In 2018, UNICEF launched an effort to solve a seemingly intractable problem: providing engaging, localized digital education to children in places with unreliable or nonexistent broadband and the most meager of resources. Initially targeted at refugees, migrants, and other populations of displaced people, its scope became dramatically broader and more urgent when the pandemic shuttered schools around the world beginning in late 2019.
Its success is nothing short of breathtaking. Based on the initial development work done by UNICEF and Microsoft engineers and piloted in Bangladesh, the program, Learning Passport, is now implemented in 10 countries and will soon be in 20.
The first place Learning Passport was made available was in tiny Timor-Leste, an island nation near Indonesia. Three days after its first case of Covid, all the schools on the island shut down. Maria Lujan Tubio, UNICEF’s education specialist in Timor-Leste, called Mac Glovinsky, UNICEF’s global program manager for Learning Passport, to ask whether the platform could be implemented there. Six days after that call, there were students on the system. Within two weeks, all of Timor-Leste’s curriculum books were available online—in the local language, Tetum. There are now well over 24,000 registered users of Learning Passport in Timor-Leste. How was this possible?
Two fundamental factors to making this happen were UNICEF’s global reach and network of contacts and the virtually infinite scalability of the Microsoft technology. UNICEF has 128 country offices and over 800 staff devoted to education. As Glovinsky notes, “In pretty much every country in the world, we have a chief of education who’s on a first-name basis with the Minister of Education, and a passionate local staff.” And Microsoft has made Microsoft Community Training—based on Azure, the Microsoft cloud—available for Learning Passport, as well as an integration with the Teams suite of programs, championed by Kate Behncken, Microsoft philanthropies vice president. When Covid hit, Glovinsky asked Microsoft how many users the Learning Passport platform could scale up to, and the answer was two million users per implementation, and it can be scaled up to five million.
I know what you’re thinking: online? How many of those people—children—actually have a reliable internet connection? The answer is not very many. One of the things I find most impressive about Learning Passport is that, to my knowledge, it is the only such learning management solution (LMS) implemented simultaneously as a web app, a native Teams app, a mobile app, and what Glovinsky characterized as “cloud in a box,” making everything in a country’s Learning Passport available offline.
In many countries, laptops and even tablets are rare—but almost everybody has a phone. That’s why the mobile app is so critical. It’s also why the content is based on HTML and EPUB 3: PDF is not useful on a phone, and don’t even think about printing out PDFs.
The whole system is integrated so the online and offline experience is identical for the users. There is a “hub” in each Learning Passport that performs as a local server that learners connect to for downloading resources and uploading their work via the hub’s local area network (LAN). These hubs are typically offline but can be taken to a location with good connectivity like a local government, NGO, or UNICEF office, for periodic synchronization with the online master instance. So the kids get access to everything their Learning Passport offers, no matter what quality of connectivity they have. Currently Glovinsky and his team are testing the next generation of the offline experience, with field implementations planned over the summer.
Another reason web technology is so important is that the content is designed to be engaging, rather than the more passive reading experience provided by books or PDFs. Each instance of Learning Platform is country based. While it does provide a wealth of resources—open educational resources (OER) and content contributed by folks like Twig Education and Pearson—the fundamental curriculum of each instance is that country’s own curriculum, in the country’s own language. Actually, often languages: Suriname’s implementation of Learning Passport is in 21 languages!
Learning Passport offers five distinct types of education: early childhood education, a formal primary school curriculum, a skills-based curriculum for adolescents, job-based technical training, and training for teachers. And as a true LMS, it tracks each learner’s progress—with what Glovinsky characterized as Microsoft’s “bulletproof” privacy protection.
While its rapid implementation so far in countries as different and as far-flung as Honduras, Zimbabwe, Egypt, and Ukraine is truly amazing, it could obviously be valuable anywhere in the world. UNICEF’s goal, Glovinsky says, is 30 million users by 2025. I bet it’ll beat that.
I can’t think of a better example of what the combination of Big Tech and what I’d call “Big Heart” can accomplish. You can learn more at learningpassport.org, and watch an inspiring video at unicefspeakerseries.org.
Bill Kasdorf is principal at Kasdorf & Associates, a consultancy focusing on accessibility, information architecture, and editorial and production workflows. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.