Next Step: Literacy

GSU3Early County is a remote patch of southwestern Georgia bottomland pinned against the Chattahoochee River at the Alabama border. More than half of the county’s 11,000 residents are scattered across the countryside, many on farms — peanut and cotton, mostly. Cell phone reception is spotty, and those who can afford Internet access get barely enough bandwidth to check their email account, if they have one.

Blakely, population 5,000, is the county seat, centered on a domed and columned courthouse built in 1904 in the middle of the town square. It is the home of the county’s lone school district — 2,200 students, nearly 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. The city also hosts the county’s sole library, though it is not really a part of most citizens’ daily lives. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 22 percent of residents over the age of 16 lack basic literacy skills. One survey found 30 percent of households with young kids reported owning fewer than four children’s books. Some had none at all.

Based on some of these factors alone — higher levels of poverty, illiteracy and limitations in technological access — one might think this rural corner of Georgia had too many educational challenges. Georgia State Regents’ Professor of Psychology Robin Morris thought it was perfect.

Morris is a founding member of the Global Literacy Project, a partnership among Georgia State, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts University built around the idea of helping at-risk children learn basic language and literacy skills by connecting them with technology. The plan, simply put, was to load a tablet with interactive reading and language-rich software and hand it to a child in undeveloped Africa and India where there are no schools or teachers. The pure curiosity of youth, the researchers theorized, would lead the kids to figure out the reading-related games and puzzles on their own and, thus, they would essentially teach themselves to read.

That was the theory, at least. Before they could secure the money and resources to start the initiative on a global scale, reaching 170 million illiterate children in some of the poorest parts of the world, the Global Literacy Project had to see if the tablet would actually work. And what better, more accessible testing grounds than with at-risk children in the American South?

In late fall 2012, Morris and his team drove three-and-a-half hours down from Atlanta, set six Motorola Xoom tablets on a table in front of a pre-kindergarten class of 4- and 5-year-olds, and stepped back without saying a word. Many of kids had never seen such devices before. They approached with caution and handled the tablets with awe-inspired care. Without receiving a breath of instruction, they soon figured out how to turn on the display and quickly started scrolling through the applications and playing the reading and language games. A promising start.

But were the children actually learning?

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