To gain an intimate understanding of our potential users, we went to live in a small village called Mbollet Bah in rural Gambia. The community had 400 children, mostly illiterate or struggling to learn, both in and out of school, and whose families live on less than a dollar per day.

We had three research objectives: 1) uncover passion points of our users as we work to create relevant and engaging educational content, 2) understand the role of mothers in giving access to technology and supporting educational efforts, and 3) test four leading literacy software programs to assess the effectiveness of their pedagogy, methodology and experience with a low-income Sub-Saharan African user. Before getting into those, however, let me start with a few important observations we made on the ground.

The craving for technology in rural contexts

The streets are packed with billboards advertising data packages, cell phones, free texting and internet options. Those who own a phone treasure it and proudly show it off; the ones who don’t, want one. It was amazing to see people who earned under $2 or $3 a day spend their savings on airtime, or teens walk miles or spend money on two-way buses just to get to the closest internet point and open a Facebook account. Everyone, including the youngest children, were familiar with the major consumer tech brands like Samsung, Google and Apple. It quickly became apparent that what drove this thirst for mobile technology was the simple desire to communicate. They will purchase smart phones just to be able to use WhatsApp, and use Viber obsessively to make phone calls.

The literacy problems within the existing school system – kids are in school from 8am to 1pm why aren’t they literate?

Attending a class in a school in a rural village can be very misleading. Despite the small hut with no windows, a lot of sunlight and sand coming in, the very simple desks (if any) and the old and ruined blackboard, sitting through a class is a delightful experience. The lesson is delivered in a “sing-along” manner. The students know rhymes and songs and little phrases, which they all sing together after the teacher’s questions, and every correct answer is followed by a joyful clap routine. At first it seems to work. Everyone is in tune! But only until you ask a question which requires critical thinking do you understand that they aren’t really learning. They can sing beautifully “The cat is on the table” but if you ask them “Where is the cat?” they won’t know it’s on the table. In other words, what they are learning has no or little meaning for them.

The two main problems seem to be lack of both individual feedback and practice time. Students answer in groups and have no time to think individually about what they’re doing – everyone repeats whatever the first student said. Individual practice time barely exists and students only have the chance to practice individually when they are called up to the damaged blackboard. With 40 kids in class, however, only the kids sitting in front row–those who are regularly called upon–really pay attention, the others quickly disconnect. Notebooks (if any) are precious and are only used for “important tasks;” in other words, they aren’t used very frequently. Instead, the teacher will show students how to write a letter on the board, and students will then practice it “in the air,” which doesn’t allow for any practical learning, feedback mechanism or evaluation of each student’s writing abilities.

Aspiration to move out of poverty – their sense of the world.

It was magical to for me to see how dreams are truly universal. Put simply, the dream of an american boy becoming a football player or a doctor or a firefighter is no different than the dream of a boy living in a rural community in Gambia. The difference is that in Gambia the chance of making your dream come true is a dream in and of itself. Other than that, however, they dream of the same things – and are particularly keen to travel and see Europe. They tell hopeful stories of older siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins who, in search of a better life, left their home country, made their way to Libya, and boarded a hopeful and uncertain boat towards Italy’s coast, risking their lives along the way. That’s how strong the desire for a better life is. I will never forget the dream of the last girl I interviewed: she said she wanted to become an airplane pilot. I was surprised and asked her why. She said she wanted to explore the world, and that was the only way to do it. It became clear to me how empowering literacy is – without literacy, those dreams are impossible. But equipped literacy skills, those children naturally push themselves to discover the world around them.

Uncovering passions – what do these kids think about all day?

As we think about building an experience that is tailored to their personal dreams and desires, we were keen to understand what these kids thought about and talked about all day. We also wanted to see what we – as an app – would compete against in terms of time-share. So we dove deeper into the role of play in their lives.

The most popular play opportunities were games like skipping, jumping, running around and role-playing. On some Fridays of the month, the children gather in school and perform short scenes of stories with an educational theme such as teenage pregnancy, health and hygiene and the importance of education. The kids used simple props to dress up as mothers and fathers or animals, and young actors and spectators alike all really enjoyed it as they clapped, cheered and laughed. Football, however, is by far the main passion. “We are all farmers,” the children actually introduced themselves, “but we are also a football team!” Girls play as well as boys, and boys not only play but also know the names of international teams and football players. Their favorite (and sometimes only) piece of clothing is often a football jersey, and they dream of getting the rest of the gear, including socks and shin guards.

Beyond that, play is deeply embedded in local culture through music and dancing. Regularly, mothers get together wearing traditional African dresses to sing and play the Chora, a beautiful instrument, firing the spirits of very talented dancers in the village. Most important, however, is storytelling. Parents and elders tell traditional stories and schools teach through storytelling. Children in turn learn those stories and love to repeat them. I was surprised to see how many of them loved reading, until I understood they actually loved learning new stories. One day, I went up to a little boy called Moussa who was sitting in a corner with a book (despite books being quite rare in the village). I asked him to read to me. His reading was poor but he started to tell me the story of the book by heart. Suddenly (as it usually happens) thirty other kids gathered around and took turns to tell me short stories about animals or agriculture and they all corrected each other when a point wasn’t accurate. They concluded by saying: “Just as we are farmers and football players, we are also storytellers.”

The role of mothers – can they support our mission?

The efforts parents make to send their kids to school are truly impressive considering how expensive it is for them to pay for books, uniforms, shoes and a school meal ($25 annually).  A quote at the entrance of the school illustrates their mindset: “If education seems expensive, try ignorance.” Most of the families genuinely believe that.  Most parents I spoke with see education as the mean to secure a better life; the children stand a chance of obtaining  better jobs and in return care for their parents  when they are old. Most of the parents were so supportive that we see lots of potential in working with them to support their child’s education. There are, however, families who do not send their children to school, and as I dove in, I understood there were three other types of non-schooled families. First, families who, despite their good intentions truly can’t afford to send their children to school. Second, families who prefer their children to work, helping the father with the cattle or the mother with housework. And third, families who prefer to send their kids to Quran School, where students are only taught the Quran.

However, since they were generally supportive of their children’s education, I tried to better understand how tech and specifically mobile phones might help. As we mentioned before, everyone in the village had a feature phone, and smart phones are gradually taking over. Most mothers told us they wouldn’t necessarily lend their phone to their child because it might get broken. However, when we asked if they would lend it for an educational purpose, most mothers changed their minds and answered they’d be very open to that. Amazingly, mothers even spontaneously told us: “We want to learn how to read on our phones too!” This gave us hope. Though one of our challenges will be to convince parents this isn’t just another game but an educational application that can enhance their child’s learning outcomes, we see a big opportunity in leveraging the phone to teach both child and parent together. If we successfully do that, we have a chance at young children using their parents’ phones when they’re back at home.

Testing literacy apps – what can we learn?

We had preloaded three literacy apps on iPads which we brought to the village for the children to use:Monsterphonics, Edoki and Graphogame. Going in, we knew tech had a certain appeal to children globally, but it was remarkable to witness how completely absorbed by games the Mbollet Bah children were. The kids loved holding a phone or tablet in their hands. They are blown away by the colors, the sounds and the characters of a virtual world that they can interact with. They played over and over again (even the same game) until batteries ran out. Basic tablet features such as video, camera and voice recording were as equally exciting to them as the apps themselves. Learners would take photo after photo after photo to re-use the camera feature over and over again. This gave us great insight into how appealing such a feature might be in the context of an educational game. But even a simple and quite academic exercise such as tracing letters on the screen becomes a delightful moment of joy.

While the content was generally acceptable (despite being non-local content), it quickly became apparent that the UX had to be tailored to a non-tech type of user. Features that are very basic and intuitive for more technologically mature societies were hard to grasp immediately for our Mbollet Bah users. For example, creating a profile was a big barrier and practically impossible to complete if we didn’t guide the child through the process. Keyboards that popped onto the screen to type in names had no meaning for them and they weren’t sure how to use it. Similarly, an OK button or a forward arrow didn’t not indicate moving on in their minds and they struggled to understand they had to click it to progress. Basic touch screen movements were initially more complicated too. The differences between tapping, double tapping, sliding or dragging with your finger weren’t well understood and highlighted the importance for a successful app in this setting to start with basics. Having said that, it’s true that UX barriers were eventually surmounted thanks to the kids’ explorative and intuitive approach: although they are unfamiliar with basic technology interactions they learn very quickly either through trial and error and collaborative work with other kids teaching them.

The conditions under which the learners used the apps were often difficult and representative of a rural environment. There often was a high level of background noise, the tablet screen was hard to see due to intense sunlight and more than one child (and sometimes up to 20 at a time!) typically attempting to view or control the app simultaneously.

Despite these conditions and the interface barriers, the app trials demonstrated learning outcomes. The instant sound and visual feedback for correct answers in the different apps, really helped users to understand and correct their mistakes, improved accuracy and increased their speed in the exercises. In Monster Phonics for example children had in-app feedback and training on letter formation. If they weren’t tracing the letters in the right way they would instantly be shown the correct technique. Children who had learnt this point were observed correctly instructing others who made the error. The clearest evidence of learning was infact the ability of the child-user, after just a five-minute session on an app, to instruct, explain and supervise a second child-user. We also tested the app with a few out of school children and after an initial coaching on how to use the app,  a 20 minute session produced knowledge of sounds and shapes. We could test the learning by asking them to write shapes and sounds in the sand.

Our research proved that the apps can successfully engage a wide variety of child-learners inside and outside formal settings, and can effectively teach core points of literacy and numeracy knowledge.