You asked Cliff Schmidt, founder and executive director of Literacy Bridge, about charity, education, and the "talking book", and he has answered your questions with a fair amount of detail. Cliff asks that if you are interested in getting involved please don't hesitate to donate either your time or your hard earned cash.1) Still dependent on technology
What are you doing to prevent over dependence of the users on the talking book. Human nature being what it is, there will be a percentage of users that will probably simply let the Talking Book read to them without bothering to actually read because it's simpler than making the effort to learn to read. Do you have plans to prevent this and encourage actual literacy instead of pseudo-literacy?
A: It's about independence and self-reliance, especially for people with few comforts and when critical health issues are at stake. I'm often seeing women who work all day on subsistence farms crowd into non-formal literacy night classes, where they use kerosene lamps to practice their reading. They go to this effort because they want to become less dependent on others. I've heard a variety of reasons people want to learn to read: to know they aren't being cheated when making a purchase, to vote for their candidate of choice without relying on someone to tell them how, and to read medical instructions for their children's health. The Talking Book Device is both an information device and a learning device: spoken information in your hand to reduce dependence on in-person visits (including clinic visits that may require hours of travel by foot), and a personal literacy tool to reduce dependence on spoken information. We've tried hard to design the literacy learning features of the device to complement existing formal and non-formal literacy programs. We are also working directly with these programs to make sure we've got it right.
2) Education in Ghana: The Liberian Refugee Camps
At the UNHCR camp in Ghana, the last I heard, tuition for a year in grades 3-8 was about $10/term. So my question is, given the choice between a term of schooling for one child and two Talking Books (or half a term and one Talking Book), if you had only ten dollars to spend on your children's education, which would you get and why?
A: I'm not sure why the choice in this scenario should be between tuition and a learning tool, instead of, for instance, between the learning tool and a common radio; but I'll go along with it. The short answer is that I don't think any electronic tool could ever match a trained and hardworking teacher handling a reasonable class size. My hope is that this device will significantly improve any classroom experience, especially those that are overcrowded and/or run by untrained teachers. For example, it is common for classes to have 45 to 60 students, each at different stages of learning -- a significant challenge for any trained teacher; unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a classroom to be run by untrained teachers (see http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/features/artikel.php?ID=96740). The Talking Book Device is designed to be a literacy learning tool to help meet the needs of children trying to learn in these environments.
3) Intended Use / Actual Use
One of my greatest concerns is that devices like these will be used as propaganda spewers rather than learning tools. How do you plan or protect for that circumstance? Was it a concern when you actually put these devices in their intended use? Now that they're out of your immediate reach, is there anything you can do to prevent their use for propaganda?
A: To clarify, our devices are not out of reach just yet -- we're still working to raise the funds to produce pilot devices for a test planned with our local partners this October. The propaganda question was actually a concern that a few of us discussed very early on. We stopped worrying about it when we realized we were talking about censorship vs. citizen journalism. One of the reasons we added a microphone and recording functionality on every device was so that the power of creating messages would be dispersed among all users. In addition, the device enables a local content distribution network that is user-driven, due to its USB-based, device-to-device copying capability. Propaganda tends to thrive more on media networks where access is tightly controlled: think of government-controlled radio or corporate-controlled television vs. the blogosphere. Sure, there's a lot of propaganda on the Web, but there are also a lot of watchdogs out there. BTW, I rarely hear this concern raised by our partners in Africa or South Asia -- only by those of us (including myself) looking in from the outside.
What % of your contributions go to administration as opposed to real charity work?
A: 100% of the contributions we've received have gone directly to the cost of developing this device. Our administrative costs are very low and have been entirely covered by our board of directors. If you're asking because you're considering contributing to this effort, let me first say thank you! We've just updated our donation page to allow you to personally help fund production of the 200 devices that will be distributed in our upcoming pilot programs in Ghana and India. At this low volume, the devices could cost as much as US$200/unit to produce (we're still getting in quotes to find the least expensive supplier for all our parts). This might seem like a lot, but much of it comes from fixed costs for molds and other setup costs. We could skip the pilots and go straight to high quantity production; but that would be a mistake, IMHO. We've worked really hard to make the right decisions about every aspect of the device, but I'm certain we could improve a lot by observing what real users like and dislike about our latest design. We've already taken one design to the field for feedback (see http://blog.literacybridge.org/2008/05/25/feedback-from-villages-in-the-jirapa-district/), but the upcoming pilot will be the first test of a concentration of fully functional devices over several weeks.
5) Copyright Issues
You appear to have half of the problem worked out in the form of an inexpensive ebook reader, but what are your plans for getting material to put on those readers? As I am sure you are well aware, the Public Domain is being strangled by changes to copyright law. Do you have a source of textbook material suitable for these children that can be given away for free? Presumably these poor communities can't afford the typical $20-$50/book fees for such material.
A: Just when I thought I was done dealing with copyright issues... (before doing this work, I served a couple years as Apache's Vice President of Legal Affairs -- lots of fun copyright licensing issues - but, no, I'm not a lawyer.). This is an important question for the literacy learning scenarios of the device, although it's not as much of a problem when the device is used to distribute critical health information (e.g. recognizing when your infant may be dying from dehydration and knowing that a specific proportion of sugar, salt, and water can lead to a complete recovery). Facts are not copyrightable, and there are lots of local organizations that want to get the content they've created distributed as rapidly as possible. There are also a few international organizations, such as the Hesperian Foundation (http://www.hesperian.org/) that offer flexible copyright licenses for their content. When it comes to textbooks for literacy learning, we're talking to groups like Curriki (http://www.curriki.org/) and CK12 (http://www.ck12.org/) to see if their content, processes, and/or tools could be useful to our local partners. Most copyright laws do not allow someone to read a book and distribute the recording without the author's permission, with limited exceptions for persons who are visually impaired or blind (another purpose of our device). However, we're currently working with Ghana's Ministry of Education, a textbook program supported by USAID and Chicago State University, and Pratham Books in India, which are all interested in the distribution of recordings of their copyrighted works when it furthers educational goals.
6) Reasons behind some decisions
I have reviewed your website and I believe that I understand your objectives and how you intend for this device to be used. To aid literacy, it takes the place of a literate person reading the book to the learner. I know that cost is an issue and that affordability in the target area is a major concern, but I am curious as to why there is no display, not even a simple LED/LCD display similar to that on several toys, such as the "Speak-and-Spell"? My concern here is that if the physical book is lost, your device essentially becomes an inexpensive music player and its purpose fails.
A: Cost-sensitivity was certainly a factor in our choice to exclude an LCD display. I really see every few extra pennies as possibly putting the device out of reach of some of the people who face the biggest challenges and who need it the most. It's a tough balance between cost and features, although we do spend a little more to increase the device's durability.
As far as the availability of books, most formal and even non-formal educational programs have books, although certainly not enough. But there will almost always be some text to work with, even if it is just a chalkboard listing the alphabet and a few words of the week in a non-formal adult education class.
Some literacy exercises don't need books. Last year, I took an Early Literacy Education graduate class at University of Washington just to spend time with a classroom of teachers and get a better first hand understanding of recommended literacy practices. One thing I learned was how important phonological awareness is to early literacy education. I'm talking about simply learning to break words into syllables and sounds, including the sound of each individual phoneme (letters or groups of letters making one sound). These exercises don't involve print but they are a very important component to early literacy skills.
Finally, we want to make sure the Talking Book Device is completely accessible for people wanting to use it for access to knowledge and who are blind or visually impaired. In most developing countries, blindness is far more prevalent, but Braille and talking computers are far less available. Many of the people with such a disability are also living in extreme poverty. So, we decided to embrace the idea that we would build an audio device that would work well without a display. In the next version of the device, we'll look into having an option with an inexpensive display, even if only to show one word at a time. I really liked my Speak-and-Spell when I was a kid. I remember learning to spell the word "hygiene" on it. That was a tough one.
7) Where did the idea come from?
Several readers alluded to a similar technological idea in Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age", what led you to this particular approach/device as opposed to other methods of literacy education?
A: I haven't read The Diamond Age. My first interest in this area started way back during my undergraduate studies in brain and cognitive sciences, but the idea of using technology and locally created audio content began with a proposal I had for literacy software on One Laptop Per Child's XO. I was particularly interested in literacy after learning that many children today are still functionally illiterate after six years of primary school education. During a meeting with S.J. Klein, OLPC's director of community content (a great guy, and a big believer in the power of locally generated content), I started wondering if this particular application could reach more people, including the parents of these children, using cheaper technology. Armed with a LeapPad (children's reading toy) and a couple digital voice recorders, I spent six weeks in the most rural region of Ghana to research the idea. The educators there were excited by the concept right away, but the main thing I learned during that time in Ghana was how much of an immediate impact that distribution of knowledge had on the poorest villages. Since very few people can read in these villages, lots of tireless local nonprofits and government health/agriculture workers make visits to teach people how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, how to minimize the chance of getting malaria, how to improve the yield of their crops, etc. After meeting with dozens of health workers, government agriculture field officers, local nonprofit staffers, and university professors, I learned that the same literacy device could also dramatically improve their efficiency -- allowing them to reach many more people and making each visit much more effective. In other words, the device could address the problem of illiteracy in two ways: by providing a useful tool to allow children and adults to practice literacy skills, but also to help deliver crucial health and other information to people who are not yet literate. Literacy should not be a prerequisite to knowing how to protect your children from deadly diseases.
8) Do you plan to target other areas?
Right now your mission centers on Ghana as the main target, but do you have plans to expand beyond that location? Also, if you expand are you limiting yourself to developing nations? I'm sure the US and many others could benefit from a fair bit of literacy education of some sort, what possibilities have you explored close to home?
A: Ghana is the location of the first pilot and the home of many of the people who helped develop the ideas for this project. We began with Ghana because it hosts a balance of need with an existing infrastructure that can support programs like the Talking Book Project. I'd love to get this program to women in Afghanistan (90% of whom are illiterate) as soon as possible, but I think the fastest way to get there and other places with the greatest need is to start a few programs in areas where the challenges are not quite so high. We've got some interesting but achievable challenges in front of us now; too many more might doom the project. But, from the very beginning, Literacy Bridge and the Talking Book Project have been driven to serve children and adults throughout the world, not in any one country or continent.
Our second pilot project will take place early next year in the Bangalore Rural District, in India. After the conclusion of our second pilot, we will be working with local partners in Bangladesh, Kenya, the D.R. of Congo, and Nigeria. Within the U.S. there are several teachers who have come to us to volunteer to experiment with the device in their classrooms, particularly with English Language Learners (children whose first language is not English, previously called "ESL"). We've also been talking with organizations in the U.S. that serve the blind.
Too many diverse opportunities can lead to a loss of focus, so we'll need to be careful about how many of these we can take on at once. Our top priority will always be serving the people with the greatest needs; but to do this, we will consider what path will make us as effective as possible.
9) Anything else?
Is there anything else that you would like to share about the project or your future plans?
A: All our focus is now on raising money to fund a pilot program this October in Ghana. If you're interested enough to be reading this far, I hope you'll join this effort. If you want to be responsible for getting pilot devices into the hands of people who could really use it (and who will help improve all the future devices), please go to http://literacybridge.org/donate and help make this pilot happen. We've completed all the R&D entirely with volunteer work and contributions from lots of individuals. Now we just need to get these devices to the field.