Literacy levels in most poor countries remain shockingly low. Even more challenging is the tension between regional and “world” languages – that economic opportunities are often closed to those who are literate only in a regional language. In India for example, English is the language of instruction in private schools and all universities, a large fraction of business and government, and the language which is driving India’s service economy. The value of English is widely recognized by ordinary Indians, and it is the poorest citizens who are lobbying most strongly to expand English teaching. For complex reasons, however, English teaching in public schools is not succeeding. For instance, teachers in rural Indian schools were unable to converse with us in English despite being required to teach the language. Worse, regular school attendance is out of reach for those children who have to work for the family in the agricultural fields or households.
At the same time, the cellphone is the fastest growing technology platform in the developing world. India is the largest market for cellphones worldwide, with the majority being bought by illiterate and semi-literate users. A growing percentage of these phones feature advanced multimedia capabilities for photos and gaming. These devices are a perfect vehicle for new kinds of out-of-school language learning, which can occur at places and times that are more convenient than school. These factors create an extraordinary opportunity for complementing the formal educational system: to dramatically expand English skills in young Indians, which is the fastest way to open the doors for employment and further education.
MILLEE, now in its 7th year, aims to realize this opportunity through a scientific approach. It adopts a human-centered approach to designing immersive, enjoyable, language learning games on cellphones, modeled after the traditional village games that rural children find familiar. It has won several competitive grants and seen extensive field tests. It was featured in the press in India (where the last 10+ rounds of field studies took place), a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television documentary and ABC News. We believe the “world language” challenge holds in many other developing regions and that the MILLEE approach has similar value with other languages. In addition to scaling-up the project in India, we are expanding MILLEE into rural China (Mandarin literacy), sub-Saharan Africa (English literacy) and elsewhere.
Since MILLEE began in 2004, we have conducted more than 10 rounds of fieldwork spanning almost 12 months in India. We did not start with a preconceived idea, but instead spent time with local stakeholders to understand their needs. Our exploratory studies revealed social and infrastructural challenges to using desktop computers to promote learning in school settings. On the other hand, there is a tremendous opportunity for out-of-school learning via educational games on cellphones.
We followed a human-centered design process, in which we consulted experienced local English teachers on our instructional and game designs. The foundational games that we built have gone through numerous iterations since 2006, through formative evaluations with four communities of rural and urban slums learners in both North and South India. By field-testing with multiple communities, we observed user behaviors with the technology that generalize across settings. Through ethnographic studies, we also studied how social factors such as gender and caste affected MILLEE gameplay in everyday rural environments.
We do not believe it is practical to develop “one-size-fits-all” games for national or global use. Rather, the games need to be tailored to local practices. In particular, we adapt the traditional village games with which our target child learners are already familiar, so as to ensure culturally appropriate game designs. Our end-product is therefore not only the games themselves, but a suite of tools and methods for adapting and extending them for local use.
We have concluded a summative evaluation where 27 students attended an after-school program at a village in Uttar Pradesh, India three times per week over a semester to learn English using MILLEE games. Participants exhibited significant post-test gains at the end of this intervention. We achieved the above learning gains by combining theory and practice. Our games drew on the latest research in language acquisition. We also reviewed 35 successful commercial language learning packages to identify their best practices. By reusing those best practices as our starting point, we avoided reinventing the wheel.
Dr. Matthew Kam started MILLEE in 2004 as his Ph.D. thesis at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is an alumni of the Berkeley Institute of Design and TIER research group (Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions). He had a thesis committee that was committed to giving him the support to pursue truly interdisciplinary research that went beyond the traditional boundaries of computer science, development economics, or language and literacy studies.
Since graduating with his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 2008, Matthew joined Carnegie Mellon University in January 2009 as an Assistant Professor, where he is expanding MILLEE into India, China, sub-Saharan Africa and other underdeveloped regions. At any one time, Matthew advises about 20 Ph.D., Master’s and undergraduate students who contribute to the design, programming, graphics and playtesting of the MILLEE games that will be piloted in the field.
Technology transfer takes place in parallel to the above research
activities. Indrani Vedula joined the team in 2010 as the project
manager who is based full-time in India. Matthew and Indrani work
hand-in-hand on business and partnership development. The goal is to
build a social enterprise that can create and distribute MILLEE games in
underdeveloped regions around the world on a cost-recovery basis. With
mobile technology that can extend the reach of learning beyond formal
school environments, the vision is to revolutionize educational services
delivery throughout the developing world
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