased awareness of the accessibility features of devices and platforms, and on digital reading more broadly.
Shortly after the conclusion of the project the PI along with a research assistant at Bournemouth University conducted a survey with network members via Survey Monkey. The link to the survey was circulated to all members through our network channel on Jiscmail, indicating that the survey would take just a few minutes to complete. Network members were asked to respond to a series of yes/no questions relating to their engagement with network activities and aims, with a ‘free comment’ section included for them to express what they felt were the primary benefits of their involvement. We received six responses to the survey.
3 Provisional Findings
Research networks thrive on interaction between members in both formal and informal settings, and the fact that our activities were restricted to online platforms undoubtedly limited the ability of network members to develop relationships and explore collaborations. Restrictions on travel and public gatherings in Kenya also limited opportunities for public engagement, for example through screenings of the digital stories, and through field trips originally designed to facilitate engagement with readers from underserved communities.
Nevertheless, the use of online meetings brought certain benefits, for example the ability to record meetings for those unable to attend. Survey responses showed that network members did benefit from being able to view the recordings. Every respondent viewed at least one recording, with two respondents (33.33%) commenting that they had viewed every recording. In addition, we were able to use the blog to showcase existing research and to connect with readers from rural Kenya who wrote accounts of their reading journeys at the SAIDE Community Library. During the year, several new members joined the network. In addition, online delivery meant that for some meetings international speakers could join us: for example the workshop delivered by Ruh Global featured contributions from associates in the US and the Philippines, and online delivery also facilitated participation from people with disabilities, and enhanced accessibility options.
The survey has shown that all respondents (100%) followed the progress of the network on social media, and that most respondents (66.67%) also read at least 50% of the blog and news content that we published. This demonstrates a high level of engagement with and interest in the network’s activity. Overall, respondents stated that their involvement with the network has led to an improved understanding of inclusivity and accessibility, with all (100%) respondents confirming that their attitudes towards these issues have changed since their involvement began. In the free comment section of the survey, some respondents referred specifically to this, making note of how important they feel it is to eradicate illiteracy through ‘efforts of inclusivity’, and indicating the main benefit of their involvement in the network had been the training on best practices of inclusivity and accessibility. They also confirmed that their attitudes toward new reading technologies had also changed.
The redesign of the digital storytelling part of the project meant we were able to extend our research to include participants from rural and indigenous communities. We also introduced iPad set up sessions which incorporated training on accessibility options, ensuring that storytellers were able to experience hands on the range of options on offer, and to reflect on how these might be of benefit in their storytelling and their reading. One participant disclosed that she had formerly not enjoyed reading, but was keen to continue making use of the iPad to find stories to read together with her young son,
“It was a nice experience and actually my story is a real-life story. I never liked reading
[…] I think I’m going to continue reading to him and with the iPad you’ve given me I’m
going to download more and more reading materials for him.”
During the facilitator and participant evaluation sessions, the subject of technology came up numerous times, and this is also echoed in the survey results. Respondents noted that they felt confident in using digital technologies that they were previously unfamiliar with. During the evaluation sessions, they commented that, despite facing some initial technological challenges, ultimately digital technology had enabled them to tell their stories. Participants reflected on the workshop using terms like, ‘a new experience’, ‘something I had never done before’, indicating that using digital technology in this way was novel for them.
Two new community librarians joined the network in September and December, and this contributed significantly to an enhanced focus on the role of libraries, and how they contribute to creating inclusive and accessible spaces for patrons. Our discussions recognised the infrastructural and economic barriers preventing many library users and readers more generally from accessing reading materials. We also discussed how libraries in Kenya already provide important training opportunities for digital literacy and help promote gender equality through education and health/welfare services. During the evaluation sessions, one of our facilitators noted that he would extend the training he had received to the users of his community library:
“I really felt good being the facilitator, and I hope I can do this more and more with
my readers at the library, because this really is impactful and gives everyone a bit of high
self esteem and confidence. Especially when it comes to becoming an author. We have
alot of young people here that want to become authors, but now they don’t have the
support. But if you give such a platform whereby they can write, and you can cast their
stories to the world…I think it’s a very impactful thing.”
As well as identifying libraries as a key focus for our discussions and as potentially key areas for future collaborations, the other main strand bringing together network members is an interest in reading cultures and reading beyond the classroom. Another key addition to the network who joined in the summer of 2020 brought a wealth of experience in terms of running reading programmes across Africa, as well as advising on policy for both government and NGOs.
The digital storytelling workshops provided an important opportunity for the project team to engage with readers as potential end users for digital reading platforms. This was restricted to zoom discussions taking place alongside the workshop activities, but nevertheless they provided important insights into the lived experiences of readers from rural and indigenous communities with limited access to digital technologies and to reading materials. Although most participants had ready access to smartphones and data, in nearly all cases there remained a disconnect between perceptions of the digital and materials accessed and read online, versus the reading experiences associated with printed books. However, when it came to storytelling, participants were more ready to embrace the possibilities that the digital offered, and to adapt traditional storytelling forms (songs, oral narration) to the digital format. One of the participants from Nairobi commented that,
“The first thing we agreed on on Monday was that in the African setting of telling
stories, probably what limited us was the inability to be authentic in the stories that
you are telling, but because of the training that we have come through, the work we
have done, they have helped us to look for those few words that can tell our authentic
stories. Initially you have to use those big ‘Shakespeare’ words to be able to tell your
story, but because of this particular training, then you have gained that authenticity.”
The storytelling workshops did highlight the need to adapt existing digital storytelling methods especially with regards to story structure and media literacy. Sourcing images for the stories often proved especially problematic, both in terms of accessing family archives, but also in terms of finding images online that could adequately begin to reflect the African context. This led to some issues affecting postproduction, particularly ensuring copyright compliance for images downloaded from the internet. The Toolkit produced for the project (available via the website) specifically addresses how games and activities used for digital storytelling need to be adapted for the African context, as well as reflecting on lessons learned from facilitator training and from the postproduction phase.
4 Provisional Recommendations
One of the key takeaways from our meetings was the need to provide sustainable reading programmes and initiatives, drawing on already existing expertise and ensuring that reading materials and platforms are tailored to local contexts and user needs. Network meetings provided an important opportunity for members to share examples of current best practice, but also to discover new tools and features that can be incorporated into existing programmes and cascaded to families and communities. We discussed how libraries could function as important hubs promoting accessibility and inclusivity and providing training in basic digital literacy skills. Our discussions also suggested that intergenerational initiatives could be productive in ensuring knowledge exchange beyond classrooms and institutional settings.
Engagement with readers and including diverse readers were key objectives for the DRIVE project, and despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic, we were able to incorporate this into our activities, most notably through the storytelling workshops. Although planning for the workshops took place early on, events meant that we had to constantly revise and adapt to the changing situation. Ideally, recruitment of participants would take place earlier, with perhaps space between iPad set up and the three-day workshops. iPad set up could also include an introduction to reading apps, free reading materials etc so that participants are familiar with the broader digital reading landscape.
The network was successful in forging new relationships between members and partner organisations, but it was also important as our activities developed to bring in new voices and sources of expertise. For example, our connection with the SAIDE community library, established mid-way through the project, demonstrated the value of working alongside already established reading communities so that an ongoing dialogue could be had about how proposed activities or initiatives would relate to real world scenarios in the remoter parts of Kenya often overlooked by policy makers and reading programmes alike.
While the project officially ended in April 2021, work will continue to develop and sustain emerging relationships and collaborations over the coming months, through ensuring that key channels of communication (e.g., the project website, social media, jisc mail) are sustained. A key legacy of the project is the training provided for both facilitators and participants through the digital storytelling workshops reaching out across Kenya and impacting on very different communities and settings. As a direct result of the project, the three facilitators are now Associates for DigiTales, enabling them to contribute to future activities and projects with the company. The DRIVE project team will do all we can to encourage and follow our trainees as they continue to develop their skills and seek out new stories to tell.