Educational inequality is a systemic problem that has plagued millions of children around the globe. For instance, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that around 3.5 million school-age refugees had zero days of school in 2016. This is an issue that a Vancouver-based charity has been confronting head on since its creation in 2016.

Lead by founder and executive director, Aaron Friedland, The Walking School Bus (TWSB), builds solar-powered classrooms and developed a digital reading app called Simbi, as a way to provide disadvantaged children with adequate curriculums and access to an up-to-date education. We spoke with local Vancouverite, Aaron Friedland, to inquire more about TWSB’s ambitious initiatives—particularly their Simbi Reading App and the BrightBox Solar-Powered Classrooms that they’ve been creating for local Ugandan and Indian communities.SimbiThe Walking School Bus

For Friedland, the TWSB “exists to provide a social safety net to communities and students in lower income countries.” TWSB is “hyper focused” on improving the access to quality educational content for high school and elementary students. “What we realize at the Walking School Bus is just how many students travel significant distances to get to school and quite often don’t have access to a education that’s necessarily worth their travels of over 5 km to and from school,” says Friedland, adding, “what we work very hard to do is to ensure that the communities that we work with are able to provide their students with a really meaningful education.”

The Walking School Bus has been combating educational inequality with their BrightBox Macros, Micros and offline learning applications. The BrightBox Macro classrooms are remote, solar-powered classrooms made from used shipping containers—TWSB’s website notes that they can provide access to “literacy and education for up to 6,000 learners and their community.” Friedland asserts that the BrightBox Macros are so powerful that they can provide electricity to an entire school block. In 2017, the first BrightBox Macro classroom was installed in Uganda—two years later eight remote labs have been built in Uganda and India.

Ran SommerThe Walking School Bus

Meanwhile, the Micro Systems are, essentially, a classroom in a box. The BrightBox Macros are used in existing classrooms and contain Kindle Fire tablets, Raspberry Pi Microcomputers and a Wifi router. TWSB developed a curriculum program that can be streamed and distributed off-line on these Raspberry Pi Microcomputers.

“One of the things that we celebrate and acknowledge is the diversity of the communities that we work with,” Friedland explains. “Instead of trying to replace what the national Ugandan or Indian government is trying to teach…what we do is provide the teachers with the skill set so that they can leverage the existing curriculum that we have and apply it within the framework of the national curriculum that they run.”  

The TWSB’s website states that the curriculum program is geared towards improving student literacy through the Simbi reading app. Simbi includes a library of books with audio files that students can read loud and along with. Friedland explains that students from around the globe can log into Simbi and record themselves reading aloud—thus creating audio visible books that are saved off-line. Students can then use these audio visible books to read texts while also simultaneously listening to another student’s voice.

One of TWSB’s long-term initiatives is to create an impact locally in Vancouver by incentivizing the behavior of reading. Friedland asserts that their goal is for “many of the elementary and high schools in Vancouver to use Simbi so that [students] can be motivated to read for good and to give back.”

TWSB wants to continue expanding and building more Macro and Micro BrightBoxes for students around the globe. In 2018, TWSB collaborated with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to install 10 BrightBox Macro Classrooms and 20 Micro Systems by 2024. The first Bright Box Macro was built in July at the Twajiji Primary School, which is located in the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement—the largest refugee camp in the world.

TWSB reports that the Twajiji Primary School has an alarming 1-262 teacher to student ratio. This is a problem that TWSB is motivated to solve. “Through this collaboration with the UN, we were able to scale our approach and scale our technology—it means that we can start to support schools with four thousand plus students,” says Friedland.

Bright Box Marcos The Walking School BusDespite being the creator of the organization, Friedland stressed that, “as the founder, [he] gets more credit than [he] deserves.” He commends the entire TWSB staff for the organization’s success, particularly the Director of Indian operations, Sukrit Sachar, the Director of Ugandan operations, Enosh Keki, and Director of operations Ran Sommer. Together, the TWSB team remains dedicated in finding ways to create change for individuals and communities facing educational inequality.