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Teaching people to speak English? You just need Chatroulette without the dick pics

Fine, you think up a better idea

By Tim Worstall, 1 Jul 2015

Worstall on Wednesday The latest of the X-Prizes is an attempt to increase adult literacy through the power of the mobile phone. Given that our own Prime Minister has been known to think that LOL means “lots of love”, it might not be a bad idea to update digital literacy.

However, that's not quite what they mean: they want to take those adults who are currently functionally illiterate and get them up to reading speed: being able to read a medicine label, read a kiddie a bedtime story, that sort of thing. No one is aiming for getting the entire population through Anna Karenina - as PJ O'Rourke put it, the great question of which is, OK Leo, so why did she bonk that guy?

The story and rules are here. Essentially, contestants are invited to create a mobile app that increases literacy among either (or both) native and non-native English speakers. Test it against the other competitors and the best will get a one-year trial on a real live population.

The winner will claim a pile of dosh and, of course, will also have a tool that is validated for the vast international market of second language would-be English speakers. It's something worth going for, really.

From the economic point of view, we think that prizes are a great way of mobilising resources, as the X-Prize and others (Bill Gates' funding of malaria vaccines, for example) have already shown. Designing a target, setting up the competition and offering that prize calls forth much more investment than would happen without it.

It also gets us all around the problem that the target might not, in itself, be something that is profitable to aim for, even if it's a useful way station to something that is. But from that economic point of view, the fact that it does call forth a great deal more investment than the prize amount is the major benefit of the prize system.

However, we're all clever people around here (your scribe excluded, of course) who know a lot about tech (your scribe excluded, again) so how would we go about trying to do this? How would we design a system that increases adult literacy as an app for a mobile phone? For that is what they really mean?

My initial thought is that we're not really going to be able to do so. But, I'll agree, this is very much a minority view. My basic thought is that mobile phones, messaging apps and all that have hugely increased the value to people of being literate, even if only vaguely so. I rather expect more people to become (even if only vaguely) literate as a result of the greater value that they gain from being literate. Thus the increase in literacy is going to come about as a result of the existence of Facebook, WhatsApp and so on, rather than anything that people specifically do with mobiles.

But, I'll agree, that is an extreme free market interpretation and that's probably me falling off the edge of reasonableness. As does happen. So, assuming that I'm wrong in this, how would we design it all?

I can imagine a series of school lessons that someone has to read into the microphone to be marked, for example. Similarly, lessons in taking simple dictation might work in some manner. "Spell the word in this sound file" maybe? We'd want to automate as much of this as possible, of course. Some variation of the standard spell checkers to help people along, or as the marking bot perhaps?

But that sounds to me like a very large burden on whatever or whoever is in the centre. And it also seems to be losing the most remarkable feature of mobiles and the new communications systems, which is that they're not centralised at all. So perhaps the structure should be something more like creating small self-tutoring groups rather than a class or school intermediated through a teacher??

Those groups could run like a dieting club. The major value of things like Herbalife, Weight Watchers and so on is nothing to do with the foods they provide, it's the community with which you do such things. Although how in buggery you get something like that to teach the difference in pronunciation between through, tough, though and thorough, I'm really not sure.

Why even have small groups? Would some near-random pairing up (think Chatroulette but without the dick pics) for the course of a lesson or two work? Some variation of Skype, whereby a conversation can happen over the swapping of text messages, so people can write and the other read something, and vice versa? Thus having two would-be literates, presumably at roughly the same level of non-literacy, teaching each other with the use of a decent spell checking algo?

This is, of course, a shameless attempt to get a decent commentards section going: but how would we use what is unique about the mobile phone technology to get people doin' that a'readin 'n' a'ritin' stuff? I can't help but think that it should be something to do with peer-to-peer teaching with some central guidance or error correction. But who has different or better ideas?

Over to you. ®

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