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Mobile Phones and Language Literacy in Rural Communities

Presenter:Matthew Kam, Assistant Professor, Carnegie Mellon University; Founding Director, the MILLEE project
Chair:Michael Trucano, Senior ICT & Education Specialist, Human Development Network - Education
Date/Time:Monday, April 12, 2010 12:30 p.m. - 2:00 p.m.

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While high profile initiatives like One Laptop Per Child tout the potential of low-cost laptops to extend learning opportunities to learners around the world, especially those in rural and disadvantaged communities, many of the target communities are being slowly saturated with a computing device of a different sort: the mobile phone. Given their low costs and increasing ubiquity, even in very poor communities, much has been written about the potential for mobile phones to aid in the delivery of 'anytime, anywhere' education. But what might such educational practices look like in practice? The MILLEE project has been examining this issue for the last six years, beginning with low-income communities in the urban slums and villages in India.

MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) has been developing and testing mobile phone applications that enable children in the developing world to acquire language literacy in immersive, game-like environments. The goal is to make localized language learning resources more accessible to underprivileged children, at times and places that are more convenient than schools. Its design methodology is informed by best practices in commercial language learning packages and the traditional village games that rural children play everyday. After more than ten rounds of field studies in the past 6 years, MILLEE is beginning a controlled experiment with 800 rural children in 40 villages in India, with early replication underway in Kenya and China.

Matthew will discuss emerging lessons from the MILLEE project and present a 'sneak peak' at findings from two papers slated for publication later this month. In particular, he will examine approaches to 'unsupervised mobile learning' in rural India and the everyday social fabric around such learning interventions if they are to be successfully adopted. Finally, he will relate these approaches to the broader challenges in developing regions such as women empowerment and poor infrastructure, and opportunities for further collaboration between the international development and academic communities.


Matthew Kam is an Assistant Professor with the Learning Sciences group in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. His research integrates his interests in economics, education and computing. One of his major research projects, MILLEE, investigates how e-learning games on cellphones can be designed to extend literacy and second language learning among children in rural areas and the urban slums in the developing world. His MILLEE research project has received major sponsorship from the MacArthur Foundation, Microsoft, National Science Foundation, Nokia, Qualcomm and Verizon. It was featured in the press in India, ABC News and a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television documentary. Matthew earned all his degrees at the University of California, Berkeley: Ph.D. in Computer Science with a minor in Education, B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, and B.A. in Economics. His Ph.D. thesis is believed to be the first to look at the use of mobile phones for educational purposes in low-income developing country communities.

For more information:

World Bank ICT & education thematic group:
World Bank e-Development thematic group:
World Bank Education:

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