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Boston nonprofit develops app to bring literacy education to children in Central America

Project Alianza’s offline app makes it easier for students to learn how to read in a post-pandemic world

Students in Central America used the Leotenango app to learn how to read and write in school using tablets provided by Project Alianza.Project Alianza

Since 2017, Project Alianza has built 16 schools in Central America, trained more than 40 teachers, and created educational opportunities for more than 27,000 students.

But even with these successes, the leaders of the Boston nonprofit knew they were helping only a tiny portion of children in countries such as Nicaragua and Guatemala, where half of the students living in rural areas drop out of elementary school or complete primary grades without knowing how to read and write. In Latin America and the Caribbean, four out of five children cannot read even a simple sentence, according to the World Bank.

Project Alianza officials decided they needed a way to reach many more children and their families — so they turned to technology. Later this year, the nonprofit plans to release a free educational app that is easy to use, access, and distribute.

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The app, developed over 10 months, determines reading levels and offers lessons in the form of video games that aim to engage students as young as 4 years old. The app tracks students’ progress, offering more challenging material as they advance.

“There’s clearly a path to help provide better educational opportunities,” said Kristin Van Busum, the founder and CEO of Project Alianza. “Children deserve to learn, and children deserve an education. So if we can be a part of this solution, why not?”

The development of the app, called Leotenango, is part of a broader global effort to use technology to raise literacy rates. Education can play a vital role in developing economies by increasing earnings, lifting families out of poverty, and spurring innovation and economic growth, according to the World Bank.

“The primary ingredient for any long term development is education,” Henry Lewin, innovation adviser and CEO of Green Rush, an ecological park in Guatemala, said in a statement.

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Project Alianza’s founder and CEO, Kristin Van Busum, gave context and expressed need for a literacy app to Mendix developers before the hackathon. Mendix

The Leotenango app was born during a global hackathon involving more than 1,200 software developers from 64 countries collaborating in four cities: Boston, London, Rotterdam, and Singapore. Their challenge: create apps for nonprofits using the low code process that develops software without complex coding languages.

Project Alianza was teamed with Brooktrout Partners, a Maryland-based technology consulting firm, and the Boston consulting firm Bain & Co. They had 36 hours to develop their app.

Among the hurdles they faced was making an app that was both accessible in rural areas where internet connections are not readily available and able to work on older smartphones, which are prevalent in poor countries, Danny Kumpf, a business architect at Brooktrout Partners, said in an interview.

The effort began with the understanding that few families in poor, rural areas had computers, but most, if not nearly all, had cellphones. In Guatemala, for example, cellphones outnumber people. The idea was to create an offline app that could be downloaded where internet service was available — say, at a local library — but would continue to operate without an online connection.

Because literacy rates vary, even among children the same age, Leotenango incorporates a teaching method that groups students based on educational level and reading ability rather than age or grade level. “Teaching at the right level” has proven to be successful in teaching students how to read. In 2016, a study in India found that children taught through this method could read and understand a paragraph at twice the rate of those taught through methods based on grade levels.

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Teaching at the right level has reached some 60 million students in Africa and India, according to a case study by MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. In 2022, a global education initiative that includes the World Bank, United Nations, and US Agency for International Development endorsed the approach.

The Leotenango app focuses on interactive learning, employing characters, such as Quincy, a quetzal bird (the national bird of Guatemala) to guide students through word searches, word and picture matching, drawing, and audio activities. Children receive badges marking their accomplishments as they advance through the program.

Project Alianza's CEO, Kristin Van Busum, showed students how to use Leotenango on a smartphone. Project Alianza

A study released this year by the Centre for Instructional Technology & Multimedia, a Malaysian graduate program in instructional technology, found that interactive reading apps were more effective in improving literacy than traditional methods, such as reading to children.

Leotenango completed its alpha phase after undergoing tests by 10 to 20 individuals in Guatemala. So far, said Kumpf at Brooktrout Partners, the app developers have received “overwhelmingly positive feedback.”

Not only did teachers describe the app as “highly motivating and helpful,” said Van Busum, students were willing to pay 10 cents to test the app.

“Children are willing to engage with the app for 30 plus minutes in a setting, which is a good indicator that children are engaged, challenged, but don’t feel fully frustrated,” Van Busum said.

Now, Project Alianza is launching the beta phase when the app is refined based on the alpha tests. The beta version, which features more activities, will be tested by around 100 people.

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The organization is planning to launch an early version of the free app in October, when it will be available on Apple and Android app stores. Project Alianza says it will continue to improve the app and plans to release an updated version in February.

“We can start by changing one child, one village, and then one municipality, and then work our way up,” Van Busum said. “I believe that every child deserves to experience the joy of learning.”

A literacy coach showed a student how to use the Leotenango app. Project Alianza

Macie Parker can be reached at macie.parker@globe.com. Follow her @Macieparker22.