RoboTutor: Cultural Lessons

One part of participating in the Global Learning XPrize that’s been most fascinating to me is the opportunity help introduce people to the seemingly magical world of technology. I was born into a world with seemingly ubiquitous technology and I am still consistently amazed by the wonders of computers and the Internet, so I can only imagine what it must be like for people who are not familiar with computer technology. Two members of our team, Amy Ogan and Judith Uchidiuno have been performing field research in rural Tanzania, and some of their findings have been very interesting.

Learning to Tap

In their initial field research, Amy and Judith discovered that for many of the students at our testing sites, tapping was not an immediately intuitive interaction. Some kids would press down with great force, some kids would put their whole palms down, and one girl even tried touching the screen with her lip! To prevent confusion around how the students should interact, we recorded videos of Filipo interacting with each of our learning activities. The first time a student plays a new activity, they will watch an instructional demo video.

A demo video to demonstrate how the student should interact with a new activity.

Fun with Cameras

We needed a way for students to log in to a unique profile so we could track their progress. One solution we tried was letting the students log in by taking a picture of themselves. However, field research indicated that this is not what happened. In one of our beta-testing sites, most of the kids had zero to little experience seeing pictures of themselves, let alone taking their own photos or videos. There was only one mirror in the whole village, in the local barber shop. So the opportunity to take a video of themselves was too enticing! This led to students taking many photos, instead of logging in with the same photo every time. So for our XPrize field testing, we decided to remove FaceLogin completely. This is still an ongoing problem that does not have a clear solution.

FaceLogin: to log in, the student can choose their photo from a gallery or take a new photo.

The role of authority

Put a tablet in front of an American kid and they’ll start tapping around almost immediately. But in Tanzania, the culture promotes a strong reverence for authority. Students would wait and wait and wait… waiting for an adult to give them permission to start using the tablet.

This reverence for authority also led to an interesting interaction with our content menu. The student is given a choice between “Reading and Writing”, “Stories”, and “Math”. For each, we had instructions that said “Tap here for __” e.g. “Tap here for Reading and Writing”. This menu was supposed to give the students the personal choice between content areas, but observations showed that many tapped on “Reading and Writing” as soon as they heard “Tap here”. It was as if they were taking instructions from the authority of the tablet. We addressed this problem by removing the “Tap Here” from the prompt.

When the audio said "Tap here for reading and writing", many students took this as an instruction.

Digital Literacy is only the First Step

While these discoveries have been exciting to learn about and challenging to solve, these are only the tip of the iceberg. If we are to continue introducing technology into places with low access, we must build a relationship based on trust and understanding. This means that we must enable local participation in developing curriculum, build awareness and empower local control regarding how student data is recorded and used, and slowly develop a technical understanding that goes beyond mere digital literacy and gives students and locals the knowledge and abilities to develop their own educational software.