Category Archives: literacy skills

m-Novels on the rise

m-Novels on the rise is a piece I wrote about m-novels and Kontax in particular for M&G’s Tech Leader.

Most of my spare time has gone into heading up the m4Lit / Kontax project (hence the lack of blog posts here). For now, catch me at that project’s blog.

Launch of Kontax, a teen m-novel

Kontax is the m-novel that we’ve just launched as part of the m4Lit project, which I lead. It’s the world’s first English and isiXhosa m-novel. Check it out!

Invitation to the Kontax launch @ the Book Lounge

The Kontax launch @ the Book Lounge

Three ideas for mlearning in Africa

Everyone knows that the mobile phone is revolutionising the way people communicate, work, play and live in Africa. Below are three ideas for mobile learning (mlearning) on the continent.

Given that many teens are reading and writing more than ever, not formally but on mobile phones, can these be used as platforms for exposing learners to “good” examples of the written word, and encourage them to read, write and discuss literature? There is certainly a need to explore all available channels to raise the low level of literacy amongst youth in Africa. Further, mobile phones may represent a way to alleviate the chronic shortage of books as they provide a viable distribution solution.

A project that I’ve proposed at the Shuttleworth Foundation is the m4Lit (mobile phones for literacy) pilot. If approved, this project will create a story, published on a mobisite – accessible via mobile phone web browsers and computer web browsers – to explore the opportunities for mobile-assisted literacy development. The story will be published serially (daily) and invite young readers to interact with it as it unfolds – voting on chapter endings, commenting, discussing and finally submitting a written piece as part of a competition.

The overall aim is to increase exposure to the written word and get young people to read and write more. The pilot takes an expanded view of functional literacy, framing the consumption and creation of content as a social exercise that allows for audience participation, using the technology that is in the hands of the youth. (Let’s face it, at USD299 a pop, the Kindle is not going to become the ebook reader of Africa.)

Mobile learning management systems
Building on the learning management systems (LMS) out there, like LAMS or Moodle, a mobile LMS would allow for teachers to create content as well as assignments, which learners then complete on their phones. The ImfundoYami / ImfundoYethu pilot project — “mobile learning for mathematics” — in South Africa is a good example of such a system that:

  • Alleviates the burden of marking assignments for the teachers. Through the web back-end, teachers can immediately see the results of the learners’ assignments. They can also see where the class is struggling (if most learners got questions 10-15 wrong, and those were about fractions, then clearly there’s a problem with the understanding of fractions).
  • Gets kids excited about homework because it happens on the platform they love.

Where to get content for the system? Use open-educational resources (OERs) from sites such as Connexions or OER Commons. Such a system can be used to develop literacy and numeracy, or any learning subject for that matter.

I’ve been struggling with the question of how to make this kind of system sustainable — after all, it costs money to access data over your mobile phone.  Advertising or sponsorship is one model. After my presentation at the Accenture CRM summit, Andrea Spilhaus-Mitchell, Business Development Director at Accenture South Africa suggested that there needs to be something in it for the mobile industry stakeholders. Literacy and numeracy tests would reveal much about mobile phone users, and allow for customising subscriber packages as well as marketing campaigns. In short, it’ll allow the mobile network operators and handset manufacturers to better understand their customers. Further, this kind of data (in aggregate) could be fed into larger reports, such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.

Adding a level of competitiveness to the tests, with an overall score or a leader board, could motivate learners to take more tests and to try harder. This has worked well in Scottish primary schools where learners play Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on Nintendo DS, and also for Dr Math on MXit.

Alternate reality games
Lastly, I do love the idea of alternate reality games (ARG) for African learners, in which they use their mobile phones to access clues and solve the game puzzles. Ushahidi or The Grid (in South Africa) would make the games location relevant.

These are three ideas that I think could make a real impact on learning in Africa, using the device that has changed everything.

One textism does not a language corrupt

I’ve been working on a short paper on the effects of texting on literacy (forthcoming soon). Texting — SMS-speak, IM-speak, abbreviated and misspelled words, etc. — is much hated by teachers, parents and linguists who complain that textspeak is creeping into formal writing assignments — which it is. There is evidence — formal and anecdotal — of this happening in schools around the world.

My issue with this is the hysteria that has been created — the sense that a generation of youth cannot speak or spell correctly. The hysteria is based on a small number of actual textisms in essays, no more than grammar mistakes, spelling mistakes or the other inevitable mistakes that learners make when they practice writing.

The focus is on the mistake, e.g. the one textism, and not the 499 good words in an essay. The exception/mistake defines the whole piece. In the same way that when you read a book and notice a typo, you remember it. You make a mental black mark against the author and the editing process of the publishers. It’s wrong that these mistakes get made, but they need to be fairly assessed against the bigger picture of the narrative, the story structure, the characterisations, etc.

AristotleLet’s not create a whole category for texting and regard it as the death knell of English. Let’s not hysterically focus on the small mistakes. Let’s deal with them as best we can, but ask the bigger question: can young people, especially in SA, write long pieces? According to much research, they can’t because they never practice it. We need to get our kids writing, much longer pieces and more often. The few textisms need to be dealt with, but they don’t mean the end of a communicative generation.

As Aristotle said: “One swallow does not a summer make.”

(Image: Aristotle by Jastrow. Public Domain)

Of muppets, literacy and ICTs

Yesterday I met with a team from Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street.

The Workshop develops innovative and engaging educational content delivered in a variety of ways  — including television, radio, books, magazines, interactive media, and community outreach. Taking advantage of all forms of media and using those that are best suited to delivering a particular curriculum, the Workshop effectively and efficiently reaches millions of children, parents, caregivers, and educators — locally, nationally and globally.

Sesame Workshop has been running for almost 40 years and is the world’s largest single educational provider.

In South Africa, Sesame Street is known as Takalani Sesame. The local production — aimed at ages 3-6 — develops literacy, numeracy and has a special focus on HIV/AIDS safety. Through it’s star character, Kami, the world’s first HIV-positive muppet, the show promotes HIV/AIDS tolerance and destigmatisation. Takalani Sesame has also run campaigns aimed at teenage youth and caregivers.

Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))

Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))

The TV and radio shows used to include snippets of all official South African languages. But according to Seeta Pai, Sesame Workshop’s director of international research, this was not an ideal approach: “Research showed that children would tune out a language that they didn’t understand, so it became counter-productive.”

Now each TV and radio show is fully recorded in 9 of the 11 official South African languages. The new “applied language approach” is better because, “educationally, it is sound to give children a cognitive and language foundation in their native tongue,” says Seeta.

So, what were we meeting about in New York? Sesame Workshop, and the relatively new Joan Ganz Cooney Center, have always sought to use media for educational purposes. In the 1960’s, the notion of using TV for education was radical. Today, that same radical approach is needed when we consider ICTs such as cellphones, video games and even modernised versions of the bioscope (as used by Sesame Street in Bangladeshi slums) for education.

Sesame workshop has already run literacy campaigns, aimed at parents, using cellphones (see Learning Letters with Elmo), created a pilot virtual world called Panwapa, has a YouTube channel and a series of podcasts.

But what about Africa? At the meeting we spoke about what possibilities the media and ICT landscape in South Africa, Nigeria and Tanzania, present for teaching literacy and numeracy. Sesame Workshop would like to conduct an on-the-ground feasibility study of ICT access, as well as survey existing educational interventions and content, to inform its future work in these countries.

Future projects could leverage the full gamut of media, including TV, radio, mobile, CD-ROM and even cheap plug-and-play TV games.

The Shuttleworth Foundation will certainly keep the conversation going as it is in line with our desire to focus more on Foundation Phase literacy and numeracy.

The networked book

I’m exploring the expanded definition of literacy, which includes not only being able to read and write in print, but also read and write across different media. Living in a networked public — like many of us do — also affects how we think about literacy. This quote from the mission statement of the Institute for the Future of the Book is very interesting:

One major consequence of the shift to digital is the addition of graphical, audio, and video elements to the written word. More profound, however, is the book’s reinvention in a networked environment. Unlike the printed book, the networked book is not bound by time or space. It is an evolving entity within an ecology of readers, authors and texts. Unlike the printed book, the networked book is never finished: it is always a work in progress.

A literacy success story

A success story of improving the reading and writing skills of learners is the Zimasa Community School in Langa, Western Cape. Having spent the weekend in Langa for the CSR in Education conference, I realised just how under-resourced most of the schools there are. The attendant ills of poverty are evident in Langa: overcrowding, litter, crime and lack of infrastructure. These factors make it difficult for teachers to deliver a sound education. Similarly, learners struggle to find the space and quiet to do their homework. Imaging trying to study for a test while living in a hostel originally designed for 16 men and now housing 16 families?

Hostels in Langa (Image by mtlp, CC-by-nc-nd)

Hostels in Langa (Image by mtlp, CC-by-nc-nd)

Despite these difficulties, the principal and teachers of Zimasa Community School have managed improve the percentage of learners who achieved 50% or more in a literacy assessment from 8% (2005) to 40% (2008). That’s an increase of 32%! Or an increase of 400% on the baseline results.

Some of the contributing factors for the achievement include institutionalising reading and writing time in class, the school’s dedicated teachers, engaging parents around the learning needs of their children, and allowing learners to read, write and take the literacy test in their mother-tongue (mostly isiXhosa). (It’s not possible to tell if any of these is the dominant variable for the success.)

For the most part, education performance in SA (in fact, globally) is tied to socio-economic status. But it is success stories such as this that demonstrate that it is possible to significantly improve education performance despite difficulties.

Read more about this success story in The Teacher.