A Talking Book for Africa


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a school in rural Ghana (courtesy World Bank photo archive)How do you provide vital information and literacy training to people with limited access to either -- especially if they are located in rural parts of Africa?  Cliff Schmidt, the founder of Literacy Bridge, recently stopped by the World Bank to discuss his work in northern Ghana to help investigate answers to this question.  Most groups seeking to harness the power of information and communication technologies in developing countries in support of such objectives pilot test their 'solutions' where it is easiest to do so -- often in (reasonably) well-off urban or suburban settings (often buidling off prior experience using such technologies in OECD countries).  Literacy Bridge is notable in that it prioritizes helping people with the greatest challenges, rather than focusing on the easiest to reach. 

The 'Talking Book' is a low-cost audio device device with recording capabilities -- imagine a rubbery MP3 player about the size of a grapefuit -- rather ingeniously engineered (and re-engineered) to meet specific needs and usage scenarios in very poor communities in Africa.  It is designed for use in local languages, using locally produced content, as tool to promote literacy among primary school children (to cite just one goal and target group). One way to think of the device, Cliff said, is as a  'small portable computer without a display'.  While the project is still in its pilot stages, it is notable for its express interest in investigating solutions that are low cost and scalable from the beginning, and in rigorously monitoring and evaluating the impact of its interventions.

(Note: Some initiatives targeted specifically towards those with various visual empairments also refer to their products as 'talking books' -- this is something different.)

Cliff discussed the animating principles behind the project, the results from a recent pilot introduction in Northern Ghana in 2009, future plans, and demo'ed the device. Literacy Bridge began, he said, with the idea that the most effective approach towards ending global poverty requires empowering people with better access to knowledge, and that those in greatest need are impeded by illiteracy, disability, and inadequate infrastructure. (Here's video from a talk Cliff gave at Google about the project's goals and approach to development.) The project is operationally very lean, supported financially by hundreds of individual donations and by thousands of volunteer hours. 

It was a fascinating talk, and my comments on the presentation and discussion could easily fill multiple blog posts.   Listening to Cliff speak, I was particularly struck one thing:

I have heard literally hundreds of presentations from vendors, development organizations, NGOs and researchers on the application of various types of ICTs to development challlenges in developing countries (in education and other sectors).  I have never heard a presentation from a project proponent about the development of an ICT device (of whatever sort) meant to be used by poor people that contained so many comments like what I heard from Cliff: "our users told us"; "we learned from our users that ..."; "what we found out when speaking with and observing our users caused us to radically change how we were thinking, and so we re-designed ..." etc.  The iterative, user-centric design process the Literacy Bridge has been engaged in to develop the Talking Book stands in stark contrast to that demonstrated by most (almost all?) of the 'ICT for development' initiatives in the education sector that come through our offices here at the World Bank.   (This design approach is much more similar to that used by the more forward-thinking mobile phone companies in the design of their products martketed specifically to suers in developing countries than what one usually sees from manufacturers of traditional computer hardware products ... perhaps a topic for a later discussion.) 

During the Q&A session, someone asked whether the Talking Book device has been tested in the United States.  The answer was 'no'.  I got the impression that a number of people in the room where disappointed by this.  I actually see this as a strength. Most ICT devices used in education are built for OECD learning environments, and then people seek to adapt them to learning scenarios and societal contexts in developing countries.  The Talking Book is an example of an ICT product built from the ground-up specifically targeted to such scenarios and contexts. Larger pilots are scheduled for Ghana in 2010.  This is definitely a project to watch.

  • For more information about Literacy Bridge and the Talking Book, see the organization's web site and blog.
  • Cliff Schmidt's presentation, as well as that of World Bank senior education economist Peter Darvas outlining challenges in the education sector in Ghana, are available in the ICT & education section of the World Bank Education web site.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog entry comes from the World Bank Photo Archive and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons license (Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic).  (Photographer: Curt Carnemark; obtained 
via Flickr)


Michael Trucano

Global Lead for Innovation in Education, Sr. Education & Technology Policy Specialist

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Michael Trucano
December 10, 2009

A number of useful additional resources have recently been made available via links from the Literacy Bridge web site:

introductory video on Literacy Bridge and the Talking Book

results from the Literacy Bridge Talking Book pilot study in Ghana (2009) [pdf]

video of Cliff Schmidt demonstrating the 'chatterbox'

Michael Trucano
December 15, 2009

Hi Gabriela,

Many thanks for your comments.

My intention with this blog post was to have a quick look at how one small NGO, working with a variety of local partners, is exploring the use of technology in inventive and useful and interesting (and in this case, low tech!) ways, based on user-centric design principles.

You wrote:
"Access to water, energy, food and adequate health care seem to be bypassed here."

Things like the Talking Book should of course be seen only as one part (and perhaps only a small part) of a larger approach. Too often people see the introduction of modern information and communication technologies as a "trick" (I like your terminology here) to quickly solve problems and challenges complex and long standing. If there were simple answers to questions like the one posed at the top of this blog entry, we would have found them long ago. But that's not to say that the development, adaptation and use of various technologies can't play important roles in this search for such answers.

December 15, 2009

How do you provide vital information and literacy training to people with limited access to either -- especially if they are located in rural parts of Africa? I don't know that a piece of technology will do the trick. Access to water, energy, food and adequate health care seem to be bypassed here. If that piece of technology included the above list, then yes, I think progress is being made but, a question of access to vital information and literacy is a question of access to food sustainability, potable water, sustainable energy and a disease free life. Should information and literacy training be a priority? Absolutely! Should a technology be part of that picture? Absolutely! But, as long as the issue of teacher shortage, quality of education and higher education, and incentives to repatriate the "braindrain-ers" is coupled. I am weary of giving people tools without empowering them to use these tools.