The present is open to all

Suzanne Singh

In 2015, when Pratham Books launched StoryWeaver, India’s first open source platform of multilingual children’s stories – a world open to parents, educators, publishers and most importantly, children, I penned an article titled, The Future is Open. Two years since, as I reflect on our work at Pratham Books, the multiple pieces of the big picture being drawn on an infinite canvas begin to come together.

Pratham Books was set up in 2004 as a response to the need for good quality, affordable books for children in Indian languages. For almost a decade, we strived to create an alternate model to ensure that every child is able to discover the joy of reading, by taking books to schools and libraries in every corner of the country. We reached millions of children, but we still had a long way to travel to reach each of the 300 million little minds in India. We needed to do something uncommon – that is when we challenged conventional thinking and embraced the Creative Commons. As I wrote in my article, “Creative Commons took conventional publishing wisdom of restrictive copyright and threw it to the wind. It meant that when we released our stories under this open license, we gave anyone the right to use, share or even build upon the creative work that we were licensing. It allowed our stories to travel to places that we couldn’t reach directly. It opened the doors to readers – of all ages, geographies, and nationalities. It’s how our stories found their way into newer languages, audio versions, YouTube videos, and digital apps. It’s how a whole new multiplier effect got created.”

Today, we are delighted to discover that digital distribution via our content platform, StoryWeaver, has redefined and transformed the publishing landscape. By sharing our content openly, we are tearing down the barriers that limit access to the most valuable thing we have to give to our children, knowledge. We are proud of how we have scaled – with over 7000 stories in 107 languages – however, we are acutely aware that we are still relatively small. In our quest to reach more children, publish more books in more languages, we are certainly glad to have found partners who have joined us in our mission. From writers to illustrators, from volunteers to translators, from organizations to individuals, these collaborations have enabled an impact far beyond our own capabilities. The common vein that runs through each of our crusaders is the desire to enrich the life of every child, and perhaps, enhance their experience in a classroom.

Since the launch of StoryWeaver, our partner organizations have worked tirelessly to take StoryWeaver to more classrooms, more educators, more libraries, and ultimately to more children. We truly believe that storytelling has the potential to make learning fun. With more stories to capture the imagination of children, classrooms can be made more engaging, and libraries more diverse. Content from the platform is being used to establish digital libraries, enhance reading and learning in classrooms, and serve as part of the resource and curriculum material. Some of education technology partners have integrated our stories on their apps, and some have even gamified the stories to make learning more interesting.

In some way, we would like to think, or rather hope that StoryWeaver serves as a spark to reimagining classrooms. And in this pursuit, we cannot overlook the contribution of the teachers. Teachers have been the wellspring of inspiration. For instance, Bohra Bai, a teacher in the Zilla Parishad school in Phaltan, Maharashtra, uses our books by projecting them in her classroom. While she reads the story aloud, she prompts the children to think, predict the next action, and draw connections to real lives. She uses Marathi stories to build their vocabulary. In Bangalore, Meghshala uses many of our books in ‘teach kits’ that teachers use to complement their lessons for the state syllabus. Jaimala, Master teacher at Meghshala says, “StoryWeaver being a digital platform adds to the interest it generates in the current digital age. An interest to not just read but also write gets ignited with StoryWeaver’s inbuilt creative tool allowing children to script their own stories and have them published on the platform”. The possibilities of open knowledge are truly limitless. Siddharth Chellappa, Teach for India Fellow elucidates this, “StoryWeaver is a great tool to use in the classroom because it has so many possible applications. I’m able to create differentiated content from a story with such ease for all my children who are at different reading levels. Then, based on student interests I can also create amazing stories using StoryWeaver’s collection of illustrations. Most importantly, having access to a massive story library with characters and stories the children can relate to is the closest thing to a superpower a teacher who loves English and Reading Comprehension can have.” StoryWeaver’s commitment to making classrooms more engaging is also reflected in the creation of the digital first STEM series of books based on an articulated need by educators for engaging narratives in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. We conducted a study to assess student and teacher experiences and learning outcomes based on the STEM book series. Research showed that introducing the books in the classrooms resulted in high recall (retention) and assimilation of new information. We have also experimented with wordless books and spotting books, and they have proven to be great engaging tools for children in classrooms. They not only help build vocabulary, develop their storytelling skills and stretch their creative muscles, but they also make the learning process fun.

These stories from the classrooms and the field make our adventure of creating joyful reading materials for children in a plethora of languages – languages we haven’t explored yet, worthwhile. We know that we have a long way to go – we need to find more innovative ways to put a book in every child’s hand, we need to create more stories and take them to places we haven’t been yet, places where the need is the greatest. As we march towards that goal, what we do know for sure is that we are powered by the right thinking, the right forces, and the right technology.

Going back to the big picture and my attempt to recreate it, I see dynamic pieces coming together – inspirational ideas from actors from the private and public spaces, technology that broke the walls and pushed the envelope, innumerable and incredibly valuable contributions of people – partners, teachers, artists, writers, translators, volunteers and employees who envisioned and made the mission real, vibrant with energy.

When we started this journey, we wondered if opening up our mission to all was the right path. Today, we know that it is the only path – by making the Future Open to all, we allowed all to be contributors of what they do best, and we received feedback and ideas from the widest possible audience, from the remotest corners of the globe. What’s more, the fruit of this effort, knowledge in the form of stories in languages dear to a child, set in a cultural context familiar to the child is freely available to every child. The collective effort has enabled the breaking down of some of society’s most abiding barriers to literacy, and ensured that the Present is Open to All.

The author has been associated with Pratham Books since its inception in 2004. She was the Managing Trustee of the organization from 2010 and has been Chairperson since January 2014. A management graduate, she spent several years in the corporate sector before moving into the development sector. She also serves on the Boards of Akshara Foundation and United Way Bengaluru.

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