Bridging the app gap

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Jul 23 2012, 01:50am hrs
Given the popularity of apps, it is not surprising to see them going nichein this case, educational apps for children. But when efforts are made to make this multimedia content available even in far-flung areas on a mass level, things get interesting...

The iPad has been called the 'Toy of the Year' not without reason. When we talk about children, the games on the device are enough to make a child forget his tantrums and focus on throwing that bird at those evil pigs instead.

However, the ease of use and intuitive interface of the iPad, similar tablets and smartphones have not only rendered them as toys of choice and 'shut-up' devices, but also as devices with an extraordinary ability to hold children's interests, even while teaching them something worthwhile, like the alphabet or maths. And as much harm these devices are doing to children (and they definitely are, according to experts), educational apps are slowly reversing that trend.

Take the example of the recently released apps on Nokia's Symbian systems and Windows Phones: Grover's Number Special and Bharat Ka Bag, which are both aimed at teaching children counting and improving their familiarity with numbers. Based on Galli Galli Sim Sim, India's version of popular American TV show Sesame Street, these apps feature the beloved characters Bert (Bharat) and Grover.

In Grovers Number Special, Grover, who has held countless jobs on Sesame Street, most commonly as a waiter at Charlies restaurant, can now wait tables around the world. When Charlie, the cook, doesnt come into the restaurant and the customer wants lunch right away, it's up to Grover to save the day!

Children playing the game have to join Grover in the kitchen to catchand countingredients to make delicious and nutritious meals. All users have to do is tip their device back and forth to move the tray. Grover tells you how many ingredients to catch, and then counts the items with you. As is made clear by these instructions, the game is extremely easy to understand and play, and at the same time teaches children the value of numbers and how to count (not to mention maybe spark an interest in cooking!).

In a similar manner, Bharat Ka Bag also gets children more familiar with numbers. Bharats bag is full of all kinds of knick-knacks like bottle caps, marbles, coins, etc, all stored in brown paper bags. To see what's inside, users must open the bags and shake out the contents to find out. Helping Bert count the silly and surprising items in each bag is another way to hone numeracy skills. Again, the game's design works perfectly to spark users' interest. Almost all children have a particular fondness for collecting all kinds of odds and ends in their pockets, just like Bert and his bag. And playing on their curiosity to find out what's in the bags is a brilliant way to keep them involved.

All of this, however, comes with a caveat. The proliferation of educational apps like these have resulted in what has come to be known as the 'app gap'children from affluent families have access to tablets and smartphones that give them access to these apps while those from poorer families are having to do without them. A new study by Common Sense Media shows that while rich parents load their tiny children's iPads up with brain-boosting educational apps, poor parents don't even know what app meanshalf of families with incomes above $75,000 had bought apps for their children, while just 1/8th of families earning less than $30,000 did. While that is the case in the US, this disparity is sure to be even more stark in India. Also, in India, there is the problem of Internet connectivity in far-flung rural areas (Internet is needed to download apps), which further widens this gap between rural and urban children.

There are several ways to address this issue. One is by providing low-cost tablets to rural children, in essence an Aakash tablet for children. But that means waiting on the government to act on this, and as is painfully clear, that wait could take years, if not decades.

A better solution, one that is being adopted by Sesame Workshop India (SWI), the non-profit organisation behind Galli Galli Sim Sim, is to take these phones and tablets to classrooms in rural India. This means that one device can be used to enrich the learning experience for a whole classroom.

In a new outreach programme in 150 government-run anganwadis in Dhrangadra and Halvad blocks in Surendranagar, Gujarat, supervisors will be trained by SWI to use mobile phones both for self-training and to integrate multimedia content in the classroom. They will also receive projectors, which will be utilised to project multimedia content to children in the classroom. Each anganwadi will be equipped with a mobile phonefor viewing video content, using audio content, monitoring and training focusing on health, hygiene and nutrition.

The point to be made here is that India abounds with large gaps alreadygender gap, class gap, income gap, etc. Efforts such as these, to take new devices and apps to rural India, will at least lessen the impact of the app gap, and bring poorer children the same benefits the urban rich are enjoying.