Project promoted by UC Berkeley gives children in UP village phones uploaded with English software
Every afternoon, a group of children in Kannar village, about 30 km from Lucknow, gather in a school to learn English — through cellphones. In a village where even teachers cannot speak the language fluently, each of these 25 children can be heard repeating English words — with an American accent — after hearing the voice coming from MotoRazr V3m mobile handsets, which they get to operate for an hour or two every day, with facilitators monitoring their progress.
The handsets are loaded with e-learning games — designed by students of the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DAIICT), Gandhinagar — with many levels. A student can reach the next level only after learning the educational content taught in the previous level.
A brainchild of Matthew Kam, a PhD candidate from the Berkeley Institute of Design at the University of California, the novel project is called MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies). Far from the limelight, MILLEE, which aims to complement formal schooling in rural areas by English language training through mobile games, has been on for about a year, run by a group of students from Lucknow colleges.
Kam coordinates it along with an Indian student, Anuj Tewari, who graduated from DAIICT and is pursuing a degree in computer science from the University of California.
Aman Anand, a student of commerce in Lucknow, develops content for the games, and Shirley Jain, a researcher, develops the course material to be incorporated in them.
To begin with, there were hardly 10 children who were interested in learning English. A year later, the students have reached level 3 or 4 of the learning games, having learnt spellings, verbs and rhymes. They can identify basic objects in English and frame simple sentences like “This is a pen” and “I am Rahul”.
Shashank, a class II dropout, who quit school because it was boring, loves handling the sleek smartphones in the classes at Kannar. He has learnt basic English words and is now learning to form sentences.
Neha Rawat, who studies in class VI at the Government Junior High School in the nearby Bardiprasad village, comes to this class for learning English because it teaches her “what the regular school does not”. “There are so many students in my class and just one teacher. And English as a subject is not a priority. This way of learning is interesting and more girls from our village want to join,” says Neha.
Parents, too, are happy. Mamta Dwivedi, mother of Aman and Mayank who attend the Kannar school, is also a shikshamitra in one of the government primary schools in the neighbouring Gulab Khera village. She says, “Initially, when my sons started coming here to learn English through mobile phones, I did not take them seriously, but thought that they would at least be engaged somewhere after school. But it has brought good results. Who else would teach them good English in this village?”
Talking to The Indian Express over the phone from California, Matthew Kam, who will soon be joining Carnegie Mellon University as an assistant professor, said, “We had initiated the project three years back. Initially, we just wanted to help but did not know how. From the five field studies we conducted between 2004 and 2007, we found that students in the government schools of rural Uttar Pradesh were finding it difficult to study English, Mathematics and Science.”
The project is being promoted by a wing of the University of California. While most of the funding comes from the US National Science Foundation, the project has also got financial support through various awards, including a Wireless Reach Prize Award from Qualcomm Inc. The speech recognition component is supported by a Microsoft Research Digital Inclusion Award.
Following the success of the project in Kannar, the team is planning to expand the project further to other parts of the country, starting with Andhra Pradesh, where it has set a target of roping in 800 children. “We hope to see MILLEE grow and spread to different parts of the emerging world some day,” says Tewari.
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