Blog Post

MILLEE: Approaching Global Literacy with Cellphone Technology

At 7 o?clock in the morning, children from a rural village in thenorthern Indian province of Uttar Pradesh begin their one-hour walk toschool. Amit, an upper-caste boy, will find his way to one of the moreexpensive schools in the region, while his sister Gauri heads to onethat costs her family much less. *

In contrast, lower-caste boys will attend the least expensive schools,while many of their sisters will not attend at all. Dr. Matthew Kam, anassistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, shadows the childrenwith other researchers, trying to get a sense of the daily rhythms andschedules of these rural children. ?We need to understand the socialfault lines such as gender and caste, to see how they interact witheach other and with the technology.?

In 2008, Kam earned his PhD in computer science with a minor ineducation, and has spent the last five years creating educationalgaming software for mobile phones. His project, Mobile and ImmersiveLearning for Literacy in Emerging Economies (MILLEE), is a recipient ofa 2007 HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media and Learning grant. Last year, hevisited India with a team of graduate and undergraduateresearchers to observe the natural ways that rural students use andshare their family?s cellphones. Because these children experienceinterrupted schooling?or in some cases no schooling at all?Kam and hiscolleagues wanted to explore creative ways to deliver game-basedlearning outside traditional school environments.

?Not everyone in India has a computer, but many families havecellphones,? says Kam, noting that this is true for both the upper- andlower-caste families whom his team interacted with. ?In this village,which is in the mango belt, the majority of villagers are affluent byrural standards.? Even so, the demands of mango farming, the very thingthat creates affluence for the families, can also make it difficult forthe children to receive their schooling.

Informal learning, explains Kam, must be understood in the context ofcultural forces that shape the children?s daily and seasonalactivities. With that in mind, he and fellow researchers set out tofollow 45 children of different ages, genders and castes during one ofthe group?s recent visits to Uttar Pradesh.

?Deepti Chittamuru was the lead graduate student researcher for thatfield study. She grew up in a rural Indian village before she became asocial worker in India for seven years. We were fortunate to have her,to have someone who is intimately familiar with the norms of ruralIndian life and could establish trust with the families.? Chittamuru,who speaks five of the official languages of India including Hindi, ledthe recent fieldwork in an effort to understand the village?s deepersocial fabric.

What Chittamuru, Kam and others learned was important. ?In India, forexample, boys receive preferential treatment from their parents, and wesaw this dynamic play out with the phones. So even if older girls havethe cellphone first, when their younger brother comes along, they mustlet him use it.? For Kam and his team, that meant taking the gameprototypes back to the lab, to rethink designs that encouragecollaboration between the genders, ensuring that the children workedtogether in order to advance to higher levels of the game.

This immersive fieldwork is at the heart of MILLEE, designing as acommunity of users instead of designing for an end-user community. Someundergraduate computer science students who worked on the project weresurprised when a year went by and they had not written any computercode, focusing instead on observing and understanding the collaborativesocial processes between them, the Indian children, their families andothers in the community.

Over the past five years, the MILLEE team has done nine field studiesin India, each one focused on the ways Indian children use smartphonetechnology. In 2005, Kam was among ten co-authors who wrote The Casefor Technology in Developing Regions, which pointed out one of the mostsalient facts about the digital divide, ?There has been little work onhow technology needs in developing regions differ from those ofindustrialized nations.?

MILLEE?s game-based mobile-phonelearning uses an approach that typifies bottom-up smart design: visitthe villages, forge relationships, build trust, and listen. Then designand modify the technology, basing it on the traditional games thatvillage children play as opposed to copying contemporary Westerndigital games. Participating in the design helps the children to ground the game-basedlearning programs in their culture, making the games not only morerelevant, but more effective. It is this kind of participatory learningthat makes the technology work for them.

For the kids in Uttar Pradesh, Kam and his team are modifying theircellphone games to work best during the children?s free time. When thestudents walk to school, the games are based on audio to help themmemorize and recite English vocabulary; for times when the kids are athome or keeping watch in the mango groves, the games have both audioand visual components. All of the games are designed around culturalreferences familiar to the children.

Cellphones have eclipsed computers, both desktop and laptop, as themost promising technology in emerging economies such as India, Chinaand Africa, something that MILLEE embraced from its founding in 2004.In 2007, Businessweek writer Bruce Nussbaum reported that the OneLaptop Per Child initiative should, after much fanfare, be called afailure, ?Cell phones are far more popular as the means to connect tothe net in much of the Third World,? wrote Nussbaum, ?andcellphone-type devices rather than cute little laptops might have mademuch more sense.?

Given the high adoption rates for cellphones in most of the developingworld, programs like MILLEE are poised to make a difference in globalliteracy rates, one phone at a time.



Fabulous project and another indication of how much technology cannot be assessed divorced from cultural norms, cultural variables, and cultural practices.


This story is compelling. For more examples I'd recommend the book "Handbook of mobile communication studies," a series of case studies edited by James E. Katz, MIT Press, 2008.