Designing an Early Literacy Intervention in Côte d’Ivoire

“I would want to know if my daughter is learning or not.”

We were sitting around a cooking fire, talking to a young Ivorian mother outside her home in Moape. As she prepared lunch, roosters crowed somewhere nearby and the smell of attiéké (a dish made from fermented cassava) permeated the air.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa exporter, literacy rates are well below the global (and regional) average, with only 53% of adult men and 33% of adult women able to read and write at an appropriate level. Many Ivorian children experience early delays in literacy due to large class sizes, lack of support for French and bilingual instruction in their mother tongue, and absences due to sickness or work on their parents’ cocoa farm.

Primary School in Adzope, Côte d’Ivoire (photo: Michael Madaio)

In other contexts, these issues might be offset by literacy instruction at home, private tutoring, or even educational apps or games. However, in Côte d’Ivoire, low literacy rates among parents and the relative scarcity of smart devices and high-speed wireless connections make these options impractical for most rural Ivorians. Basic “feature” phones, however, are ubiquitous. 2G networks reach even the most rural areas and one recent estimate from the Ivorian government put mobile phone penetration at 130% (i.e. more than 1 phone per person).

Mobile top-up tents in Adzope, Côte d’Ivoire (photo: Michael Madaio)

Given these constraints and the educational scenario in Côte d’Ivoire, we ask the following questions:

  • How might we design a literacy intervention delivered on feature phones that is appropriate for the Ivorian context?
  • How might we design such a tool to assist low- or non-literate parents in supporting their children’s literacy education?

In our research group, we study and design educational systems that support the social and cultural factors that give meaning and richness to learning. We have been collaborating with linguists from the University of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire for several years, to design a literacy curriculum that weaves together sounds (i.e. phonemes and syllables) from Attié, the local language in the Adzope region, and French, the official national language and the language of instruction in schools.

Storyboard “speed dating” with Ivorian families (photo: Michael Madaio)

We conducted several rounds of qualitative data collection over 6 weeks in April and May to better understand the desires, goals, and challenges faced by Ivorian parents, teachers, and children in literacy acquisition, their experiences with mobile devices, and parents’ goals for supporting their children’s learning. We used methods from HCI and UX research, including semi-structured interviews, storyboard “speed dating”, and various prototype testing methods. We are in the process of using the results from that study to inform the design of a literacy support system, which we intend to pilot and deploy in the coming year.

For some parents, like the young Ivorian mother we interviewed before lunch that day in Moape, even knowing about their child’s progress may be enough to help them support their children’s literacy meaningfully. We hope that the system we develop through this project will enable Ivorian parents to motivate and support their children’s literacy development, despite their limited literacy.

In our paper in the HCI Across Borders Symposium at CHI 2018, we describe the motivation for our work, the nature of the challenge, and the qualitative research process we conducted to surface design recommendations for voice-based literacy systems.

Madaio, M., Ogan, A. (2018). Supporting Parent-Child Literacy Interactions with Feature Phones in Côte d’Ivoire. In the HCI Across Borders Symposium at the 2018 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. April, 2018. [pdf]