It turns out that mobile games can do great things!
Recently, a team of scientists from the Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of California, Berkeley, performed research of unsupervised mobile learning in rural India (the exact Ref. is: A. Kumar, A. Tewari, G. Shroff, D. Chittamuru, M. Kam, J. Canny. An Exploratory Study of Unsupervised Mobile Learning in Rural India. CHI 2010, April 10–15, 2010, pp 743 — 752).
They developed a simple educational game for learning English, loaded it on a bunch of cellphones together with a logging software, and gave each cellphone to a child in a village in India. After teaching those children how to play the game, they left them unsupervised for a few weeks. They wanted to find out how often the village kids would play this educational game when nobody pushes them to use the phones for learning.
They got very optimistic results. On average, participants accessed the games 2 hours 23 minutes in each week. An average participant covered 46 new words over a span of 16 weeks (i.s the rate is 150 words/year). As a benchmark, research on second language vocabulary acquisition indicates that “a realistic target for children learning foreign language might be around 500 words a year, given good learning conditions” (Cameron, L. Teaching languages to young learners. Cambridge University Press 2005, p. 75). So, getting a 150 words/year rate by spending 2 hours 23 minutes per week in rural India is a good result showing that educational mobile applications can significantly facilitate education in remote regions of developing countries.
But what really impressed me was one of the side effects in their study:
Introducing the e-learning games did not only strengthen existing social relationships, but also facilitated new ties to be formed. More significantly, these new relationships cut across gender, caste and village boundaries. In other words, more children from different castes, genders and villages who were not previously acquainted bonded through the process of helping one another play the e-learning games.
Most importantly, the social relations that were developed in the context of this gaming community were observed to transfer to the participants’ everyday lives, in which they continued to interact more deeply with one another in real-world, non-gaming settings. For example, from our interviews, we learned that the boys who had bonded through the games supported each other when one of them received a scolding at school. Similarly, we observed that boys would wait after school to accompany the girls (and vice-versa) home if they had long distances to walk.
That’s fantastic! It looks like mobile games might have a chance to accomplish something that neither governments, nor politicians, great teachers, preachers, gurus, not even cricket and Bollywood could do — to break boundaries between people and achieve unity.