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Donors provide key funding to expand effort to teach children in remote regions of the world to read

In two remote villages in rural Ethiopia, a team of literacy and technology experts from Tufts and partner organizations launched a grand experiment with a simple gesture: they dropped off a handful of tablet computers for 40 children who’d never seen anything like them before—they hadn’t ever attended school or seen electricity or paper. The tablets contained specially designed applications (or “apps”) to help illiterate children learn the basics: letters and sounds and, eventually, reading fundamentals.

Within minutes of receiving the tablets—with no instructions or explanations—one boy figured out how to turn on the computer. Within a week the children had all the apps up and running. And within a year, they had learned the alphabet, could recognize some words by sight, and had figured out how to use applications that would help them learn even more.

The potentially groundbreaking project—kickstarting literacy for some of the 800 million people worldwide who cannot read or write—is now poised to expand dramatically, thanks to a generous gift from Barbara Evans, J64, and her husband, Bradford. Their support will make it possible for the Global Literacy Project to develop tablet apps for literacy and learning in environments where educational opportunities are scarce or nonexistent.

“The far-reaching potential of this approach moved us to act,” says Barbara Evans, who has previously supported literacy research at Tufts in part through the Evans Literacy Fellowships for graduate students. “We realized we could have a global impact, not just on literacy, but on related issues like poverty and malnutrition.”

The gift from the Evans family will allow the Global Literacy Project to create new apps to promote more advanced reading skills and to deploy them at more sites around the world. “They’ve allowed us to broaden our scope considerably and enter Phase Two of our operations,” says Maryanne Wolf, founder and director of Tufts’ Center for Reading and Language Research (CRLR). “Now that we are in Phase Two, we are deepening the science behinds the apps and expanding our deployments. We want to move kids from learning the alphabet and some sight words to true decoding and reading, and ultimately understanding. It’s not just learning to read, but reading to learn.” In addition, the open-source platform being built will allow for contributions by developers from around the world. Project organizers hope to provide templates for developers in English that can also be used as conceptual tools for developing apps in other languages.

With the additional funds, the Global Literacy Project will be able to develop two to three apps, as well as new interactive stories, each year for the next three years and hire a content development and deployment coordinator to ensure their production and effective use. New apps and other self-teaching tools are needed to help children become proficient readers; at present the Global Literacy Project estimates that only 20 to 30 percent of the necessary tools are available on their existing apps. In addition to creating and inspiring the development of content that will promote literacy and numeracy skills, organizers also want to expand content that is cross-cultural and that addresses health, hygiene, ethical development, and other areas of important relevance for children everywhere. Their open-source platform will provide a vehicle for many other forms of educational and creativity-building content.

In Phase Two, the project is also expanding from its initial sites in Ethiopia to locations in Uganda, South Africa, India, and Bangladesh.

“We hope that investing at this critical juncture, when the project is scaling up, will help it reach many more children in the years to come. We also hope that other donors will be inspired to join us in giving to this important effort,” Evans says.

An Auspicious Start

The Global Literacy Project began quietly enough, when MIT professor Cynthia Breazeal introduced Wolf to Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab. Negroponte had started the One Laptop per Child Association in 2005 to provide children in underdeveloped countries with computers, but he was eager to do more.

For six months in 2011, he and Wolf debated the possibilities. Could computers really teach children to read? And could children who had never even seen a sheet of paper, let alone a computer, figure out how to use a tablet?

Together with Breazeal and Tinsley Galyean of MIT, Stephanie Gottwald from CRLR and Robin Morris of Georgia State University, Wolf and Negroponte formed the Global Literacy Project to test out their ideas. They were later joined by the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values. After deciding to run a pilot project in rural Ethiopia, Wolf and her colleagues chose to try to teach the children in English, the standard second language taught in schools in that country.

They might have picked Oromo, the language spoken in the villages, or Amharic, the country’s national language, but there were no appropriate computer applications in those languages. Furthermore, parents want their children to learn English—as does the Ethiopian government—because they believe English proficiency will help their kids’ employment prospects.

Then came the task of figuring out how best to teach reading fundamentals to children without the benefit of a classroom. Wolf’s lifetime of research on literacy and the development of the reading brain provided the foundation that helped the team select an array of more than 300 apps: e-books of children’s stories, videos and other self-learning tools and activities. Each app addresses some of the basic processes needed to learn to read: the alphabet, letter-name knowledge, letter-sound correspondence, basic decoding principles, vocabulary, and sight word recognition.

Quick Studies

Wolf traveled to Ethiopia in February 2013 and saw firsthand how excited the children were with the computers.

“The children learned to be so facile so quickly that it was breathtaking,” Wolf says. “They have no electricity, have never seen paper and pencil, but in one week, they were able to turn each application on.”

Two computer engineers from Addis Ababa University taught the villagers how to use solar power units to recharge the tablets each night. The engineers visited the villages twice a month to maintain the equipment and to swap memory cards, so that researchers could study how the children had used the tablets.

One of the apps that was especially successful, TinkrBook, was developed at MIT. It presents an interactive story that invites children to tinker with the text and graphics to explore how these changes affect the narrative.

Wolf, who is the John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts and holds a secondary appointment at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts, says literacy improves multiple aspects of people's lives: cognition, health, economic employment, gender equality, general well-being, and very importantly, the health and longevity of their children’s lives. The consortium’s goal is to help bring the potential for literacy to 100 million children around the world by the end of the decade.

The group also plans to bring tablets to India, Bangladesh, and Uganda, as well as to rural American communities where there aren’t preschools. “The idea is to create a way to teach reading anywhere,” says Wolf. “We are building an overall template for teaching in any language.”

Some apps are in the process of being developed by students at Tufts and MIT who are taking courses with Wolf, Gottwald, and Galyean on reading, language, and technology. They are also working on ways to assess children’s progress in oral and written language development.

A professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, Wolf focused her previous research in cognitive neuroscience and child develpment on reading development and dyslexia. She has embraced global literacy as the new focus of her academic life. She says, “It’s the single most important application of my knowledge that I could ever imagine being able to pursue in a lifetime.”