StoryWeaver: The journey to breaking down the barriers to knowledge

Nafez Dakkak
StoryWeaver

Three years ago, Pratham Books launched StoryWeaver - a digital repository of openly licensed, multilingual books for children. The platform combines the power of technology, open licensing and collaboration to break down the barriers that limit access to knowledge. On StoryWeaver, all content is available under the Creative Commons license: CC-BY4.0. This gives educators the freedom to read, download, print and share multilingual stories for free. In the three years since launch, StoryWeaver has grown from a repository of 800 stories in 24 languages to over 10,000 stories in 125 languages reaching learners and educators in over 190 countries.

StoryWeaver was recently recognized as a part of MIT’s Solver class of 2018 under the theme of Teachers & Educators. Purvi Shah from StoryWeaver sat down with QRF, a member of the MIT SOLVE community, to share their stories and lessons learned.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

 

QRF: Thank you for being here with us and congrats on becoming a Solver! We are excited to learn about your journey. Can you tell us about yourself and StoryWeaver ?

SW: Poor access to good quality, affordable reading resources in Indian  languages hinders the early acquisition of critically important reading and writing skills among children. Pratham Books, the not-for-profit children's book publisher behind StoryWeaver, has been creating access to affordable storybooks in Indian languages for the last 15 years.

To further Pratham Books’ mission of “a book in every child’s hand” required an innovative approach that would harness the power of technology and collaboration to massively scale the creation of multilingual reading resources. As an early adopter of technology, we realised that the internet provided an opportunity to further our mission, and scale dramatically, taking joyful reading material to a much larger audience, beyond borders.

StoryWeaver was created through a grant received by Pratham Books from the Google Impact Challenge in 2013. By leveraging technology and open licensing, we were able to launch a digital platform housing a very large number of high-quality children’s storybooks. The books were translated into even more languages, and the effort was a lot more successful than we expected. In three years since launch, we have grown from 800 stories  to 10,000. Since all the content was on a single platform, we could track usage better, which in turn gave us greater insights to grow, and make the platform more useful.

We have always gone back to StoryWeaver users when drawing the product map. For example, while we have over 10,000 books on the platform, we have been working to make discovery even simpler, and more intuitive, especially for the educator community that is already pressed for time. So we launched a reading list feature that would curate content for them, around themes they could use in classrooms, and featuring activities they could use to engage their students. Today we have 48 reading lists across 11 themes and it’s one of our most popular classroom features. We launched audio stories for children, called Readalongs. These are artfully narrated, and subtitled, and bring stories alive in an engaging audio-visual form.

 

QRF: What are the biggest challenges you are facing today?

SW: One of our biggest challenges is that many users in developing countries don’t have steady internet connectivity - which affects their access to the platform. So we’ve tried to make it as easy as possible to download the content in different formats and not force learners to be wedded to the platform. For instance, we have invested in building an offline library using progressive web application technologies - so users can save up to 12 books and experience the StoryWeaver website offline as if they were online. This format  -- we call it Offline Library - is much more engaging and user friendly than forcing learners to read from PDFs. Readalongs, are also available in the Offline Library.

 

QRF: What are your top two or three lessons from your journey so far?

SW: One of our biggest learnings was to build for scale from Day One - everything from the platform infrastructure to the user-interface. It’s very hard to go back and have to rebuild, so I would urge people to try and think ahead as far as is possible. For instance, we made the tough call to make the platform Unicode compliant, this has allowed us to scale easily, even when working with languages with complex scripts. Today we have stories in over 125 languages of the world and over 30% of these are tribal / endangered/ underserved languages.

Another big learning, is to engage and give back to our large community of content creators. We regularly run contests and campaigns for them. Our annual storytelling contest, Retell, Remix and Rejoice is looked forward to by budding authors from across the country, and elicits stories in English, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada. Former winners of the contest have have gone on to have flourishing careers in children’s publishing - as have winners of our illustration contests.

 

QRF: You are running StoryWeaver as a non-profit initiative. How do you plan to sustain over time?

SW: At this point, the platform is funded primarily through philanthropy and that’s something we will continue to pursue by finding similarly minded organizations that believe in the power and importance of open educational resources. In the long run, we are considering looking into freemium models where we charge for added features like curated resources. We are only looking to consider premium features that do not touch on our key offering of access to joyful reading resources.

 

QRF: Thank you for your time and insightful answers. We wish you an the team the best of luck going forward..