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language learning in the digital age

"Cell phone learning can make a difference" – Matthew Kam on a game-based approach for English learning in India

Posted on February 27, 2009 by

mobgame1Matthew Kam, an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, speaks about his recent doctoral dissertation research in Indian communities and designing E-Learning games for children from other cultural backgrounds. His MILLEE (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) project was funded by the National Science Foundation and has won several awards, including one from the MacArthur Foundation.
Babbel Blog: Why do you think E-Learning games on cell phones can provide a learning benefit?
MK: The case for games for education has been made from two very different angles. One would be the theoretical angle, the other the empirical angle. From the theoretical point of view, educational researchers like James Paul Gee argued that games could incorporate very good educational principles. There have been studies on the empirical level which support this claim. The most useful study that we found was done by a team of MIT economists who studied a group of children from the urban slums in India – more than 10,000 slum children were involved in that experiment carried out over more than two years. They found that kids playing mathematical E-Learning games two times per week improved their scores on math tests. That was by far the strongest evidence so far that games have an impact for education. We thought, when mathematical games can make a difference, you should be able to achieve the same kind of benefits with language-learning games too. That is the whole motivation behind our game-based approach.

B: You started nearly five years ago with your visits to India. How did you get there?
In 2004 I got to know the work of a visiting professor at Berkeley, Dr. Urvashi Sahni, who has spent years working on initiatives to empower disadvantaged learners in India, in both villages and slums. I was pretty impressed by her work and wanted to examine how to introduce more sophisticated technologies into the equation.

Matthew Kam

Matthew Kam

B: You wrote in your dissertation, that the children in the villages have a lower level of familiarity with technology than the kids in the slums. Can you describe this difference?
In the rural areas there might be some exposure to technologies like refrigerators, light and even cell phones. Village kids don’t often use the phones of their parents; and when they do, it is usually the boys who get to use the phones, and parents are reluctant to let their daughters use them. In urban slums the level of technology is higher and the level of usage of cell phones, like SMS, is also more prevalent. The exposure to higher forms of technology like computers gives the children there a stronger foundation to use the cell phone applications we had developed for them.
B: Learning English in India is very important  to have access to better jobs, white collar jobs. How many people speak English in India?
The numbers vary a lot; one source I quoted in my dissertation speaks of five percent of the country knowing English well enough to be part of that elite.
B: You wrote about how the games of the Indian village kids differ from games Western children play. Please explain this.
We were halfway into the project when we realized that the earlier games we developed were not really making sense to the Indian children. That was when we decided to take a step back and try to understand what  the unique characteristics of their village games were and how they differ from contemporary western games. In arcade-type games, for example, the way to increase the difficulty level is to introduce more enemy characters at a higher level or have the enemies move faster at a higher level of difficulty. The challenges of those approaches are not applicable to the traditional games Indian village children play. That is because when they play a game among themselves on the playground, the numbers of human players are fixed. So there is no way to introduce more opponents. Similarly,, there is a human limit to how fast a human can run. We finally realized that one of the most common approach these traditional games use to increase difficulty is to introduce sub-goals, like having players move to certain locations on the playground and touch them.
B: How does your software work?
In our case, the cell phone application we developed for English learning comprises of several screens. First, to introduce the language to the kids: Things like English words, new sentence structures, as well as learning to put words together and construct sentences. And we have some screens, which test the children on their knowledge of English; for example they have to match the word with the right picture or spell various words. In most cases we try to make use of fun games. We might have a game that tries to teach the various ways for fruits. So we have each tree that represents a type of fruit and the player has to get to a certain tree to gather the correct fruit. We introduce challenges and other gameplay elements, which are standard design principles for making video games interesting to play.
B: Could this games work as a standalone approach or have teachers to be involved?
E-Learning needs to be complemented by other sources of learning. But in some of these developing regions it is difficult to get kids to school on a regular basis, because they are engaged in farming, housework or they generate income for the household – what you call child labor. If you use mobile devices like cell phones, you make some of the learning resources accessible outside the school settings. What we’re trying to do is to provide some of the foundations of English, like basic vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. When the children have that foundation, they will be better equipped to engage in a conversation with humans. That is where the real language learning, at least in a more advanced form, happens.
B: Are your games only text-based or are you using audio, too?
We use a combination of both modality; our focus is on written English as well as conversational. When we cover the latter, we expose the learner to the spoken form of the language through audio.
B: How is the technological infrastructure in India? And who can pay for a cell phone?
Even though connectivity is a problem in some rural areas in India, the bigger problem is the cost of air time, which it is very expensive for the rural families. That is why our games don’t require airtime. Electricity is not a serious problem either, at least not in the areas we conduct our studies. The real problem is, electricity comes at very irregular hours. Coming to the cost issue of the cell phones, I think that is the biggest challenge. There are two ways to address it: One way is to think about what is the lowest common denominator for a cell phone platform in order to make it possible to run language learning games. I think we can make a convincing case to cell phone manufacturers, that if they want to be part of rural education, these would be the features they have to support. I am pretty sure they could get the price point down to a certain level. What is more complicated: Get the manufactures, wireless carriers and governments to come on board to look into joint financing schemes. That is why a huge emphasis of the MILLEE project is to come up with credible learning results, that we can take to show policy makers that cell phone learning can make a difference.
B: What is next for your project?
We need to hand over the technology to the local communities to run them for themselves. And we have to encourage the kids to play the games to learn English when there are no pilot personnel around to supervise them. We have commenced such a study in the beginning of 2009, which is still ongoing at the time of writing.