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Professor provides literacy education with tablets

Published: Friday, November 1, 2013

Updated: Friday, November 1, 2013 08:11

Maryanne Wolf, director of the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research and professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, is combining neuroscience and education to develop solar-powered tablets that will help improve the literacy of children in remote Ethiopian villages. 

The tablets are part of the Global Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization that teaches the basics of literacy to those with no access to formal education, according to Wolf.

Wolf described the tablet-based system as a digital learning experience by which children with virtually no literate people in their own communities can learn without teachers or instructions. The project began one year ago after the Ethiopian government suggested the idea.

“If we were successful and could reach 100 million children, we would change the face of world poverty by 12 percent,” she said. “That’s as big of a goal as I could have in a lifetime.” 

According to Wolf, the project currently focuses on two impoverished communities in Ethiopia — Wonchi and Wolonchete. About 40 children, all of whom have little to no access to water or school supplies, live in these two villages. 

“These kids have never seen electricity, paper, nothing,” Wolf said. “They can write on a tablet, but they’ve never had a pencil ... Still, they aren’t literate yet. They’re just learning.”

Wolf’s involvement with the program began with the development of tablet apps for One Laptop Per Child, a nonprofit organization founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Nicholas Negroponte

“We made an ‘app map’ based on [the human brain],” Wolf said. “To get people involved, we’re teaching a course in technology and literacy between Tufts, MIT and the Rochester Institute of Technology, and we have people to help build more apps.”

The work has been a collaborative effort involving researchers from the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research, MIT Media Lab and Georgia State University. 

Stephanie Gottwald, research coordinator at the Center for Reading and Language Research, expressed excitement about the project’s potential to make a difference in Ethiopian communities. 

“This is a really ambitious project,” Gottwald said. “It’s invigorating to think that, through the collaboration of these amazing people, we could have such a huge impact within our lifetimes.”

Wolf described one young boy who, after losing his family, used his new technological skills to find his place in the community.

“He was able to turn the Motorola Xoom [an Android-based tablet computer] on in four minutes time, and then teach everybody else,” she said. “He has a lot of sadness in his family, and through this experience, he’s the village hero. He’s completely transformed his life.”

The program’s biggest hurdle has been a lack of funding, Wolf explained. The team, however, has successfully overcome other challenges, such as handling the children’s unfamiliarity with electronics, accommodating for their native language of Oromo and navigating cultural differences. 

“They’ve never seen a bathroom. There’s no such thing as a lamp. There are all these things we’ve taken for granted, concepts they’ve never encountered,” Wolf said. “Even animals, like sea animals, or the concept of swimming ... It’s a completely different mindset.”

Gottwald may soon extend the tablet technology to South Africa, where she could teach potential instructors how to connect with groups of 60 to 100 students.

“Through this program, we have built the relationships to entertain the thought of deploying the tablet project in South Africa, [where] most children only have access to schools with very limited resources,” Gottwald said. “What we hope is for the tablet to allow for more child-driven and child-centered learning.”

The tablets are also being utilized locally in Georgia and Alabama to bolster oral language skills among preschool children, Gottwald noted.

“We are in discussion to establish at least a half dozen more sites by 2014,” she said.

“If we get funding, we would like to give them tablets to see if that would help them supplement what they’re doing in the classroom,” Wolf added. 

Wolf will next week address Pope Francis at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City about the goals and accomplishments of the project. 

She hopes the meeting will result in increased support for her initiatives.

“This pope can bring us together in a systematic effort,” Wolf said. “He can help us.”

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