Portraits of Leadership

Learning Equality Confronts COVID-19

Hyperakt’s interview series hands the mic to nonprofit and cultural leaders around the nation as they guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today we’re talking with Jamie Alexandre, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Learning Equality. The California-based nonprofit is committed to enabling every person in the world to realize their right to a quality education, by supporting the creation, adaptation and distribution of open educational resources, and creating supportive tools for innovative pedagogy.

From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?

We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced mass school closures on a global scale, resulting in a push towards distant learning solutions that rely on the Internet, regardless of how prepared a particular community might be.

The initial global education response to COVID-19 included compiling and sharing lists of learning resources, but without careful consideration of the quality and usability of these materials, whether they were aligned to relevant curricular standards, and the hidden costs and equity barriers underlying them. As a result, in some cases these lists may prove to be more disruptive than beneficial.

We have to bear in mind the fact that learners may not have what they need in order to continue their learning at home — from appropriate learning materials, to the right type of support, to the necessary infrastructure. Equally, parents, and oftentimes teachers, may not be fully equipped to support learning effectively.

More importantly, while distance learning solutions via the Internet as an initial response makes sense in some contexts, it denies participation for those who do not have access to the necessary hardware, Internet bandwidth, and relevant learning materials. This will further widen the already expansive equity gap during this crisis and beyond, further marginalizing already vulnerable populations.

How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?

Learning Equality has always been a remote-friendly organization, given we have team members based across the country and around the world. So in that regard, the transition to working from home was pretty smooth. But my co-founders and I were very aware that we needed to continue to care for the mental and physical health of our employees while they were quarantined, so we made some internal shifts to employee benefits to support our team.

Some examples include offering yoga classes via Zoom from a local studio we wanted to support, expanding our professional development fund to include acquiring work-related equipment that would support staff to work from home more comfortably, as well as implementing, twice a week, a half-hour virtual get-together where we can connect and talk about things unrelated to work.

Given the shifting nature and scope of global learner and educator needs as a result of the pandemic, we’ve had to not so much change our products and services, and our advocacy work, but rather reprioritize the former and be more vocal on the latter.

Our work itself is now more relevant than ever. Learning Equality’s efforts are generally geared towards bridging digital and educational gaps and promoting equitable learning around the world, by providing quality educational opportunities for the most marginalized communities. Our ecosystem of products, centered around an Open Source, offline learning platform called Kolibri, is designed for contexts with limited or no connectivity, to provide the world’s learners and educators access to educational materials that many are otherwise unable to reach.

Even though we have designed for low resource and disconnected environments, we were always designing around use cases in which there would be some point of social connection — meaning that our access and distribution model is based on the assumption that at some point, people with devices would be able to come together to the same physical location. Social distancing, school closures, and mandated quarantines have forced some additional creativity in terms of how learners and educators access Kolibri and relevant content.

What gives you hope in this moment?

I’ve been moved by the global solidarity and community action this crisis has spurred. It has been especially exciting to see the momentum of the education response build with great fervor, and the importance of things we’ve advocated and pushed for over the past years coming more and more into the spotlight.

The stories of innovation from our grassroots users of Kolibri, who are coming up with creative solutions to overcome the massive barriers they face, motivate me to do even more to advocate for and enable their work. Efforts to support continuity of learning, and a recognition that not only can we play a role, but we are already playing an important role, continue to give me hope.

Explore Learning Equality at LearningEquality.org and on Twitter. Read more interviews in the Portraits of Leadership series.

Hyperakt is a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. We believe in design’s power to build a future filled with courage, optimism, and honesty.

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