Working with Unicef Bulgaria to build an inclusive online learning platform for children with disabilities.
How digital agency Despark is working with Unicef Bulgaria to build an inclusive online learning platform for children with disabilities.
UNICEF is the leading global organisation promoting and protecting children’s rights in 190 countries. In Bulgaria UNICEF, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Science and the Regional Centre for Supporting the Process of Inclusive Education, initiated the project Help Me Thrive which aims to enable all children and adolescents, including the most disadvantaged, to access education and develop to their full potential in an inclusive and protective society — a task complicated by the enforced move to distance learning during the pandemic. Our job was to design and deliver the platform which would become the hub empowering learners, educators, parents and specialists to come together and help their children thrive.
What We Did
The platform would deliver video content tailored to the needs of children with disabilities and special needs, allowing better collaboration among families and professionals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became even more pressing that groups of vulnerable children should not be excluded from remote learning, so we wanted to start testing features with them as soon as possible. We assembled our 12-person team and kickstarted the project with a Discovery stage before moving on to creating the prototype, followed by the development phase.
- Estimates showed that at least one in five children with disabilities does not receive additional support, and those specialists who did carry on supporting children with special needs reported a significant drop off in contact with those children.
- The platform would need not only to support children and their families, but the specialists themselves, who would need help adapting materials and methods of working to an online model.
- The platform would need to include online resources, improved collaboration around support of the children, training tools for specialists and access for differing user groups, from admins at a government level to children themselves.
- The platform must be accessible for children and people with disabilities, following worldwide web accessibility standards.
Тhe initial project proposal was vast in scope, and it was clear that our 4 week Discovery stage would need to deliver a clear set of defined user flows which would enable the scope to be managed and features prioritised in order for the first release to be delivered on time and budget. To do this, we interviewed over 20 specialists working with the families to get a better understanding of how the current programme works, and how it would translate to the new platform.
The next phase of the project was dedicated to creating the design prototypes via wireframes, which we then tested with groups of parents and specialists, including those recommended by UNICEF with varying accessibility needs. We created the user interfaces based on feedback to be accessible to those with visual impairments using screen readers, and inclusive to children with disabilities, who need high contrast and high colour buttons. Once the prototype was approved, we entered the main 6-8 month development phase, using simple and flexible application architecture as the base to accommodate some complex functionalities such as single sign-on, chat and file sharing.
- PHP + Symfony
- Microsoft single sign-on
- Video platform & analytics tool
- Accessibility statement WCAG 2.1 AA
- Class-I Security Standards
This project had a very complex set of stakeholders, and the client (UNICEF) was not one of the actual end users. From a UX perspective, the biggest challenge was to understand the parents’ and specialists’ varying needs and to design a solution that meets them and still fits within the scope - that’s why it was so important to conduct deep user interviews for research.
The final product had to be both simple and useful and also include some complex functionalities such as Single Sign-On, Chat and file sharing. At one point, we needed to migrate the architecture to another cloud provider, but because we adhered to simple and flexible application architecture, this did not create any particular obstacles. Another challenge was the implementation of sharing large files between users.
Launched in September 2021, the ‘Help Me Thrive’ platform gives children, their parents, and the specialists supporting them full access to a space where:
- Parents can apply and be approved for a support program for their child
- Specialists can review a child’s progress and make adjustments to the development program, when necessary
- Children can navigate through the different lessons in the platform thanks to the highest accessibility standards for user interfaces, including for those with visual or hearing impairments
- All users are able to communicate and share files through the platform using a messaging tool
At the end of the project, we also organised training sessions with specific guidelines for admins, specialists, teachers and families to ensure everyone can make the best use of the platform.
As of January 2022, there are more than 350 specialists registered in the platform and over 30 families actively using its resources.
This platform is yet another ambitious project of UNICEF that required a lot of efforts from all stakeholders and diverse expertise to become reality. The professionalism and flexibility of the team at Despark was one of the keys to achieve this. Working for a cause is another level of engagement that should be encouraged.