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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 in 2016, around 3.5 million school-age refugees had zero days of school. This has been an issue that the Vancouver-based charity, The Walking School Bus (TWSB), has been confronting head-on for the past three years.
Led by founder and executive director, Aaron Friedland, TWSB has been building solar-powered classrooms and providing up-to-date curriculums for disadvantaged children. We spoke with Friedland to inquire more about TWSB’s ambitious initiatives—particularly their Simbi Reading App and the BrightBox Solar-Powered Classrooms that they have been creating for local Ugandan and Indian communities.
For Friedland, 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 an education that’s necessarily worth their travels of over 5 kilometres,” 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—they can provide access to literacy and education for up to 6,000 learners and their community. Friedland asserts that these 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 BrightBox Micros 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,” says Friedland. “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.”
He notes that the curriculum program is geared toward improving student literacy through the Simbi reading app. Simbi includes a library of books with audio files that students can read aloud and along with.
TWSB wants to continue expanding and building more Macro and Micro BrightBoxes for students around the globe. In 2018, TWSB teamed up with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to install 10 BrightBox Macro Classrooms and 20 Micro Systems by 2024. The first BrightBox 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.
“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.
Despite being the creator of the organization, Friedland stresses 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 to finding ways to create change for individuals and communities facing educational inequality.