How Digital Open Source Platforms Can Transform Learning

Platforms like African Storybook are helping children overcome academic difficulties by making culturally specific stories borderless.

A young teacher reads an African story Grandma's Bananas in a classroom in Nepal. Credit: Palmo Tamang

A young teacher reads Grandma’s Bananas, an African story, in a classroom in Nepal. Credit: Palmo Tamang

Nourished by blasphemies, oaths and lullabies, the mother tongue becomes a constant reminder of the region, the village or even the lane one is from. Unlike a country’s official language, the mother tongue is the language of one’s childhood peeves and squabbles – lively and dynamic, but also reliable, clear and fluent like no other language.

It is when homespun vocabulary finds itself in a classroom, where the language of instruction is English, that the process of learning becomes traumatic for new school-goers. Familiar with the alphabet, but untrained in forming sentences in English, the child learns by rote, fumbling through stories of seagulls and daisies, struggling to discover their magic.

A UNICEF report titled The State of the World’s Children 1999, delineates this argument:

“…in many countries, lessons are still conducted in the former colonial language – for example, in many of the English- French- and Portuguese-speaking African countries that have the lowest levels of primary enrolment in the world. If the medium of instruction in school is a language not spoken at home, particularly when parents are illiterate, then learning problems accumulate and chances of dropping out increase. On the other hand, there is ample research showing that students are quicker to learn to read and acquire other academic skills when first taught in their mother tongue.”

Based on these findings, the South African Institute for Distance Education (Saide) launched an interactive website in 2013 called African Storybook (ASb). A repertory of open-access digital stories in multiple African languages as well as English, French and Portuguese, the website encourages new readers to overcome their inhibitions.

Empirical data provided by the Global Monitoring Report states that in 2013-14, only 40% of the children in sub-Saharan Africa stayed in school till grade four and reached minimum reading standards, as compared to 96% of children in North American schools. “That is a challenge for us, who have resources and training,” said Bonny Norton, professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and research advisor to the ASb. There are around 500 stories in over 60 African languages, as well as in English, French and Portuguese. Several of them have been salvaged from the grand African tradition of oral storytelling, some donated by authors and publishers and yet others created within the stimulating ecosystem of student-teacher workshops – all have then been developed for the website. There are around 2,500 translations with vividly imaginative illustrations that replicate the universe of a child in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Lesotho, Niger, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique. “The vision of this project,” says Norton, “is the development of multi-lingual literacy.”

But statistics can hardly capture the lure of a story like Grandma’s Bananas by Ursula Nafula and Catherine Groenewald. The potency of the open-access digital format has enabled the story of a little girl who wants to know how her grandmother ripens the bananas that grow in her garden to travel out of the African continent, into a cluster of schools in Nepal. The Nepal Education Support Trust (NEST USA), a voluntary organisation that has developed an early-literacy curriculum for Nepal using a dual-language framework, draws upon the stories available on the ASb website. Grandma’s Bananas, for instance, has been translated into Nepali and re-illustrated with local characters.

Mary McKenna, director of NEST USA, says that she is enamoured of the potential of the ASb and its inventive use of digital technologies. “The technology allows curriculum developers to translate stories into Nepali and other Nepalese languages, so that students can hear the story in their home language.” Complex vocabulary and the length of the story in English are also altered to appropriate levels for early English speakers and readers. “Children develop a vocabulary that is functional, not one they have had to learn by rote,” says McKenna. Schools like the Lalitpur Madhyamik Vidyalaya, Loyalty Academy and Bal Kendra Centre in Nepal use NEST USA’s stockpile of tales to teach English in the classroom. “We have written teacher guides to train teachers in using these stories for reading and comprehension,” says McKenna.

The work of translation – traditionally a tedious and daunting task that sometimes takes years – has been facilitated by the creation of a simple but sophisticated translation app. Developed by PhD scholar Liam Doherty of the University of British Columbia, the app has led to the genesis of the Global African Storybook Project. Stories in as many as 60 African languages, including the official English, French and Portuguese, are now being translated into all the world’s languages. The translation of Grandma’s Bananas into Nepali has been made possible by this ambitious initiative. The project has a stash of over 170 stories in languages as diverse as German, Persian, Japanese, Hindi, Nynorsk, Swedish and Tagalog. Doherty has also created an ASb Imagebank Explorer, which allows access to the almost 4,200 open-access images, by searching for keywords in any language.

But before a story can be uploaded, downloaded, translated and shared, it has to be written. Among the ASb’s inexhaustible source of narratives is an Indian publisher of children’s literature, Pratham Books. Several original titles like Listen to my Body, The Moon and the Cap and The Elephant Bird have found their way to the ASb and captured the fascination of young readers across continents. Pratham Books’s own digital initiative, StoryWeaver, is a treasure trove of multi-lingual books, which, through a liberal Creative Commons licence, allows users to share and adapt stories as well as images in any medium. There are close to 1,800 stories, available for reading and sharing in 41 Indian and international languages. “While our Hindi and English stories continue to be very popular, we have seen the user community respond with great enthusiasm to Malayalam, Sanskrit, Telugu and recently, Tibetan and Santhali as well,” says Suzanne Singh, chairperson of Pratham Books.

Stories are the élan vital of open-source platforms, which prompt children to rapid fluency in the mother tongue, before they can read simple sentences in English. And perched upon the diaphanous wings of broadband transmission, stories can reach eager listeners through any digital medium. Pratham Books’s recent initiative, ‘Missed Call do, Kahaani Suno’ allows children to listen to audio stories in English, Hindi, Marathi or Kannada by leaving a missed call at a given number. An auto-generated call in response lets them pick the language of the story, followed by an SMS that links them to the story on StoryWeaver.

A schoolgirl is introduced to StoryWeaver during a workshop in Shishumandir school, Bangalore. Credit: Pratham

A schoolgirl is introduced to StoryWeaver during a workshop in Shishumandir school, Bangalore. Credit: Pratham

Digital platforms have also metamorphosed textbooks, sample papers, lectures and other school curricula from unwieldy bundles in overstuffed bags to e-resources children and young adults can easily browse.

Initiatives like eBasta are a demonstration of the Narendra Modi government’s bid to create borderless classrooms through ‘Digital India’. Implemented by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), the portal makes school books accessible as e-books. This, however, is an oversimplification of the grand vision of eBasta, which has grown into a cyber-forum of thousands of students, teachers and publishers, who can access, download or upload course material and videos. “We have written to every state board; many, like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Punjab have responded to us,” says M. Sasikumar, associate director at the Mumbai office of C-DAC.

The term eBasta, suggestive of a schoolbag or satchel, is apt for content that is picked and bundled and placed in various compartments of this virtual schoolbag, by teachers. A variety of resources – text, simulation, animation – makes it easy for them to parcel content according to their teaching style and methodology. The eBasta website, with statistics that change with each new purchase of a ‘basta’, or download of e-content, currently indicates that there are around 53 eBastas and 990 downloads.

Digital open-source material, then, makes it possible to create repertories that are borderless, tales that are malleable to different cultural contexts and a readership that is international, albeit hesitant at first.