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

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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?


Some highlights from the October 2011 Edutech Debate:

Carmen Strigel of RTI International talks briefly about what we know (and what we don't) about 'ICT and the Early Grade Reading Assessment: From Testing to Teaching'.  Together with other partners, RTI has been exploring the use of EGRA in scores of countries (and even more languages).  While the use of handheld ICT devices by the learner herself has generated the most enthusiasm in some quarters, Carmen  talks about how ICTs can be used in test creation, data collection and analyses phases of EGRA projects as well.

Victor Lyons remarks that 'The Bottom of the Pyramid needs Reading ICT Solutions too', drawing on a computerized literacy program he developed and deployed in India.

Charles Callis looks at one specific product as part of his discussion of 'Improving Reading Skills Through Personalizing Literacy Instruction'.

Jim Teicher and Sarah Nehrling of Cybersmart Africa (recently profiled on the World Bank EduTech blog here) write about 'ABCs and ICTs: Delivering Scale and Value with a Whole Class Learning Solution', based on experiences in Senegal. They note (quite sensibly) that "it is essential to keep in mind that ICT use in schools will accomplish very little if not integrated within a toolbox full of supporting educational content, ongoing teacher training and support, and a context that nurtures evolving teaching and learning styles".


In my position at the World Bank as the 'educational technology guy', I am approached pretty much every week by someone or some group touting their language learning software, saying that it is 'exactly what is needed in [insert name of country or continent]'. (For what it's worth, the most common word inserted at the end of such declarations is 'Africa', in my experience.)

Now, a lot of this stuff is pretty good.  Quite good, in fact.  That said, when I ask what sort of user testing they have done with their purported target groups (some examples from recent pitches I've heard include refugee communities fleeing conflict in Africa, street kids in Central America, and out-of-school girls in rural communities in South Asia), and to what extent the development of their device and/or software application has been informed by what they have learned from working with such groups, tailored to the specific learning contexts for children in those places, I rarely hear compelling responses that indicate to me that most of these folks really 'know their customer' to any great extent.  You could argue, I suppose, that their customer isn't really the end user, but rather funding institutions -- international donors, foundations and NGOs, education ministries -- who would buy such tools to be used by others.  If so, you might well, as a practical matter, be right, but that wouldn't change the fact that such tools are often ill-designed to work well for such learners -- if they work at all.

In a comment on the Callis post on the EduTech Debate site, Isabelle Duston highlights a problem common to many 'new' initiatives in this area: They seek (for example) to use software that was created to promote literacy in native English speakers in order to teach non-native speakers how to learn English as a second (or third, or fourth) language -- even where such people aren't yet literate in their first language!  It may be true that, in some exceptional cases, you will find kids who can pick up literacy skills in such contexts.  (Indeed, in my experience, many pilot projects actively seek out and highlight such exceptional cases to illustrate the success of their overall approach.)  That said, we shouldn't be surprised when the result is that such projects have little or no real impact.

This is not to say that ICT holds no promise to promote the acquisition of basic literacy skills.  To the contrary: It may be in this regard that ICT use can have the most transformative impact on millions of learners around the world in the years to come.  Same language subtitling of movies and television programs, for example, has been shown in certain circumstances to promote reading skills in countries as varied as Finland and, perhaps most famously, India

Marije Geldof's recent PhD thesis ("Literacy and ICT: Social Constructions in the Lives of Low-literate Youth in Ethiopia & Malawi") highlights the fact that "the perspectives and experiences of low-literate users in such contexts have previously received insufficient attention."   In a few weeks USAID is expected to announce its next Grand Challenge for Development, this one focused on getting all children reading, and explorations of how ICTs (especially 'mobile devices') can be used to help promote the acquisition of early literacy skills will most likely be one component of this new initiative.   It will be worth watching what develops as a result.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of the title page of a book by Louis-Gustave-Fortuné Ratisbonne ("one technology to teach reading still works pretty well ...") comes via Wikimedia Commons; it is in the public domain.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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