How literacy can prevent poverty

Even with the proliferation of the internet and a host of information-disseminating technologies, there is still a significant gap in learning between some of the richest countries and some of the poorest. To understand the technology and programs being leveraged to help fix that, we spoke with Shafiq Khan, president and CEO of the Teach The World Foundation.

ABERMAN: So, Shafiq, first of all, tell me about the problem you’re trying to address.

KHAN: So let me make it really simple. If you look at a world of 7 billion people as a family of 7, 2 out of 7 people in this family are functionally illiterate. And the fact that they are functionally illiterate, as would happen in any family, means that the two who are illiterate are bringing the other five down. And that we see happening in this world today, with the economics of the poorer countries needing help, is a direct correlation between literacy and economics, literacy and poverty, literacy and crime, literacy and terrorism, literacy and all kinds of health problems and so on, so forth. So at the end of the day, what we are trying to do is to make sure we make these two who are functionally illiterate, literate, and therefore productive members of society.

ABERMAN: I’m going to ask a question that you probably think is basic, but to my mind, I think it’s important. Why does illiteracy create poverty? Why does it create the problems that you’ve described?

KHAN: I think we just have to look at ourselves. If we do not have knowledge, it’s hard for us to be as productive as if we have knowledge. So, you are doing your job at the level you’re doing it, based on the knowledge you have. If there is somebody who is actually running agricultural farm machinery, if they don’t have the knowledge to run the machinery, they are not going to be productive. And that’s the same pretty much everywhere, in every discipline, every job, every part of human endeavor.

ABERMAN: So effectively, literacy is the way we gather information from those that come before and around us. And otherwise, we’re just left with oral communication, which is going to be much more limited. So specifically, what are you trying to do to address this, to teach the world?

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KHAN: Obviously, the literacy problem of 2 billion people in the world is a huge one. So in our case, we decided that we would first look at where we could have the highest impact fastest. And obviously, that let us do a segmentation that said we should focus on the most needy countries first, which end up being developing countries. Within the most needy countries, which often have very high populations of adults who are illiterate as well, we had a choice to make, which was: do you focus on all of them, or do you focus on some of them? And at the end of the day, the big choice was between adults and children. But if a 35 year old adult is illiterate, they’re already off track.

If a five year old is likely not to go to school, likely to be illiterate, let’s get the five year old on the track. And in a world of limited resources, we have focused our energies on children. Pre-K, K through 5, because the K through 5 level, essentially, at the end of it, should bring the child up to functional literacy. Which would allow them to operate the computer, allow them to read, allow them to write, allow them to do basic math, and pretty much function as a person, as a productive human being, for the rest of their lives.

ABERMAN: I watched the demo on your website, and it looks like you’re using tablets as the technology to teach the kids through gamification. Describe that for me.

KHAN: For us as digital practitioners, one of the things we basically felt was that the answer here had to be technology, because the shortage of teachers and even the quality of teachers was something that could not be solved without leveraging technology. In our case, what we do is combine e-learning, which is already there in a fairly big fashion now at U.S. universities and all the big schools have it, but it really hasn’t gone down to the kindergarten level. We deliver it, deliver e-learning on user friendly tablets, which aren’t very old tablets. The iPad arrived in 2011, so it’s not that old. But now it’s available, and even a two two year old knows how to use it, as many of us have already seen with our children and grandchildren, and so on.

And then, we have the next solution, which is games for learning. They’ve become a very significant new field. There are many, many excellent, outstanding examples of games that teach a child how to learn. And in our situation, that was critical, because one of the biggest issues we had was a shortage of teachers. If you don’t have a teacher, and you gave a child a book, is that 5 year old child gonna be able to learn how to read a book? And even if they learned how to read a book, would they have the motivation? The thing about games is that, they just create an environment of what we call irresistible learning. In fact, one of the things we’re finding all the time is that our children do not want to leave the classroom at break. Whereas is it most traditional schools, at break, there’s a stampede to get out. And in our case, it’s it’s the opposite.

ABERMAN: You’ve done some pilot projects using this technological solution. What have the results been like?

KHAN: So, we look at results on an absolute level, and the relative level. So on an absolute level, everywhere, the results have been very, very positive, meaning that this method of e-learning delivered on tablets in a game format really works. Zero question about that in our experience now, in 11 different deployments, in three different countries, around the world. We also compare them, on a relative basis, to traditional methods of learning. And one of the things we are finding is that, where the traditional is, let’s say, a really underdeveloped environment, this method books beautifully, and is significantly superior.

The results we’re getting are as much as two times the learning, and it’s fairly easy to calculate that, because all you do is give the kids tests, and you can see the scores, and the scores are as high as two to three times versus the traditional. Versus a really good school, which obviously exist, even in the developing world. There are elite schools. They are at minimum holding their own. At minimum, which is actually a massive thing, because you’re now talking about a democratization of education that we have not seen otherwise. In the past, rich communities had better schools than poorer communities. This is now a big equalizer.

ABERMAN: Democratization of technology. Before I let you go, very quickly, Shafiq, if people are interested in helping you. What are you looking for, for people to do, to help you grow your resources?

KHAN: So basically, we are looking for help in any form or fashion people can give it. As I say to people: this is a problem of the world. This is our problem as members of the human community. And I say, if at one end of the spectrum, all you can do is pray for me, and pray for the success of this, that’s contribution. At the other end of the spectrum, you can join us. In between, there are all kinds of options, from volunteering with us, which actually, a lot of people do. Connecting us to people, which again, a lot of people do. And then, frankly, quite simply, everything does rely on funding. So, donating directly on the site. Donating, however you can donate.

ABERMAN: Well, I really appreciate you coming on today. I hope our listeners enjoyed learning about Teach the World Foundation. It’s great to see technology developed here in D.C. making such a great difference. Shafiq Khan, thanks for joining us today.

KHAN: Thank you, Jonathan.

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