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UWI team explores technology fix for child literacy crisis

Experts from The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, are working to develop software that will support national efforts to increase the literacy rate in young children through individualised learning.

The software, dubbed Bright Start, is a speech technology-enabled autonomous reading tutor to be used to close gaps in reading education.

By enhancing current reading instruction and giving specific attention and feedback to children who are underserved as a result of large class sizes and challenging socioeconomic situations, the approach seeks to increase the number of students who are able to read before the age of 10.

Dr André Coy, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Science and Technology, told The Gleaner on Wednesday that the projects would commence in Jamaica and eventually spread to the rest of the Caribbean, with Trinidad and Tobago being the second destination.

“The educational transformational report that was led by Professor [Orlando] Patterson ... showed that we only have 10 per cent of our children reading at the expected reading level at the end of primary school. Thirty-three per cent of them cannot read at all, and 57 per cent of them struggle with comprehension,” he said.

These statistics, according to Coy, could lead to a generation of children in which the majority are illiterate.

This would have serious consequences, including a decline in learning capacity, loss of control, inter-generational poverty, poor financial and health decisions, and the emergence of other socio-economic problems.

“The efforts to increase the literacy rate to ensure that our children are reading before they are 10 years old is something that is critical, not only for their own benefit, but for our national development ... . I think that we have to see it as a national emergency and use technology in every way that we can to enhance the cohort of children who are reading,” he said.

Coy is the team leader for the CARiLIT team, which stands for Caribbean Advanced Research in Literacy and Instructional Technology. He has expertise in speech and language technologies (SLT) with a focus on applications of SLT for education and machine learning.

He is supported by Dr Yewande Lewis-Fokum, a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and Education at Mona, who has expertise in literacy, educational content development, instructional design and pedagogy; Dr Phaedra Mohammed, a lecturer in the Faculty of Science and Technology at the St Augustine campus, who is proficient in applied artificial intelligence algorithms and techniques, knowledge representation and reasoning systems, and intelligent learning systems; Dr Paulson Skerrit, a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and Education, St Augustine, whose expertise is in speech and language technology and machine learning; and Dr Asad Mohammed, a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, St Augustine, who is knowledgeable in data science, research design, statistical analysis, and machine learning.

They participated in the 2021 staging of the Learning Engineering Tools competition, which saw more than 800 teams of entrepreneurs, learning scientists, educators, and researchers from 60 countries competing for a share of nearly US$4 million.

In June, 30 teams, including the UWI’s CARiLIT team, were announced as winners of cash prizes, enabling them to fund their projects.

The UWI team received US$50,000.

While the Government has made attempts to address this issue by expanding the number of literacy tutors entering schools and by launching a series of campaigns, Coy stated that this was not enough.

“Because our student-teacher ratios are extremely high and what is often needed is individualised attention, which teachers are not able to give, given the large class sizes, ... technology is the solution to that,” he said.

Jump Start, another project under development, is being funded locally with $10 million from the Universal Service Fund.

According to Coy, it will take another two years before these programmes can be deployed in classrooms. However, the applications will be put to the test at the start of the 2023–2024 academic year.

Coy stated that even while using technology with children who have been described as ‘digital natives’ has become the norm, there are still many obstacles that people experience because they lack access to devices and issues with Internet connectivity.