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Aaron Friedland explains how his NGO, The Walking School Bus, has increased access to education for students around the globe.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that around 3.5 million school-age refugees had zero days of school in 2016. Educational inequality is a systemic problem that has plagued millions of children around the globe. It’s an issue that Vancouver-based charity, the Walking School Bus, has been confronting head on since 2017.
Lead by founder and executive director, Aaron Friedland, the Walking School Bus (TWSB), have created solar-powered classrooms and their own digital reading app, in conjunction of providing disadvantaged children with adequate curriculums and access to an up-to-date education. I 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 in Ugandan and Indian communities.
For Aaron 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,” said 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 and Micros. The BrightBox Macro classrooms are remote, solar-powered classrooms made from used shipping containers—TWSB’s website notes that they 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.
Meanwhile, the Micro Systems are essentially, a classroom in a box. The BrightBox Macros are used in existing classrooms (like a Macro) and contain Kindle Fires, Raspberry Pi Microcomputers and a Wifi router. TWSB developed a curriculum program that can be streamed and distributed off-line on the Raspberry Pi Microcomputers.
“One of the things that we celebrate andacknowledge is the diversity of the communities that we work with. One of themain processes for developing these curriculums is actually working directlywith teachers in the communities…instead of trying to replace what the nationalUgandan or Indian government is trying to teach…what we do is provide theteachers with the skill set so that they can leverage the existing curriculumthat we have and apply it within the framework of the national curriculum thatthey run,” Friedland explained.
The TWSB’s website states that their 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 explained that students from around the globe could 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 can be motivated to read for good and to give back.”
TWSB wants to continue expanding and buildingmore Macro and Micro BrightBoxes for students around the globe. In 2018, TWSB collaboratedwith the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to install 10,BrightBox Macro Classrooms and 20, Micro Systems by 2024. The first Bright BoxMacro will be built this July at the Twajiji Primary School, which is locatedin the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement—the largest refugee camp in the world. TWSBreports that the Twajiji Primary School has an alarming 1-262 teacher tostudent ratio. This is a problem that TWSB is motivated to solve—it’s expectedthat the Macro classrooms will support up to 6,000 learners at the TwajijiPrimary School. “Through this collaboration with the UN, we were able to scaleour approach and scale our technology—it means that we can start to supportschools with four thousand plus students,” says Friedland.
Aaron Friedland ambition and humility was evident during our 30-minute long phone conversation. Despite being the creator of this well-renown organization, Friedland stressed that, “as the founder, gets more credit than deserves.” He commends the entire TWSB staff for the organization’s success, particularly, the Director of Indian Operations, Sukrit Sachar, Director of Ugandan Operations, Enosh Keki, and Director of Operations, Ran Sommer. Together, the TWSB team remains dedicated in positively impacting disadvantaged children’s lives and motivating Vancouverites and North Americans to help create change for others.