UBC Sauder student helping to transform education in part of Uganda

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Posted 2019-08-16
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Alexander Gillis is a fourth-year student at UBC Sauder. He’s also the chief marketing officer at a local social enterprise, corporate relations lead for an international charity, and he sits on a United Nations task team formed to identify scalable educational resources in crisis settings.

And he's just 20 years old.

Gillis is currently working with a diverse team of educators and technologists to take his passion for empowering communities through education from classrooms at UBC Sauder to communities around the world, including the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, East Africa.

One project that's creating impact within Bidibidi's educational landscape is Simbi, a digital reading platform that supplements school curriculum with online content that can be accessed by all teachers and students, even after school hours. It is offered through partner schools and at solar-powered classrooms run by the charity initiative The Walking School Bus.

Simbi has shown to improve a grade three student’s reading fluency two-fold in three months

"I find the digital classroom model very exciting where kids can learn at their own pace — they can go back and re-watch a video or learn how to sound out a complex word," says Gillis.

The commitment towards spreading literacy through reading is a mission that transcends Gillis's professional role — it's also his personal mission. Gillis himself struggled with reading until the seventh grade because of a stutter.

"This cause is very close to my heart," says Gillis. He's a 2016 Dobson Loran Scholar and credits the Loran Scholars Foundation for helping him attend UBC Sauder and pursue projects like Simbi.

The commitment towards spreading literacy through reading is a mission that is both professional and personal for Alexander Gillis, a fourth-year UBC Sauder student and chief marketing officer at Simbi

Putting Simbi in every child's hand

Simbi offers both online and offline web applications and can be used on laptops, tablets and smartphones to boost reading proficiency. In his role as chief marketing officer at Simbi, Gillis says this flexibility of usage is especially helpful in addressing the widening gap in student to teacher ratio at schools in Bidibidi.

There can be as many as 250 students in one classroom with up to twenty students reading one book and not enough teachers to give students equal attention. Without additional tools, teaching effectively and keeping students motivated can be challenging.

"Putting a device in a child's hand is important to get the information they need from lessons," says Gillis. "This is why I'm so proud of our work here. Some teachers had tears of happiness when they saw the access to education they're now able to provide to their students and also for themselves," says Gillis. "It was incredible."

Simbi offers online and offline web applications and can be used on laptops, tablets and smartphones. It has shown to improve a grade three student’s reading fluency two-fold in three months.

An audio-visual book library in local accents

Innovative audio content is also helping Simbi find a strong foothold.

The platform uploads audio material recorded by a global community of narrators. The content is also produced in local accents of Bidibidi residents, most of whom are of South Sudanese descent. This approach towards making content more interactive, engaging, and relevant, Gillis explains, has been found to be twice as effective in improving a student’s reading fluency, compared to standard books.

"The goal is to produce the world's first audio-visual book library where you can learn in your local accent," says Gillis.

“Some teachers had tears of happiness when they saw the access to education they're now able to provide to their students and also for themselves," says Gillis

UBC Sauder helped Gillis think deeper

Gillis credits his professors David J. Miller and David Clough at UBC Sauder for sharpening his entrepreneurial mindset. And in particular, lessons from the Commerce 280: Introduction to Entrepreneurship came flashing back as he worked on launching Simbi in Uganda.

"It [Commerce 280] teaches you how to learn to become an entrepreneur, it focuses on the passion behind a project" says Gillis. "It prods you to think — why are you launching the business, why are you passionate about this cause, why do you care?"

Gillis' experiences in the Bidibidi refugee settlement have inspired him to think deeper about his passion for education and the collective impact on the communities he works with. "I truly believe that education is not a one-size-fits-all solution," says Gillis.

“I have to take a step back and realize that I can't just blindly build things for individuals. I have to build them in a way that is culturally relevant, and understand who I'm working with. It’s a huge privilege.”