Anthony Bloome, Education Technology Specialist, for USAID’s Office of Education interviews Sara Chamberlain, Director of Interactive for BBC World Service Trust, and Matthew Kam, Director of Carnegie Mellon’s MILLEE Project about using mobile phones for literacy. This blog follows a USAID-organized International Literacy Day, September 8th, “virtual” conference with Sara and Matt on Using Mobile Phones for Literacy – Promising Practices and Research.

According to the ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report 2010, the mobile cellular networks already cover close to 90 per cent of the world population and the number of mobile subscribers is likely to reach the 5 billion mark this year. The opportunity to utilize mobiles for development is enormously exciting for development practitioners, particularly for those of us looking at innovative ways to promote global literacy.

AB: With specific reference to your initiatives, BBC’s Janala and MILLEE, can you briefly tell us how mobile phones are being used in these literacy efforts?

SC: BBC Janala aims to provide millions of people in Bangladesh with access to low-cost English language tuition through mobile phones. By dialing 3000, audiences can choose from a menu of bi-lingual audio lessons. Lessons are organised into series, and according to level of difficulty.

MK:   It is challenging to deliver high quality literacy learning through public schools in underdeveloped rural areas, for reasons that include teacher training, teacher absenteeism and child labor that impact school attendance rates. MILLEE aims to use cellphones, which are increasingly prevalent in the developing world, even rural areas, as platforms that children can use to access high-quality literacy learning resources in places and times more convenient than schools.

AB: What key lessons have you learned that you would share with others considering similar programs?

MK: Content development is complex and requires careful attention. Pay attention to local practices and knowledge. For example, our current game designs draw on the rules and mechanics in traditional Indian village games. In our earliest pilots back in 2007, we observed that rural children struggled to understand the rules of the games we designed. Those games had subconsciously drawn on our video-gaming experiences, which were situated in Western cultural contexts. Those games also did not match rural children’s understanding or expectations of what constitute games. We subsequently studied 28 of their traditional games, took apart the rules and mechanics in these games, and analyzed how these mechanics differed systematically from the mechanics in Western video-games. Since then, we have drawn on this cross-cultural design knowledge to inform our game designs.

AB: Do you have a brief example that shows how your program has benefited its intended beneficiaries?

SC: Here is a case study of 26 year old Noor-e-Alam Siddiquione of BBC Janala’s regular users:

“I am just a waiter working at Elenga Resort – a place where majority of our customers are foreigners. None of the waiters can speak English.

When I first started using BBC Janala, I mainly used it to quench my thirst of learning, not with any particular motive. But I discovered the lessons actually instilled confidence in me and I gradually started to communicate with the foreign customers.

The customers were of course startled to hear English from a waiter, but they encouraged the practice. And so it went on, I was day by day increasing my communication with the foreign customers and the lessons actually aided me quite well.

Apart from assisting with the orders, I also initiated casual conversations with them. Once I had a chat with a foreign customer for 30 min, he was eager to know about Bangladesh. I could express my opinions well in English and he really appreciated it.

This event multiplied my confidence level and I felt really glad and proud that I could describe my own country to a foreigner. I was really pleased. I felt valued and I felt my perceptions actually mattered.

Most importantly, my boss monitored that I was communicating well with the foreign customers and so he gave me a promotion! He also encouraged me heartily and asked my other colleagues to follow my habits.”