School was a struggle for Rhonda Kite, originally from Northland’s Te Kao and later educated in the South Auckland suburb of Otara. The cookie cutter school system didn’t work for her and she found reading a mission rather than mesmerising.
What she could do, however, was listen; Rhonda found she was someone who could retain information audibly: “It wasn’t a blinding epiphany, rather a process where through designing experiential digital books in my adult years I realised I was learning in a way that worked for me, and I thought if digital is helping me, it must be able to help others,” she said.
Now, her company KIWA is helping young Kiwi kids who struggle with reading like she did. It started in 2008 when Rhonda developed a world-first prototype e-book that included sound with text. Her vision was to bring classic Kiwi kids’ books to life. ‘Hairy Maclary’ was one of the first, redesigned with moving illustrations and sound providing an engaging experiential read.
There are now 200 titles in the KIWA library and Rhonda said thousands of downloads have been made.
Well-known company director Jill Tattersall, also a former secondary school teacher, joined KIWA as executive chair in 2013. She has always had a passion for education and was drawn by how KIWA is able to help children with learning difficulties.
She has a personal empathy as her mother used to teach deaf children how to lip-read and as a child Jill saw how hard it was for them to learn something she took for granted. Today, KIWA’s e-books include a sign-language option and Jill says it’s helping hearing impaired children enjoy a richer reading experience.
Interestingly, a recent Massey University study found 10- and 11-year-old boys, with no learning difficulties, who used technology in their reading comprehension were making gains of up to six times the nationally expected average, a result Jill and Rhonda endorse.
Part of KIWA’s philosophy is to involve their target audience in developing their concepts. KIWA SLAM! engages young people over a two-day workshop, where they brainstorm story ideas and produce a story in their native and a second language.
In 2012, ‘We Are Alaska’ was the first story produced under the scheme and was narrated in Cup’ik, one of Alaska’s native languages. It involved KIWA visiting local children in Anchorage, Alaska and was so successful that a linguist and two Cup’ik speakers travelled to Auckland to record a further 12 stories soon afterwards.
“It’s about preservation of native languages that are in danger of becoming obsolete and we have just secured a contract for six books for the local aboriginal people of Gunai in South East Victoria,” said Jill.
KIWA SLAM! has become a key source of growth for KIWA because of its export potential, and it’s also generated success stories in New Zealand, including a group of Auckland boys’ schools in association with the Ministry of Education under their Success for Boys programme.
“Some boys find it hard to engage in school because the topics don’t seem relevant or English is their second language, and when you don’t relate in class, you lose interest,” Jill explained.
“Producing an app was choice and it gave these boys a real sense of achievement. And as they have helped develop it, there’s a good chance their family and friends will use it too.”
Where to Next?
KIWA is working with publishers in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates, and China is in their sights next.
“Technology is transforming the way people learn. The world has turned digital, and companies who understand this and get it right have global potential,” Jill said..