The Global Literacy Collaborative Demonstrates the Power of Technology-assisted Education

Stephen DeAngelis

February 20, 2014

You may never heard of the Global Literacy Collaborative; but, if you believe that education can help reduce poverty and that children everywhere deserve a chance to learn, you should pay attention. The Global Literacy Collaborative is sponsored by Tufts University, Georgia State University, and The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values. The vision of the organization is to bring literacy to 100 million people by the end of the decade. By any measure, that is a daunting task. The organization’s definition of “‘literacy’ refers to the ability to read and write and involves the mastery of a continuum of basic cognitive and linguistic processes that lead to the ability to decode and comprehend text.” [“FAQ,” Global Literacy Collaborative] While that sounds snobbishly academic, the most important part of the definition boils down to helping people learn to read and write. The global need for such skills is pressing. “There are nearly 800 million illiterate people on this planet. It is estimated that if we could reduce that number by 170 million we could remove 12% of the world’s poverty. [The Global Literacy Collaborative is] developing a platform using mobile computing to reach these populations with child-driven learning.” [“Executive Summary,” Global Literacy Collaborative. 7 December 2013]

In a paper entitled “The Reading Brain, Global Literacy, and the Eradication of Policy,” Maryanne Wolf, Stephanie Gottwald, Tinsley Galyean, Robin Morris, and Cynthia Breazeal explain how the project got started. They write:

“In the process of our work on intervention with struggling readers, we became increasingly aware of literacy issues outside our traditional research base in classrooms in the United States. A little over two years ago Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab and the One Laptop Per Child initiative, approached the first and last authors with questions concerning literacy in remote regions around the globe — that is, places where there are neither schools nor teachers. Negroponte had become concerned about these issues because of what he discovered during his leadership of the One Laptop Per Child initiative, in which 2.4 million laptops were distributed to children in varied regions of the world. Although there were successes in countries like Uruguay, laptops in some other places could not be effectively used, because the children were simply unable to read. Negroponte, Breazeal, and Wolf began to discuss whether a digital learning experience, based on their different areas of expertise in reading and technology, could be created to help children learn to read on their own who had no access to school or teacher.”

If you are not familiar with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, I first wrote about the project back in 2006 in a post entitled “Connecting the Poor.” The Global Literacy Collaborative is one of the most exciting follow-on projects I’ve heard about. The authors explain that back in the fall of 2011 they decided to deploy their first computers in Ethiopia, a country in which over half the population is illiterate. The Collaborative chose two sites, which “were selected because of the infrastructure provided by the earlier OLPC initiative.” The first site was the village of Wonchi, which sits “on the rim a volcanic crater at 11,000 feet and is an agrarian community with relatively good access to well water, but little access to main roads.” The second village selected is called Wolenchiti, which “is located at the edge of the Great Rift Valley.” The authors note that these villages live “off the radar” having neither electricity nor running water. What happened next could easily be described as miraculous. The following 8-minute interview provides an overview of the project reveals the result of the Ethiopian experiment. It’s worth watching.

If you didn’t watch the video, let me provide a brief synopsis of the results. Project participants went to the villages and distributed 20 android Motorola Xoom tablets (40 in total) and provided each village with solar-charging system. “Two computer engineers from the University of Addis Ababa, Michael Girma and Markos Lemma, who were part of the original OLPC infrastructure, taught adults in the village to use the solar power units so that the tablets could be recharged every night. The computer engineers were the first to give the tablets to each of the forty children (twenty in each village), but were instructed not to teach the children how to use them or problem solve for them.” They didn’t even teach them how to turn the tablets on. Each tablet was loaded with “over 325 apps, videos, and activities for the children to select.” They weren’t taught how to use these apps either. The authors report that by the end of the month, “every app had been activated” and “the children were totally ‘at home’ with these technologies.” The researchers discovered that children soon selected their favorite apps and spent most of their time using them. The authors conclude, “It is, we believe, a new chapter in our society’s collective understanding of what literacy and child-driven learning mean in the life-course of a young human being, wherever and whatever the circumstances.” I have to agree with them. The Collaborative is very optimistic and provides the following reasons that it believes it will succeed where other efforts have failed.

“Most prior efforts have focused on making mobile devices cheaper. Today, the price/performance ratio has dropped to the point where smartphones and tablets are proliferating in developing countries. The weakest link is the availability of comprehensive educational content and the ability to readily assess what children have learned and mastered. Our platform will succeed where other efforts have failed by simultaneously addressing the issues of:

  • cost effective, accessible mobile devices, (e.g., smartphones)
  • open, affordable, effective, and comprehensive content that is curated and/or customized based on research from the cognitive neurosciences on how young brain learns to read
  • toolsets to support data capture, analysis, and assessment of learning outcomes
  • global reach
  • creating positive social value and deep engagement via child-driven learning
  • scalability through building resources to support a community of developers and stakeholders

In addition to the Ethiopian experiment, the Collaborative has also conducted successful programs in the rural United States. If you are interested in getting involved, the Collaborative indicates that “there are three primary things [it seeks] from sponsors and partners: funding, content development, and deployment.”

  • While we need funding for the Project, our preference is to find funding sources (individuals or organizations) that can provide not only capital, but also connections and relationships with others who can help us advance this effort.
  • By creating an open platform we can solicit content from the broader community. Crowdsourcing content not only allows the platform to expand rapidly with a small amount of resources, but also assures deployment sites that the material being produced is appropriate and relevant to their culture and society.
  • Deployment is essential to our success. Therefore, we are seeking partnership with governments and corporations to reach populations in need. For example, we have already reached out to wireless companies as a primary distribution channel. We are in discussion with SingTel and its partners AirTel and Telkomcel about deployments in India and Indonesia.

If you want to get involved, you can send an email to The Dalai Lama Center and make inquiries at info@thecenter.mit.edu.