Being a person who likes to tune out from electronics and tune into soil, painting, fresh air, long walks, or literature (through reading a quiet book), I recently found myself trying to keep up again with the younger generations of my children and grandchildren because, indeed, our understanding of literacy is shifting without me quite knowing how. Perhaps many of us do not know how it is shifting, how dynamically it is shifting, or fast it is shifting.
Marjorie Howard, writing for TuftsNow, explains this phenomena a bit more with a recent event of education in multiliteracies:
“In two remote villages, in rural Ethiopia, a team of literacy and technology experts from Tufts and MIT 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 had not ever attended school or seen electricity or paper. The tablets contained specially designed apps to help illiterate children learn the basics: letters and sounds and, eventually, reading fundamentals.”
“The idea is to create a way to teach reading anywhere,” says Maryanne Wolf, seen here with some early learners in an Ethiopian village.
“The digital genie can’t and shouldn’t be put back into the bottle. We’re in the era of screens and digital culture. We must learn how to use this new tool in the best way.”
Giving children who would otherwise never become literate a technology that might someday propel them to literacy is a step in that direction, she says. “In the process I hope to contribute to figuring out ways that the medium can redress its own weaknesses.”
Very much of each human brain is not realized. Educators who focus on the word pedagogy must take care to not be lost in confusion, pointless ideology, and monetary standards regarding educational tools. Real education is not about the ideas of the educator, or the book knowledge that academics must interpret and adhere to, or the counseling principles that schools prefer, abide by, or are confused with. Marjorie Howard writes:
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. Was it possible that this kind of instinctual learning, outside the realm of a formal classroom, could help reverse widespread illiteracy around the world?
“They have no electricity, had never seen paper and pencil, but in one week, they were able to turn each application on.”
Of course, solar power was also central to this whole program. “Two computer engineers from the University of Addis Ababa taught the villagers how to use solar power units to recharge the tablets each night,” Howard writes. “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.”
The preliminary results are promising. Even though the 40 children in the two villages had never seen a written word, 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. 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 Tisch College, says literacy improves multiple aspects of people’s lives: cognition, health, economic employment, gender equality and general well-being. The consortium’s goal is to 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.”
Tablets, apps, and innovative thinking are clearly all central to this initiative. However, this is also another example of how distributed, renewable, cheap solar power can help (and is helping) to transform the world.
For much more on this subject, check out the full TuftsNow article.