Central Square Foundation
Central Square Foundation

Changing the Game: Using Technology for Foundational Learning

By Debleena Majumdar September 2019

“Kids don’t know the words. But we catch them with the rhythm.”

These words were spoken by Theodor Seuss Geisel, the man we know today as Dr. Seuss. And they explain the thinking behind his iconic “Cat in the Hat” books for children. Remember them? Well, there’s a funny story behind how it all started. It seems he was given a strict list of three-letter words that were pedagogy-approved, and he needed to come up with an early childhood reader based on that. He didn’t want the bland, “This is a ball. This is a bat.” kind of book. He wanted a character. A memorable one. A fun one. And a rhythm that the children could catch. Looking at the list of three-letter words for what must have agonizing days, he found a few that could work together. CAT, HAT. And the rest, of course, is now history.

Decades since then, millions of children across the world have not achieved early literacy and numeracy even today. This is a gap that only widens as the child grows up. Many have tried to address this problem by using technology as an enabler. However, they often fail, because they assume that the student is self-motivated and can be a self-learner. Often, they aren’t. What can solve this?

Imagine a door in front of you. It has a handle and a clear sign that says “PUSH”. But, often, you still pull the door. What if the handle was removed? Would you automatically be forced to push then? Behavioural science incorporates such small nudges which can help people take desired paths by making information simple and engaging. In the learning world, this could mean games, quizzes, stories. Can that change the game?

From Rhyme to Game

In 2015, Srikanth Talapadi decided to put his technology experience to use and set up Sutara Learning Foundation to improve children’s learning. A learning app, Chimple, that could teach basic reading, writing and math to children in under-schooled environments, was one of their early ideas.

That idea has now got them a $1-million grant from XPrize and an investment from Central Square Foundation. How did they get here?

Srikanth was clear on two things from the beginning. “We were 100% sure that the content had to be gamified to make sure that the kids loved it. And it had to usable by them, with no dependence on adults. It had to be simple, something they could use on their own.” Another key belief Srikanth had was that the content had to be in the mother tongue, not in English only.

However, there were as many questions as there were ideas. Can children really self-learn? Can technology really solve the problems of literacy and numeracy? Grappling with these questions, they started their journey of product design.

Guided by Users, Not by Pedagogy

Aiming to win the highly competitive and coveted XPrize, Srikanth used an interesting method to plan his early curriculum. Just as Dr. Seuss used rhymes, Srikanth decided to use mode (the statistical count of most occurring words in a set of text), to assess which words were the most repeated and “must-know” words for kids. He then designed an experience around it.

Chimple today has 70 unique games, with over 1,000 learning pathways. For example, to learn the alphabet, children can decorate the letters by painting, play games such as catch and match graphemes, and connect phoneme to grapheme. Writing is taught by a mix of tracing the letters, chatting with friends and doing free form writing of letters, which are recognized by AI. Building words and sentences is made easy by discovering patterns in words and putting them together while identifying different speech parts and elements of grammar.

Through this journey, the team embedded interactive stories featuring fun characters and voiceovers to help children read paragraphs. Every story is followed, not just by a moral, but by a quiz as well. When it comes to numbers, children play addition, subtraction and multiplication games while undertaking activities with shapes and counting objectives. A challenge format is also set up where children explore different buildings such as school, grocery stores, etc. on a map, read text on screen and perform a task.

From a pedagogy point of view, the journey shifts to a basic numeracy and literacy level in a year by following a five-step approach for each.

A diagram showing the pedagogy journey of Chimple

Fielded and Tested

Chimple is a product that has been rigorously tested at multiple levels. The first pilot was done in 2015 with a Kannada version of the product. Grade 1 students used it for 4 weeks with no formal evaluation. Later, the tablets were introduced for 4 weeks in a school in Jamshedpur with 25 students.

“At this stage, we were perfecting our curriculum and finalizing our approach. We were learning from every pilot. We realized from our intervention that even higher-grade students needed help,” Srikanth shared.

The team also wanted to test the efficacy of their product in a foreign language. Before the XPrize competition, the team did a field test in Tanzania with 20 students of grades 3-4 for a month, to test if the Swahili version was engaging the learners.

XPrize, however, took Sutara and Chimple to a different scale of testing. When the finalists were shortlisted in 2017, the new Swahili version was piloted for a week in a school in Dar-es-Salaam. When Imagine Worldwide did the evaluation, Chimple’s product passed muster with a renowned panel of judges consisting of experts from MIT Labs, linguistics research scientists, local teachers, math experts’ neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, game designers, EdTech experts and more.

After the final stage came a testing phase across 20 villages with 400 kids between 7-10 years of age. With no instructions provided, the children had to learn how to use the tablet on their own. It worked.

If usage can be a derived metric to understand learning gains, through the extensive testing, Chimple found that 59% of the children in the group used the product for more than an hour a week. A quarter of the learners completed over 80% of the games on Chimple, much to their delight, while another 25% completed between 50 to 80% of the games.

Chimple Next

In the near future, Chimple is looking at continuing their story in India. Given the multiplicity of languages and varying context for each, that in itself is a mammoth task. Developing the program in languages like Gujarati and perhaps Oriya or Kannada is their next goal. The team is also developing the product for use on a cheaper device compared to the Google Pixel tablet that has been used so far.

Early literacy and numeracy are not just child’s play anymore. With Chimple, it is now a story that hopefully more and more children get lifelong lessons in. There is no paucity of children who can benefit from the solution. For there to be an even marginal change in our children’s learning levels, we need a solution that is scalable and yet flexible. Hopefully, Chimple can find its rhythm there.

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