MILLEE: Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies (MILLEE)
Matthew Boon Tian Kam, Anuj Tewari and John F. Canny
Qualcomm, Mac Arthur Foundation and National Science Foundation 0326582
Literacy is one of the great challenges in the developing world. In spite of huge improvements over the last few decades, literacy levels in most poor countries remain shockingly low (usually less than 50%, sometimes far below). 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.
India, for instance, is a country with 22 regional and two "national languages" Hindi and English. But for most practical purposes, 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 fastest growing in the world. 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 in the state of Karnataka. But English teaching in public schools is not succeeding, and it is far out of reach to the large numbers of children who cannot attend school regularly.
At the same time, cellphones are being used by Indians at all economic levels. India is the largest market for cellphones worldwide, with the majority being bought by illiterate and semi-literate users. And 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, and these factors create an extraordinary opportunity: to dramatically expand English skills in young Indians, which is the fastest way to open the doors for employment and further education.
The MILLEE project, now in its 5th year, takes a human-centered approach to the design of immersive, enjoyable, language learning games on cell phones. MILLEE has won several competitive grants at the international level and seen extensive field tests. We have also been able to conduct a semester long deployment, with encouraging results. Our next step is to take MILLEE to the next level: longitudinal evaluations with larger groups, validation against standardized school tests, and sustainable business models. We believe the "world language" phenomenon holds in many other developing regions and that the MILLEE approach has similar value with other languages.
Figure 1: Rural children displaying "You Win!" screens from two MILLEE games. Success in these games, and mastery of the technology, was a considerable incentive and source of pride for these children. These kinds of displays were repeated over and over.