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literacy

What we are learning about reading on mobile phones and devices in developing countries

Michael Trucano's picture
they tell me my generation is supposed to be able to 'leap frog'
they tell me my generation is
supposed to be able to 'leap frog'

Each year on 8 September, groups around the world gather together to celebrate "International Literacy Day", which is meant to highlight the importance of reading, and of being able to read. In the words of UNESCO, the UN organization which sponsors International Literacy Day, "Literacy is one of the key elements needed to promote sustainable development, as it empowers people so that they can make the right decisions in the areas of economic growth, social development and environmental integration." As contentious as issues around education around the world can be at times, there is little debate about the fundamental importance of literacy to most human endeavors.

New technologies can play important roles in helping to enable efforts and activities to teach people to learn how to read -- and to provide people with access to reading materials. As part of its communications outreach on International Literacy Day this year, for example, UNESCO highlighted recent experiences in Senegal targeting illiterate girls and women, where it has found that "mobile phones, computers, internet and TV make literacy courses much more attractive for illiterate women."

The potential for mobile phones and other mobile devices like e-readers to aid in literacy efforts has been a recurrent theme explored on the EduTech blog. In so-called 'developing countries', books may be scarce and/or expensive in many communities -- and reading materials that *are* locally available may not be of great interest or relevance to many potential readers. The fact that increasing numbers of people in such communities are carrying small portable electronic devices with them at all times capable of displaying text, and which indeed can hold tens, even thousands of digital 'books', has not gone unnoticed by organizations seeking to increase literacy and promote reading.

Two recent publications -- Reading in the Mobile Era and Mobiles for Reading: A Landscape Review -- attempt to take stock of and learn from many of the leading efforts around the world in this regard.

Promoting literacy with mobile phones in rural Papua New Guinea

Michael Trucano's picture
hey, my ears are ringing -- might that be the Ministry of Education calling with today's lesson?
hey, my ears are ringing --
might that be the Ministry of Education
calling with today's lesson?

Last year I spent some time in Papua New Guinea (or PNG, as it is often called), where the World Bank is supporting a number of development projects, and has activities in both the ICT and education sectors. For reasons historical (PNG became an independent nation only in 1975, breaking off from Australia), economic (Australia's is by far PNG's largest export market) and geographical (the PNG capital, Port Moresby, lies about 500 miles from Cairns, across the Coral Sea), Australia provides a large amount of support to the education sector in Papua New Guinea, and I was particularly interested in learning lessons from the experiences of AusAid, the (now former) Australian donor agency.

For those who haven't been there: PNG is a truly fascinating place. It is technically a middle income country because of its great mineral wealth but, according to the Australian government, "Despite positive economic growth rates in recent years, PNG’s social indicators are among the worst in the Asia Pacific. Approximately 85 per cent of PNG’s mainly rural population is poor and an estimated 18 per cent of people are extremely poor. Many lack access to basic services or transport. Poverty, unemployment and poor governance contribute to serious law and order problems."

Among other things, PNG faces vexing (and in some instances, rather unique) circumstances related to remoteness (overland travel is often difficult and communities can be very isolated from each other as a result; air travel is often the only way to get form one place to another: with a landmass approximately that of California, PNG has 562 airports -- more, for example, than China, India or the Philippines!) and language (PNG is considered the most linguistically diverse country in the world, with over 800 (!) languages spoken). The PNG education system faces a wide range of challenges as a result. PNG ranks only 156th on the Human Development Index and has a literacy rate of less than 60%.  As an overview from the Australian government notes,

"These include poor access to schools, low student retention rates and issues in the quality of education. It is often hard for children to go to school, particularly in the rural areas, because of distance from villages to schools, lack of transport, and cost of school fees. There are not enough schools or classrooms to take in all school-aged children, and often the standard of school buildings is very poor. For those children who do go to school, retention rates are low. Teacher quality and lack of required teaching and educational materials are ongoing issues."

[For those who are interested, here is some general background on PNG from the World Bank, and from the part of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that used to be known as AusAid, a short report about World Bank activities to support education in PNG from last year and an overview of the World Bank education project called READ PNG.]

If you believe that innovation often comes about in response to tackling great challenges, sometimes in response to scarcities of various sorts, Papua New Guinea is perhaps one place to put that belief to the test.
 

Given the many great challenges facing PNG's education sector,
its low current capacity to meet these challenges,
and the fact that 'business as usual' is not working,
while at the same time mobile phone use has been growing rapidly across society,
might ICTs, and specifically mobile phones,
offer new opportunities to help meet many long-standing, 'conventional' needs
in perhaps 'unconventional' ways?

A small research project called SMS Story has been exploring answers to this question.

Bollywood Karaoke and Same Language Subtitling to Promote Literacy

Michael Trucano's picture
I'd like to teach the world to read, in perfect harmony ...
I'd like to teach the world to read, in perfect harmony ...

While I have not seen any research evidence to support this particular contention, I have been in a number of presentations over the years about the 'Finnish success in education' in which the fact that Finnish children watch cartoons with subtitles is mentioned as a contributing factor to their literacy development. Even if there are no peer-reviewed journal articles about the impact of this practice in Finland (if anyone knows of any, please do feel free to send them along!) or many other places (subtitling on television has of course been a common practice in many countries of the world for quite some time), there is some pretty compelling evidence from a little initiative in India that has been reaching big audiences for over a decade that this sort of thing can make a small but meaningful difference in the lives of many illiterate and low literate people. Sometimes innovation is the result of doing something 'old' in a 'new' place (often with a slight twist).

Back in November, PlanetRead was awarded the first-ever 'International Prize' as part of the new U.S. Library of Congress Literacy Awards [disclosure: I am a member of the advisory board for these awards] in recognition of its pioneering work in the practice of Same Language Subtitling (SLS), "the idea of subtitling the lyrics of existing film songs (or music videos) on TV, in the ‘same’ language that they are sung in. Call it Karaoke on Bollywood for mass reading!  A deceptively simple innovation, SLS is already delivering regular and inescapable reading practice to 150 million weak-readers in India."

One notable characteristic of each of the three inaugural winners of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards is that they largely work outside of traditional 'educational' institutions as part of their efforts to promote reading. In the case of Reach Out and Read, this means connecting with parents and young children in pediatric exam rooms. 826 National supports store front writing and tutoring centers in local communities. PlanetRead focuses its outreach on a place where, like or not, many people spend a lot of their free time: watching television. Brij Kothari, the founder of PlanetRead, joked during the awards ceremonies at the Library of Congress, some people might say that TV is the enemy of reading, to which we reply: embrace the enemy!

ICTs and Literacy (the old fashioned kind)

Michael Trucano's picture
lego ergo sum, or I read, therefore I am
lego ergo sum, or I read, therefore I am

The Library of Congress recently announced a set of literacy awards to recognize and honor pioneering efforts in the United States and around the world. That's all well and good, you might say, literacy is certainly a worthy cause, but what does this have to do with ICT use in education in developing countries, the topic explored on the EduTech blog? Potentially a lot.

Much is made these days of the need to foster the development of so-called '21st century skills'. Indeed, for the past few years I have sat through few presentations where this particular three word phrase has not been mentioned prominently at some point. Reasonable people may disagree about what these skills are, exactly (but there are lots of ideas), and/or about some of the groups promoting related discussions and initiatives. Whatever one's opinion on such things may be, however, there is no denying that ICTs -- and the ability to use ICTs (productively, effectively) -- are often prominently considered in many related conversations and advocacy efforts, which often also highlight the increasing importance of the acquisition of so-called 'new literacy' skills (variously defined, but often related to the use of ICTs in ways integral and tangential: computer literacy, media literacy, etc.) to ways of life that are increasingly impacted by the emergence of new information and communication technologies.

What it means to be 'literate' in 2013 may be different than it was in 1913 or 1963 (and it will perhaps be different still in 2063). That said, there is little argument that, whatever the year, and wherever you are, basic literacy skills are fundamental to one's education and ability to navigate successfully through life.

What do we know about the use of ICTs
to help promote and develop literacy?

(I am not talking about such things like 'computer literacy', mind you, but rather literacy of the old-fashioned sort: the ability to read and write.)

Can you really teach someone to read with a computer alone?

Michael Trucano's picture

one technology to teach reading still works pretty well ...For a few years, the World Bank's infoDev program has sponsored a monthy online 'EduTech Debate' (ETD) which functions as a sort of rough complement to the Bank's own EduTech blog.  The goal of the ETD has been to provide a forum for the sharing of information and perspectives on various emerging topics related "low-cost ICT initiatives for educational systems in developing countries".  From the very start, the World Bank's role -- and certainly our voice (to the extent that we have one on these topics) -- has been in the background, and, by design, one only rarely sees a World Bank staff member post on the site, or contribute a comment to the sometimes lively exchanges of opinions that individual posts ignite.  We do follow the discussions quite closely, however, and sponsoring the debate has been a useful way for infoDev, the World Bank and UNESCO to be tuned in to some conversations we might not otherwise know are occurring, and to connect with interesting organizations and practitioners doing interesting things around in the world.

The most recent debate has looked at the potential role that ICT can play in promoting the acquisition of basic literacy skills.  Especially in places where literacy levels are very low -- where the formal education system has, in many significant ways, failed in one of its fundamental roles -- might ICTs offer some new approaches (and tools) that can help get children reading?  Noting (for example) the large number of very basic iPhone apps targeted at children in OECD countries to teach basic letter recognition, phonics, and vocabulary, an increasing number of groups are exploring doing similar things in less privileged environments.  But is it really that easy?

Learning the Queen's English ... on your mobile phone?

Michael Trucano's picture

the infrastructure is increasingly there ... how can we take advantage of it? | img attribution at bottomMuch lip service is paid in various quarters to the potential use of mobile phones in education in developing countries.  That said, concrete examples of such use -- especially projects that have gone beyond small initial pilot stages -- remain few and far between. This is beginning to change.  One interesting project can be found in Bangladesh, where the BBC World Service Trust and BBC Learning English are implementing the Janala project, an initiative that is providing English language lessons to citizens via their mobile phones as part of the wider English in Action program in Bangladesh, funded by the UK's Department for International Development (UKaid).

Some of people involved with the Janala project recently shared some information about what they have been doing -- and learning -- as part of a discussion series at USAID around 'mobile education' topics (the other project presented in the latest session was the MILLEE project, which has been profiled on this blog before).  I was fortunate enough to be be able to sit in on the presentation, at the kind invitation of USAID educational technology team, and thought I'd share some brief highlights: