Literacy Bridge, a non-profit organisation based in the US, has developed a new “sub-$10 audio computer” called the Talking Book Device, which is designed to improve literacy skills and facilitate access to information for rural people living with poverty and disease.
Developed by ex-Microsoft program manager Cliff Schmidt, the gadget is essentially a low-cost digital audio player with built-in speakers and a standard 3.5mm audio jack.
When paired with textbooks, students can engage in comprehension and pronunciation activities, play back lessons at various speeds, skip ahead or backwards, define vocabulary words, engage in multiple-choice style question-and-answer sessions, and other interactive activities.
The content for the device is loaded via the mini-USB plug through a computer, or from another Talking Book Device. Users can also record messages and lessons via the built-in microphone.
Pilot program in Ghana
In fact, Literacy Bridge has recently launched a pilot program amongst the rural poor in northern Ghana, and plans on expanding the trials to other regions in Africa, as well as in India.
“With the Talking Book Device, my staff can help more farming families,” said Allhasah Kuzie, director of the Jirapa district office of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana. “Our talks on improving their agricultural productivity can be recorded and later made available to people who could not attend our meetings.”
The plastic gizmo uses a 512MB microSD card to store the data, and can be fitted with more memory in future iterations, Schmidt said.
The interface is kept simple with ten buttons for user input, such as play/pause, volume keys, and directional keys – the last of which let users play the recorded file at various speeds.
“Feedback on the size and weight was very important to me,” Schmidt said, after initial demonstrations in the Jirapa district.
He therefore gave the device to a blind man, who seemed to be satisfied with the layout of the buttons and the distinctness of each button.
Another villager, who had only one hand, had no problem reaching each button with the thumb of the hand he held the device in.
And to see young children handle it with ease was icing on the cake.
“It was great to see a three-year old easily and quite happily use the device, grasping it with one hand and using the other hand to push buttons,” Schmidt said. “The Talking Book Device is not only designed to be used by adults for access to information, but also as a tool for children to improve learning in and out of the classroom.”
The problem of powering the gizmo in a village where electricity isn’t easily available was solved by two things: The Talking Device runs on regular zinc-based batteries – that can be found even in most villages – and also accepts new batteries that can be charged with solar power at local kiosks.
“We are also looking into other renewable power solutions as an alternative option to batteries,” Schmidt disclosed.
The educational lessons, agricultural practices, and health information for the device will be generated by local NGOs and volunteers, he revealed.
But the Talking Book Device has found another surprising use: Preserving cultural heritage.
“It allows people in villages to capture and share recordings of stories passed down from their ancestors. While this use might not directly relieve poverty, my experience is that it will attract
people to the device, especially when many small ethnic groups are losing their unique heritage,” Schmidt said.
As for the price, $5-$7 was more than acceptable by the people in these villages, given that they see real value in the device, and believe it will impact their health and economic well-being.
Talking Book in India
Schimidt is also actively working with the Akshara Foundation – a Bangalore-based non-profit that works towards complete child literacy.
While the device currently costs $10, initial estimates by the researchers show that importing it to Bangalore for trials would raise the cost to around $15 – which is hoped to be curbed further by subsidies, donations, and other sanctions.
“We have been actively involved with the foundation to run two pilot projects in India: One in Bangalore as an urban pilot and another in Hubli as a semi-urban/rural pilot project,” Schimidt said. “Akshara is very active at the grassroot levels and believes the gadget will be useful to children across the constituencies they serve.”
He also noted that further development on the Talking Book could see it meet its goal within a couple of years: An ‘audio computer’ for $5.