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Breaking down barriers to online education

Breaking down barriers to online education
A team of dedicated volunteers, led by UC San Diego cognitive science doctoral candidate Jamie Alexandre (far left), developed the free web app KA Lite to bring online content to those without Internet access. (Courtesy UC San Diego Publications/Erik Jepsen)

A nonprofit founded by a team of UC San Diego students is helping to educate the world — or at least the 65% of the world's population without Internet access.

A free app called KA Lite can now deliver educational videos and exercises from the popular Khan Academy to anyone in any part of the world, thanks to the Foundation for Learning Equality, a group of UC San Diego undergraduates, graduate students and alumni, as well as others from around the globe who developed the software.

"We are committed to enabling every person around the world, no matter their circumstances, to access a quality education through open educational resources and facilitating their use inside and outside of classrooms around the world," said Jamie Alexandre, the software architecture lead at the nonprofit and a cognitive science doctoral candidate at UC San Diego.

The idea for KA Lite was born last year when Alexandre was an intern working on software development at the Khan Academy, whose mission is to provide "a free world-class education for anyone anywhere" through its easy-to-use video tutorials.

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At the time, Khan Academy's learning materials were only available online, out of reach for billions of people who have no access to the Internet. "While some people have estimated that the Internet might be fairly ubiquitous within 10 or 20 years, we'd be leaving generations behind if we waited," Alexandre said.

He began tinkering with a Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized computer that can plug into a TV, to adapt the simple $35 device into a server that can store Khan Academy materials for use offline. Fellow UC San Diego techies and edutech enthusiasts joined the project, which led to KA Lite and ultimately to the Foundation for Learning Equality.

Programmed in Python, an open-source programming language, and supported on Windows, Linux or OSX, KA Lite runs on inexpensive hardware, such as a Raspberry Pi. The app is making a difference for people using it in venues ranging from an orphanage in Cameroon to classrooms in Mumbai and prisons in Idaho and Washington.

"What I really like most about the Khan program is that it allows me and my classmates to work at our own pace. This gives me time to comprehend math in a way that makes sense to me," wrote Edward J. Hills, a prisoner using KA Lite to earn his GED at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Washington, in a guest post on the Foundation for Learning Equality blog.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many people are using KA Lite. However, the program is now being used in at least 84 countries, its popularity spreading through media attention and word-of-mouth.

Jennifer and Witt Sparks of Denver employed KA Lite while on an overland trip from Alaska to Argentina, using it to teach their 4-year-old son, Quinn, while they travel in areas with no Internet access.

The Foundation for Learning Equality says it recognizes the "pivotal role" that UC San Diego has played in the process of increasing educational access, "incubating the Foundation for Learning Equality's efforts within the university environment."

For more information about the foundation, visit www.learningequality.org.

--David Ogul, Brand Publishing Writer