SolarSPELL Latin America
SolarSPELL, an offline educational digital library that supports learning communities and builds internet-ready skills in unconnected places
Pitch us on your solution
What if we could build internet-ready skills among the half-of-the-world’s population that remains offline? Left unaddressed, inequalities between the always-connected and the never-connected only accelerate. Yet, merely providing internet access is—and always will be—insufficient. SolarSPELL is directly addressing this challenge in low-resource locations globally. SolarSPELL’s offline, portable, solar-powered, open-access digital libraries are localized in order to ensure relevance. Yet, equally important is our emphasis on partnering, train-the-trainer training, and skill-building.
SolarSPELL has proved its concept in 8 countries in East Africa and the Pacific Islands. We would like to expand the initiative to Latin America and the Caribbean, and believe that millions could benefit from the improvement of educational opportunities in a manner that works with their existing infrastructure. By leveraging innovative technology, providing locally-relevant educational libraries, and building critical digital and information literacies, SolarSPELL is empowering communities to address the complex challenges of tomorrow.
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What is the problem you are solving?
Rural and remote schools around the world tend to lack access to affordable, reliable internet access. Yet, merely connecting these schools to the internet is not the answer, because lack of access is not the central problem. Skills to navigate, identify, evaluate, effectively use, and create information are what’s truly missing.
Information literacy and digital proficiency must accompany connectivity, or else inequalities—digital and otherwise—continue to worsen. In an era of fake news, cyber-crime, and online bullying, building information literacy skills is crucial for people to make effective, meaningful, empowering use of the internet.
Because the risks are highest for the least experienced--children--it is absolutely essential to be building internet-ready skills within schools. Unfortunately, schools within developing countries most often lack internet connectivity, and because of this, teachers within these schools are unlikely to have the resources or the experience to teach internet-ready skills to their students.
The stakes are high: inequalities continue to worsen around the world. An innovative solution is needed that leverages technology in order to meet the needs of the unconnected given their infrastructural realities, yet does not overlook the skills-development necessary for them to make meaningful use of the internet once it reaches them.
Who are you serving?
We work in partnership with local and regional organizations to reach teachers, schoolchildren, and community members in offline, remote, rural locations. From previous experience we know that local buy-in, leading to long-term sustainability, is best fostered when locals themselves are the champions and skills-builders. Thus, SolarSPELL employs a train-the-trainer model and develops cohorts of local trainers who bring the SolarSPELLs back to their communities and build information-literacy and digital competencies. They also create a network of support in the implementation and improvement of the library in their region.
In the majority of SolarSPELL’s work up to now, we have trained both US Peace Corps volunteers and their local counterpart teachers. Since Peace Corps volunteers live in remote, rural communities for up to two years, and because behavior change associated with developing new skills takes time, this approach allows for longer-term support of the libraries, as the transition to local ownership takes place. By working with local teachers we are also able to understand which resources they and their students find most useful and where there is room for improvement. Our impact evaluation is the opposite of an afterthought: teachers’ feedback directly improves all aspects of future SolarSPELL libraries.
What is your solution?
SolarSPELL (Solar Powered Educational Learning Library) is an ultra-portable, solar-powered, digital library that generates an offline WiFi hotspot to which any WiFi-capable device can connect and freely surf the library's expansive, localized content. We believe that our technology is innovative and allows us to reach locations that solutions requiring electricity cannot, and yet, it is our emphasis on partnering, skills-building, and impact evaluation that truly sets us apart. SolarSPELL empowers communities by providing a locally-relevant, education-focused, offline digital library without the need for costly, long-term infrastructure improvements — and matches that technology with locally-based trainers who can support the necessary development of internet-ready skills.
SolarSPELL is an initiative with several layers. SolarSPELL comprises technology (hardware, software, a solar-powered digital library) as well as a unique approach (partnerships, train-the-trainer training, and impact evaluation). Our hardware is an ultra-portable, rugged, solar-powered device able to withstand harsh weather conditions of extreme humidity, heat, dust, etc. It comprises a solar panel, waterproof plastic case, voltage regulator, battery, Raspberry Pi microcomputer (functioning as a server), and a micro SD card upon which the entire library resides. When plugged in, the Raspberry Pi emits an offline Wi-Fi hotspot to which any Wi-Fi capable device (up to 25 at a time) can connect and freely surf and explore the open-access educational contents of the library. Our software creates a user interface that emulates an online experience, so that users can develop internet-ready skills, even in an offline environment.
The library itself contains a collection of curated, open-access educational resources, localized for the country or region that we serve, so that our users can “see themselves,” which raises interest and engagement levels. The library’s content attempts to meet schools’ information needs in numerous subject areas, providing resources that supplement textbooks, allowing students to read further or interact with materials on topics of interest to them--frequently for the first time.
Our overall approach includes forming partnerships to ensure long-term in-field support, train-the-trainer workshops, and impact evaluation that feed directly into continual process improvement. These components all work together as a socio-technical system in order to create and empower learning communities, providing them with crucial resources they may currently lack.
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Where our solution team is headquartered or located:Tempe, AZ, USA
Our solution's stage of development:
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
While other offline digital education projects exist, SolarSPELL is unique. Our approach is informed by ongoing field-visits to understand our users and their unique challenges and opportunities. Our technology is highly innovative. Because SolarSPELL is solar-powered, portable, and rugged, we can serve those in locations that similar initiatives have failed to reach. Moreover, our technology is designed specifically for novice users: no passwords to remember, no tech support needed. Plug it in and it works, every time.
Nevertheless, skill-building takes time. Similarly, libraries are never finished, but are living, growing organisms. Promoting skills-development and internet readiness is fundamental to our work. To realize the ongoing, in-person support needed, we build local partnerships and conduct train-the-trainer training. Working with Peace Corps means longer-term support through on-site volunteers teaching information literacy and digital competencies.
Finally, we localize the library so that users can “see themselves” in the content, which increases interest, engagement, and valuation of local history, society, and culture. Most importantly, through our approach, locals become the library champions and internet-ready skill-builders in their own communities.
One final innovative approach critical to our mission is SolarSPELL’s home within Arizona State University, a public university that defines itself by whom it includes and how they succeed — from its 100,000+ enrolled students to learners in every corner of the globe. ASU students contribute to every aspect of SolarSPELL. As we expand, we will build a “rapid response student task force” to create—and continually improve—localized libraries to meet our users’ information needs.
Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
We have launched 365 SolarSPELL libraries in 8 countries over five years. Our impact evaluation reveals that most teachers trained on SolarSPELL felt more confident in their teaching capabilities, and over 90% reported that SolarSPELL has increased all users’ internet-ready skills. As one SolarSPELL user explained: My students don’t have to just believe whatever somebody tells them. They can actually go find out for themselves.”
By design, SolarSPELL has gone to-the-field first, to among the most remote, hardest-to-reach locations, to prove both the concept and the technology — positioning us for successful expansion. We know from years of firsthand, in-field experience that technology alone will not solve societal problems, and that skills-development does not happen overnight. Our on-the-ground partnerships are a demonstrated, crucial component of creating networks of support to enable critical skills development.
Our impact evaluation utilizes in-depth interviews and surveys of library users, which frequently demonstrate SolarSPELL’s life-changing impact. Examples include: teachers thrilled at having access to supplementary, interactive educational materials for the first time; significant increases in students’ test scores; and community “library nights” leading to village-wide discussions of important socio-cultural topics.
Our impact evaluation is built from our core commitment to addressing our users’ needs. From in-the-field feedback, we continually improve every aspect of the technology (hardware, software, and library content) as well as our person-centered approach (train-the-trainer training, impact evaluation, and partnerships).
Select the key characteristics of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean your solution serves (or will serve).
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
Today, there are 365 SolarSPELL libraries in the field across eight countries, supported by more than 750 SolarSPELL-trained teachers. Within the past two years alone, we estimate to have reached over 40,000 schoolchildren and teachers. In one more year, we expect 150,000+ school children and teachers to be impacted by SolarSPELL’s work, largely due to the development of the Latin American branch of our initiative.
Furthermore, since 2015, SolarSPELL has worked with the US Peace Corps — an organization with 60 years of development experience across 60+ countries. Through this partnership, we plan to expand SolarSPELL’s footprint over the next 5 years. Specifically, we will scale to deliver an estimated 3,240 SolarSPELLS to isolated communities across an additional 30 countries and train 6,480 Peace Corps volunteers and local counterpart-teachers — equipping them to reach 1,350,000 students and 4,500,000 community members.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Holding our mission to provide relevant, localized educational content to resource-constrained locations around the world in mind, our upcoming goals focus on regional expansion (and the related localized content required) as well as continued development of our impact evaluation. Within the next year, our goal is to pilot a Spanish language version of our library in Mexico.
Then, leveraging the lessons learned and partnerships built from this pilot, in the next five years, we aim to:
1) Develop new versions of the library (including those focused on health, agriculture, environment, community development, and youth development)
2) Expand to new locations—up to 30 new countries
3) Develop more formal impact evaluation measures (including engaging more significantly with in-field partners to implement these robust impact evaluations and continue improving every aspect of the SolarSPELL). In particular, we wish to demonstrate improved information literacy skills among 1 million people.
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
Poised with key partnerships and a track record of success, our key barrier to accomplishing the rapid expansion we envision is financial support. Housed within Arizona State University, we have unique, foundational resources to continue our work. In particular, this support includes the contribution of ASU students to all aspects of the initiative. Nevertheless, in order to scale quickly to meet urgent needs in remote, rural, offline communities globally, we require outside philanthropic support and investment — a real, but not insurmountable barrier.
Another significant—though manageable—barrier is communication and travel to remote areas. Due to our target communities being remote and disconnected, ways to facilitate follow-up communication and evaluation with implementation sites is critical to update the libraries with new and localized content and make the improvements needed for long-term success.
Therefore, to ensure sustainable impact across dynamic, diverse contexts, we understand that leveraging local knowledge centers and networks is key. For this reason, we are committed to forming meaningful, in-field partnerships. SolarSPELL partners with local organizations and employs a train-the-trainer model, to ensure that technology is never “dropped from the sky” with users left on their own to figure things out.
We currently have strong partnerships in East Africa and the Pacific Islands, and we believe T-Prize Challenge funding will support our success in Latin America via the growth of new partnerships on-the-ground.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
To overcome the barriers described previously, we are actively seeking new partnerships and funding. With key, in-field partnerships and the resources necessary to maintain them as we scale, we are poised to deliver our innovative solution across Latin America.
To increase our networks in Latam, we are working with local organizations to pilot SolarSPELL in the region later this year. In addition, we are creating a network of local scholars and practitioners interested in SolarSPELL, specifically at Tecnológico de Monterrey, and we are working closely together to improve the library offerings.
In consideration of the very different situations in each location, we employ a train-the-trainer model — as creating a network of local SolarSPELL champions is key to success. Up to now, this has been achieved through collaboration with the US Peace Corps in the Pacific and East Africa, and we will build on this partnership to facilitate our Latin America expansion.
As we prove our concept by continuing to build partnerships and demonstrating impact in local communities, we will leverage our success to gain increased support from donors and funding organizations.
If you selected “My solution is already being implemented in Latin America/Caribbean,” please provide an overview of your current activities in the region.
If you selected “I am planning to expand my solution to Latin America/Caribbean,” please provide an overview of your expansion plans. What is the market opportunity for your business or product in Latin America and the Caribbean?
In Latin America, infrastructural inequity is common in rural areas and indigenous communities, as well as in isolated and remote regions — including places ravaged by environmental injustice, rugged geography, or even violence. By expanding SolarSPELL to these places, students will have access to curated and localized learning materials and the opportunity to build critical information and digital literacies. In addition, via the SolarSPELL library, teachers and community leaders will have increased access to culturally appropriate resources that meet national curriculum needs. Furthermore, we believe our initiative can support underserved urban areas, offering an alternative to educational resources in cases where high-cost internet or mobile data can be restrictive.
To meet this need for expansion— this year, we are actively working with other ASU groups who have Latin America-based projects. With Mexico as our target pilot country, our first implementation will be in Naco, Sonora at the border between the U.S. and Mexico. This is expected to happen in Fall 2020, with the support of Naco Wellness Initiative and the local government. We have met with teachers, community leaders, and key stakeholders and are working closely with this network to create the first library, as well as improve our evaluation.
Finally, in 2020 and beyond, we plan to utilize the network of Peace Corps volunteers in the Latin America region to increase the use and long-term impact of SolarSPELL in low-resourced communities. As always, we will be working closely with in-field partners to curate the Latin American Collection.
Select an option below:
Other e.g. part of a larger organization (please explain below)
If you selected Other for the organization question, please explain here.
SolarSPELL operates as a social enterprise within Arizona State University, which means that we act as a non-profit within a non-profit. Arizona State University provides physical space and basic resources for the initiative, while the funding for staff, production, partnerships, implementation and evaluation come from different sources (to be detailed below).
Administratively, we’re part of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and are led by Dr. Laura Hosman, Associate Professor and Co-Founder of the initiative. Because of our ASU ties, we are also able to hire student workers, have student interns and volunteers, and offer two to three project-based classes every semester to involve students in SolarSPELL.
Students' input and assistance are key for SolarSPELL. For that reason, all implementations also include ASU students, traveling to the countries where we work; seeing their on-campus work through to fruition in the field, and then returning to campus as student-leaders who help lead a new round of student work on SolarSPELL-related challenges, or on creating new libraries. Any given semester sees at least 50 ASU students working on all aspects of the SolarSPELL initiative.
How many people work on your solution team?
Currently there are 6 staff members. Three senior experts (Dr. Hosman, and two other lead faculty), and three full-time staff (a library specialist and two project managers). In addition, there are 5 part-time student workers (handling communications, videography, and programming). We are currently hiring two additional staff members in 2020: a library specialist, and a student engagement specialist.
In addition to this, we have a team of grad and undergrad students, distributed between courses and research projects. The number varies, but any given semester there is a minimum of 50 students working with SolarSPELL.
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
Our team has more than 35 years (combined) experience in humanitarian technologies, development and community service throughout the U.S and the developing world. In addition, our current staff is composed of hispanic-heritage members and latino students who are incredibly passionate about expanding the SolarSPELL initiative to Latin America.
Our team has the technical expertise to design, evaluate, adapt, and improve the library, its software and hardware, and deliver suitable solutions for different local conditions. Also, we have years of experience working with intermediate organizations and have continued those relationships, which demonstrates the way our partner model works to empower sustainable communities.
In addition, our team has a strong record of strategic planning and fundraising, that allows the SolarSPELL team to adapt to emergent conditions and leverage the best of each implementation.
Finally, our network of colleagues and local experts help us to localize the library’s content to address local needs, as well as offering a train-the-trainer workshop, and creating synergic learning communities that can use SolarSPELL for their educational needs in different settings (small or large schools, villages or towns, communities or other uses).
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
On a global level, we are formalizing our collaboration with the U.S. Peace Corps, which includes missions in Latin America, among others, to expand the SolarSPELL initiative around the world. However, all regional implementations will require local partners, to ensure localized and appropriate educational content for the library and to establish long-term support for teachers after their SolarSPELL training.
As an example, in Fiji, SolarSPELL has partnered with Fiji’s Ministry of Education and Peace Corps Fiji. The Ministry of Education, in particular, has provided localized educational content, permission to work with teachers, and permission to introduce the SolarSPELL libraries to schools. The Ministry has also made introductions to Fijian organizations (e.g. the National Heritage Museum, Ministry of i-Tauki (Local) Affairs) so that the SolarSPELL team can continue curating locally appropriate content for the library.
In Latin America, for our pilot, our main partners are currently the Naco Wellness Initiative, the municipality of Naco, Sonora, and scholars at the Tecnológico de Monterrey. We are working with them to curate the library and meet local users’ needs.
What is your business model?
SolarSPELL is a multilayer initiative that includes an innovative and ruggedized hardware product; a digital library software and content; a train-the trainer model; and ongoing monitoring and evaluation to deliver necessary improvements. Our customers are intermediate organizations (or key partners) in local regions across eight countries (and growing!), and our beneficiaries are a network of schools and learners that receive the training, device, and library.
Our social value proposition is the delivery of a program that can empower local educators with localized content. Our partners understand the disadvantages of being disconnected in the context of our global information society—as well as the infrastructure constraints to act directly in remote, offline areas—and therefore, appreciate the value of SolarSPELL in their communities.
The SolarSPELL initiative is supported through diverse partnerships and funding streams. As part of a public university, we recruit and engage students to support all aspects of the initiative. Furthermore, our many in-field partnerships provide invaluable resources for successful implementation and evaluation. We also rely on individual donors, grants, contracts, and other forms of financial support to facilitate the ongoing implementation, monitoring, and improvement of our work.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
SolarSPELL is a social enterprise within Arizona State University, which means that we are a non-profit within a non-profit.
We sustain our work via:
1) Institutional support from Arizona State University (ASU)
2.) Involvement of students and in-field partners
3.) Outside funding in the form of donations, grants, and contracts.
To begin, ASU provides physical space, basic resources, and staff support for the initiative. Furthermore, as part of ASU, we actively recruit and engage students as interns, fellows, volunteers, and student workers — as well as via two to three project-based courses every semester. We believe that our home as an ASU initiative provides critical support and sustainability as we continue to grow and expand. In addition, our in-field partners are invaluable resources as we continue to scale globally, and they continue to provide sustainable paths to long-term success.
Finally, building from a core understanding of libraries as a public good, we believe that donations and grants will always be a part of our funding model. Though, in addition, we do plan to develop our business model and include increased opportunities for outside contracts and revenue streams to support our basic operations.
Why are you applying to the TPrize Challenge?
This opportunity is timely because in the last five years we have been working in two other global regions, but since early 2019, we have been preparing our launch in Latin America. The T-Prize can help us to gain visibility in a region that we’ve just started to engage with and it will kickstart a much larger, long-term initiative for SolarSPELL across Latin America. In that respect, enhancing our regional partnerships and funding opportunities are two of the most attractive elements for us.
With access to the network of local experts and specialists, in particular in innovative technologies for education, the T-Prize experience can help us adapt our initiative to Latin America.
Finally, this opportunity was discovered by our students and they have been very involved in this process since the beginning. SolarSPELL offers a formative educational experience for our students, and by enabling them to participate in this network, we can tap into their commitment and enthusiasm to help us to enhance our design for Latin America.
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
If you selected Other, please explain here.
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
We’re interested in partnering with regional leaders in Education, like the Tecnológico de Monterrey and the Universidad de los Andes, which are organizers of this prize. These partners can help with library creation/curation, and may lead impact evaluation and/or train-the-trainer training in future endeavors.
In addition, there are key local organizations like the Ceibal Foundation that have done exemplary work on integrating digital technologies for education successfully in Latin America (a partner for on-the-ground training and ongoing support), or the ECLAC (United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a partner for an advisory role and potentially for funding this initiative), which has supported several fruitful projects oriented toward increasing Latin America development.