03 Learning Passport
For disrupting virtual education models to help underprivileged kids shut out of classrooms
The Great Lockdown kept roughly 1.7 billion children around the world home from school, according to UNICEF. While some countries quickly shifted to remote classes—with the most affluent families able to tap virtual tutoring and other digital-enrichment offerings—many economically and technologically challenged regions had limited options.
Experts warned that the lack of remote-learning capability would exacerbate existing opportunity and achievement gaps.
That’s when Mac Glovinsky, UNICEF’s global program manager, stepped up with an idea to take a pilot project into new territory. Originally conceived in 2018 as a digital educational platform to help displaced and refugee children, Learning Passport is a partnership among UNICEF, Microsoft, the University of Cambridge and Dubai Cares. Glovinsky believed the platform could be adapted to meet new, pandemic-fueled demands of students in underprivileged areas.
With the support of senior leadership across the partners, Glovinsky and his team set out to deploy digitized in-language curriculums curated to meet the specific needs of local students and educators. Children—from Ukraine to Zimbabwe, Jordan to Somalia—access a country-specific platform that includes digitized textbooks and supplemental content, designed by UNICEF’s in-country team in partnership with local governments. The platform both tracks which curriculum subjects each student learns and guides them through additional materials, with little to no parental involvement needed.
Glovinsky explains how Learning Passport made its big pivot.
What was the original vision for Learning Passport?
We wanted to bring best-in-class digital education to youth in remote areas of the world, to bring the learning ecosystem—teachers, communities, social and emotional learning, and content—that the richest kids in New York experience to rural Sierra Leone or Bangladesh. We challenged ourselves with leveling that playing field. I did some work with a team in Bangladesh to get the pilot up and running, looking ahead to Kenya and working with the team in Kosovo on more disruptive online learning methods. Then in the beginning of March, the world went upside down.
How did the pandemic change Learning Passport’s trajectory?
We could see the pandemic coming and that there would be a high probability of school closings. I immediately called the engineering team to figure out how many concurrent users the system could accommodate. One of the things I learned from past project experiences is that you’re only as good as your underlying technology if you need to iterate quickly. They said the platform could host up to 2 million and that we could add more if needed. I was confident that the technology and team could deliver. From my perspective, the world of education got knocked 30 years ahead overnight, and we had to quickly figure out what worked or what didn’t work.
How did the project team iterate to meet the demands of the pandemic?
Representatives in Timor-Leste were the first to get started. We moved from initial email to a national platform that was up and running in six days. For each area, we had to set up a blank-slate platform with content curated by the local office.
What was the biggest challenge your team faced?
We had to support this rapid deployment while looking two months into the future. Schools were going to reopen eventually. What happens then? Knowing that this platform was going to be customized every place it landed, we had to think about how we’d work in each of those different ecosystems to deliver content and work through the technical infrastructure. In the process of setting these sites up, we had rapid feedback on functionalities that had to be translated back to the technical team and amended in the project roadmap. Engineers had to remain aligned on a strategic vision while they supported the immediate deployment.
What’s in the future for Learning Passport?
The most ground to be gained lies in the offline space. I want to get to the really unconnected kids. Along the way, we will continue to build the ecosystem around these learners. It’s not just an application. I see us growing to a user base of many millions of children with access to our digital content and improved learning outcomes.