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Can technology help teach literacy in poor communities?

By Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office
April 28th, 2016

literacy app

Project to provide children with tablets loaded with literacy apps reports positive results in Africa, U.S.

For the past four years, researchers at MIT, Tufts University, and Georgia State University have been conducting a study to determine whether tablet computers loaded with literacy applications could improve the reading preparedness of young children living in economically disadvantaged communities.

At the Association for Computing Machinery’s Learning at Scale conference, they presented the results of the first three deployments of their system. In all three cases, study participants’ performance on standardized tests of reading preparedness indicated that the tablet use was effective.

The trials examined a range of educational environments. One was set in a pair of rural Ethiopian villages with no schools and no written culture; one was set in a suburban South African school with a student-to-teacher ratio of 60 to 1; and one was set in a rural U.S. school with predominantly low-income students.

In the African deployments, students who used the tablets fared much better on the tests than those who didn’t, and in the U.S. deployment, the students’ scores improved dramatically after four months of using the tablets.

“The whole premise of our project is to harness the best science and innovation to bring education to the world’s most underresourced children,” says Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT and first author on the new paper. “There’s a lot of innovation happening if you happen to be reasonably affluent — meaning you have regular access to an Internet-connected computer or mobile device, so you can get online and access Khan Academy. There’s a lot of innovation happening if you’re around eight years old and can type and move a mouse around. But there’s relatively little innovation happening with the early-childhood-learning age group, and there’s a ton of science saying that that’s where you get tremendous bang for your buck. You’ve got to intervene as early as possible.”

Next page: What the study reveals