Next Step: Literacy
is a remote patch of southwestern Georgia bottomland pinned against the Chattahoochee River at the Alabama border. More than half of the county’s 11,000 residents are scattered across the countryside, many on farms — peanut and cotton, mostly. Cell phone reception is spotty, and those who can afford Internet access get barely enough bandwidth to check their email account, if they have one.
Blakely, population 5,000, is the county seat, centered on a domed and columned courthouse built in 1904 in the middle of the town square. It is the home of the county’s lone school district — 2,200 students, nearly 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. The city also hosts the county’s sole library, though it is not really a part of most citizens’ daily lives. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 22 percent of residents over the age of 16 lack basic literacy skills. One survey found 30 percent of households with young kids reported owning fewer than four children’s books. Some had none at all.
Based on some of these factors alone — higher levels of poverty, illiteracy and limitations in technological access — one might think this rural corner of Georgia had too many educational challenges. Georgia State Regents’ Professor of Psychology Robin Morris thought it was perfect.
Morris is a founding member of the Global Literacy Project, a partnership among Georgia State, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts University built around the idea of helping at-risk children learn basic language and literacy skills by connecting them with technology. The plan, simply put, was to load a tablet with interactive reading and language-rich software and hand it to a child in undeveloped Africa and India where there are no schools or teachers. The pure curiosity of youth, the researchers theorized, would lead the kids to figure out the reading-related games and puzzles on their own and, thus, they would essentially teach themselves to read.
That was the theory, at least. Before they could secure the money and resources to start the initiative on a global scale, reaching 170 million illiterate children in some of the poorest parts of the world, the Global Literacy Project had to see if the tablet would actually work. And what better, more accessible testing grounds than with at-risk children in the American South?
To get the initiative rolling, the team knew they didn’t have a year or two to wait and survey participants’ improvements on some standardized test, and besides, the children in Africa and India didn’t have any such formalized exam. Their answer was to program each tablet to upload its usage data — which applications were used, for how long and how much progress was made — to a central website. With each tablet assigned to a group of children, or at times to an individual student (numbered, so as not to identify the child), researchers could follow an entire group’s, or an individual child’s development, in Africa or Asia remotely from a laptop in Atlanta or Boston.
Morris is an expert in reading research and has worked with many complex datasets. But he was less equipped to administrate that sort of technology or the amount of data being generated daily.
“I needed someone who knows a lot more about the hardware platform, the mainframe and large databases,” says Morris. “But I also needed someone who could get interested in the project itself.”
Enter David Gibbs, a then 24-year-old undergrad in the Computer Science Department. He had his own start-up information technology (IT) business that was paying a chunk of his tuition. He clearly had the technical chops. But behind the impressive resume was a young man who had been just the kind of kid the collaborative was hoping to reach.
Gibbs’ father had worked in IT with Coca-Cola, but the elder Gibbs didn’t force his day job on his son. He didn’t have to. Gibbs was always curious, always taking apart toys and electronics to figure out how they worked (a habit that especially irked his younger brothers when they came home to find their Sega Genesis in pieces). As he got older, Gibbs was always tearing into cars and computers and putting them back together, making small improvements and modifications along the way. Now in college, Morris asked Gibbs to put his fingerprint on a project that might not only teach at-risk children without options how to read, but change the way the world looks at learning. He was in.
“Nobody had ever done this before,” Gibbs says.
There were plenty of unique challenges awaiting Gibbs at the collaborative.
Nine months before the kids in Early County were powering on their new educational toys, 40 tablets had been dropped off for a pilot project in two remote villages in Ethiopia. Again, there were no schools, no teachers. And yet, just like their Early County counterparts more than 10,000 miles away, it took the children mere minutes to turn on the machines. There was also no power grid, so computer engineers from a (relatively) local university had to come in and show the villagers how to daily recharge the tablets on special solar-power stations. And with no Internet access in the village, the engineers returned regularly to collect memory cards so the data could be uploaded to the network.
There were other technical issues that were not bound by geography or socioeconomics. First and foremost was security. After all, tablets are essentially technological toys, and the collaborative needed to be sure the students, their older siblings and parents were not just playing around. The team password-protected the machines, locking up access to browsers and the hardware settings, stripping the desktop of all icons not attached to the approved software. Still, a boy in Ethiopia hacked into one tablet and turned on the disabled camera. A five-year-old in Early County figured out how to bypass the login, a trick he quickly showed his classmates, negating all the specially designed data collection software.
“He came up to us and said ‘Watch what I can do!’” says Morris. “We lost a whole classroom of data, because the data wasn’t being collected.”
Another technological hurdle in the project has been standardizing the data across such diverse testing sites and types of tablets. Researchers and the local educational officials decided early that even the tablets going to Africa would teach English as opposed to any regional language or dialect in the early deployments, but more recently relevant apps in the local languages are starting to be developed and may be deployed.
Gibbs has worked tirelessly to hone a lineup of around 160 apps that will run on multiple tablet platforms, while he and colleagues constantly update those programs to better serve the students.
The number of plates Gibbs and the project’s associates are spinning at once is growing rapidly. Months after the introduction in Early County, Gibbs and Morris delivered 35 tablets to kindergarten classes in rural Roanoke, Ala. And in the two years since, the project has set up sites in Uganda, South Africa and the Pune district of India. Bangladesh is in the works. Right now, the collaborative has about 750 tablets in the hands of students across the globe. By the end of next year Gibbs expects that number to be 10,000 to 12,000. He says the goal is to have reached 100 million illiterate children throughout the world by the end of this decade.
Gibbs’s role in the project is expanding almost as rapidly. He’s no longer just the computer wizard cooped up in a windowless climate controlled server closet at Georgia State. Over the summer, he was in Cambridge, Mass., working alongside the head of the collaborative at MIT. The residency was a transfer of knowledge, a passing of the keys, for when Gibbs graduates this December and moves permanently to Boston where he’ll become the technical director of a separate Global Literacy Project nonprofit spin-off in the private sector.
“He could go anywhere and be well compensated,” says Morris of his protégé. “But he saw that there was a real impact here.”
It starts with an egg.
A small diagram in the corner of the tablet screen beckons the child to tap the egg with her finger. When she does repeatedly and with enough vigor, the egg starts to crack and then breaks open, revealing a cartoon baby duck. This is Baby D. From here, the child is instructed to bathe Baby D, choosing the duck’s hue by tapping the different colors of shampoo. The child is told, in writing that is read aloud as the child’s finger runs over each word, to feed Baby D a certain number of bugs, and when the child drags enough bugs from the lily pad into the animal’s mouth, the duck gobbles them up, even burping at one point, to the delight of the young reader. And while she giggles, she is learning spelling, pronunciation, colors and counting.
At least that’s the idea behind this particular app, called TinkRbook, developed by the MIT group on the project, along with the dozens installed on the Global Literacy tablets. Whether this approach significantly aids child language development and literacy is still open to debate. The project is still compiling data as researchers put together their business proposal and grant applications for the new nonprofit. The difficulty is discerning how large a role the tablet has in helping a child learn to read compared to other available instruction and a child’s natural progress. One thing they do know is that the tablets are not, and will most likely never be, a replacement for good teacher when teachers are available. Unfortunately, in many places around the world, there aren’t any. And in many places, even with good teachers, children don’t have access at home to literature.
Hard data aside, the collaborative has made some unmistakable observations of progress. Mere weeks after receiving the tablets, a number of Ethiopian children were able to say and write part, if not all, of the English alphabet. Some could read simple written words.
Michael Williams, technology director for the Early County schools, is convinced from what he’s seen. His oldest daughter, Hayley, was one of the pre-kindergarten students who were exposed to those first tablets. He says she was immediately touching the screen of his laptop and the TV trying to work them with her finger. When it was Hayley’s turn to bring the tablet home, she would crawl up in her father’s lap and walk him through each story, sometimes getting ahead of herself, having memorized what comes next. Further, the tablet seemed to increase her interest in reading. When she didn’t bring the tablet home, she was paying more attention to her books, even pressing the pages with her fingers to try and spur animation in the lifeless pictures.
“You could tell that in her mind, the pages were coming to life,” says Williams.
One evening, Williams walked into his living room and found Hayley on the couch sitting beside her two-year-old sister, Bowen, with the tablet in their laps. Big sister was leading little sister through the apps, showing her how to make the baby duck burp, passing on what she had learned.
Tony Rehagen is a senior editor at Atlanta magazine. His work has also appeared in Men’s Health and has been anthologized in the book “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.”