Large-Scale Deployment of AI Technology-Enabled Reading Solution

Abstract. India has a reading crisis. Specifically, English reading and comprehension ability among students in Government schools in India is low. Studies from neuroscience suggest that multi-sensory structured learning education has significant potential to improve the systematic acquisition of reading skills. We present a case-study that leverages multi-sensory AI-driven reading technology that provides a reading and comprehension solution with speed and at scale to students in Government schools. The intervention we report in this study enhances the instructional effectiveness of teachers and the learning ability of students within the existing instructional and infrastructural framework and content, without the introduction of new instruction design, pedagogy or content. The technology deployed is flexible, cloud-hosted and operable offline across a variety of computing/mobile devices. The integration is at scale, leveraging existing IT resources offering affordability. The program is integrated with the existing curriculum during normal class hours and is implemented by teachers. We also present evidence of the impact of the program on English learning outcomes independently conducted through randomized controlled trials. We supplement assessment outcomes with feedback from teachers and students. A most recent launch across 65,000 schools in Maharashtra provides evidence of ground-level affinity for the program. We present how the project has used existing implementing and governance systems and frameworks, collaboratively, to deliver the large-scale deployment of the solution.

Keywords: Literacy · Scalable · Multi-Sensory · Technology-Enabled · Reading · Comprehension

Priya Viswanath, Senior Vice President, Iyer Hemavathi Murthy, Vice President

1. The Literacy Crisis in India

1.1 Literacy and Students

India has a reading and comprehension skill crisis. Over the last decade, surveys conducted across government schools indicate a consistent and significant gap in reading and comprehension ability of students. English reading and comprehension skills are also lagging. This is a source of significant concern since English proficiency is considered socially empowering and enhances higher education and job-related opportunities. Across the country, though English is being uniformly introduced into the curriculum from early grades, many factors challenge students as they seek to acquire proficiency in the language. According to the Annual Status of Education Report, 2016 [1], 22.8% of the children from Grade 3 who were assessed could not read even capital letters and only 32% of children from Grade 3 could read short words.

1.2 English Reading is a Challenge

Less than 25% of Grade 5 students can read a simple English sentence and among those more than 40% do not comprehend what they are reading. Learning English is often a demanding task – English phonics tend to be arbitrary; a major stumbling block for learners who do not encounter English in their everyday environments. The problem is compounded in the classroom given that there is often a paucity of qualified English teachers.

1.3 English is an Aspiration

English is the preferred language of trade and commerce, international relations, higher education, and is the language for a significant portion of the content on the internet. Around the world, it is estimated that nearly 2 billion people are learning English [2].

2. A Technology-Enabled Reading Solution that Can Reach Billions

2.1 Multi-Sensory Language Learning

Studies from neuroscience suggest that multi-sensory learning has significant potential to improve the systematic acquisition of reading skills. The brain creates specialized neural pathways for recognizing arbitrary cultural inventions such as letter-sound relationships. Multi-sensory stimulation enables the speedy creation of such a neural network. Repeated multi-sensory exposure to words enables word recognition and facilitates development of pronunciation / oral skills [3].

2.2 RightToRead and ReadToMe®

The RightToRead Program from English Helper Education Technologies Pvt Ltd (EnglishHelper) is an initiative to take technology-enabled reading to millions in government schools across India and globally. The goal of the RightToRead program is to significantly enhance students’ English reading and comprehension skills.

RightToRead leverages ReadToMe®, a multi-sensory AI-driven technology platform designed to improve reading, comprehension and spoken English skills. Using sophisticated Text-to-Speech voice technology, ReadToMe® trains itself to read the prescribed textbook eliminating the need to introduce additional or new study material.

2.3 Scalable and Adaptable Solution

ReadToMe® is designed to be deployed at scale. The program can reach thousands of schools dispersed geographically in a few days / weeks. The program integrates with existing curriculum and is used by teachers to deliver syllabus-related goals during normal class hours. The software can be deployed on existing Information Technology (IT) infrastructure – Personal Computers / laptops (Windows / Linux), Android devices – thus minimizing and optimizing IT investments. It is also available online. An important element driving success is that technology can be adapted to local requirements. These include relevant accent of voice, pronunciation of proper nouns and the ability to translate words into local vernacular.

2.4 Features of ReadToMe®

Table 1. Versatility of ReadToMe®

Feature Description
Adaptive to curriculum AI-driven text-to-speech voice-driven technology that trains itself on the textbook; aligned to the curriculum, integrated in the time-table
Enables pedagogy Features like speed of reading, translation, dictionary, syllabification; enhances teacher’s role
Flexible use case One-to-one and One-to-many (classroom) setting; simple-to-use
Portable across devices Deployable on Windows / Linux and Android devices; Leverages existing IT infrastructure
Cloud and offline Available on the Cloud as well as an offline instance
Dynamic and learning With increased exposure, regular updates released and available on an Update Center
Affordability Caters to the large-scale, low-income underserved segment

3. Large-Scale Deployment of RightToRead in Maharashtra

3.1 Scale of the Program

Maharashtra has one of the largest school networks in the country with 133,406 schools of which 84,050 are Government or Aided schools, as of Academic Year 2019-2020. Of these schools, 65,000 have been enabled with digital equipment like LCD screens, projectors and computers. RightToRead in Maharashtra was undertaken as a pilot in 125 schools in 2014. This was subsequently expanded to 3,720 schools in 2016 in partnership with United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Subsequent to an independent study that established improvement in learning outcomes of students through randomized controlled trials, the Regional Academic Authority endorsed the benefits of ReadToMe®. In 2018, the Government of Maharashtra signed a Memorandum of Understanding with EnglishHelper and Schoolnet India Ltd (Schoolnet) sanctioning the implementation of the Program in all the 65,000 digitally equipped schools spanning the state, across grades 1 to 10.

3.2 Large-Scale Deployment

The levers for successful and timely implementation of the RightToRead program are training, installation of the software on the school devices and usage of the software.

Training. The Regional Academic Authority and EnglishHelper and Schoolnet jointly developed a training program to train English Subject Assistants across the state. The English Subject Assistants, in turn, train teachers from various schools across the Blocks. Each English Subject Assistant trains between 40 and 60 teachers. Using this approach, more than 13,000 teachers were trained in the use of the software within a few weeks. The in-person training is supplemented by easy-to-comprehend short YouTube videos that teachers refer to after the training. [4]

Installation. Subsequent to the training, teachers install ReadToMe® software on the schools’ computers. The software operates across all formats e.g. Windows, Linux and Android environments. Installations at over 13,500 schools were completed over a period of three months through this model.

Usage. The importance of regular usage to derive maximum benefit from the Program is emphasized through a series of planned communication to schools through messages on the registered phone numbers. The communication efforts are informed by the continuous monitoring systems that have been developed which track usage at a school- and device-level. 

3.3 Teacher and Student Experience

RightToRead has received consistently positive feedback from teachers and students. Teachers engage with the program for several reasons:

a) RightToRead works with the existing textbook and does not introduce new or additional learning material; teachers are already under pressure to complete the syllabus on time: introduction of new content acts as a barrier to assimilation in such a scenario. This is consistent with the findings from a study conducted by Central Square Foundation which cites that teachers who consider the pressure to complete textbook syllabus as a barrier to adopting technology indicate that increased availability of curriculum-aligned resources would enable them to use technology more. [5] 

b) RightToRead is integrated in the regular timetable i.e. during normal class hours

c) Students show increased engagement and participation in the class; this makes the class easy to conduct

d) The software is easy to use and intuitive and helps teachers overcome change-barriers to adoption of technology

e) The software increases teacher capacity and effectiveness by allowing her/him to focus on pivotal points of instruction and reducing fatigue

Students find the sessions fun and interesting and anecdotal evidence indicates higher attentiveness and attendance as evidenced from the actual classroom interaction videos. [6, 7] A study that examines these benefits in greater detail is underway in association with an independent agency.

EnglishHelper has been invited by the Government of Maharashtra to implement RightToRead in 65,000 Government schools. The first phase of implementation of 15,000 schools was conducted successfully. As of the time of writing this paper, more than 13,000 teachers downloaded the software from the Cloud and installed it on the school devices or their Android devices for projection on to a screen in class. This exercise of teachers was entirely self-driven: teachers completed the installation on their own with no other facilitation or field staff involved. Further, significant feedback is forthcoming from the field indicating the high value that teachers obtain from the Program also evidenced in the high engagement that teachers have with it. Teachers have independently developed and posted self-made “how-to-use” videos on social media sites with the intention of sharing their experiences with and helping the larger teacher community. [8]

3.4 Next Steps

The partners working with the Regional Academic Authority have begun identifying the next wave of 10,000 schools for bringing within the fold of the program. It is estimated, over 65,000 schools will be covered by the end of the calendar year. Meanwhile, messages are being sent to schools / Blocks where uptake is lagging. Cloud-based reports and school calling efforts indicate an increasing trend of English classes being conducted with the aid of the multi-sensory English reading and comprehension AI software. As of the date of this paper, 814 Block Resource Coordinators were trained in a span of three weeks, who in turn oversee 414 Blocks across all the 36 Districts in the state. All training is conducted virtually over online meeting platforms.

Expansion. The RightToRead project in Maharashtra (as in other regions) has met with considerable acceptance and support from teachers and schools. Recognizing the overwhelming willingness of teachers, students and schools to significantly integrate with the world of reading technology that works with the curriculum, the Maharashtra public education system has re-crafted its vision for the Program. In association with the Regional Academic Authority (the nodal agency representing the Government), the goal is now to achieve implementation in 100,000 schools in the state. This will encompass 75% of all schools in the state, signalling the largest deployment of technology-enabled reading intervention in India and potentially across the world.  

Measurement. RightToRead is essentially an evidence-based program levered on the impact it delivers. Hence, impact evaluation is one of the cornerstones of the Program. As part of this constant demonstration and confirmation of the learning benefits accruing from the Program, the project will undertake Randomized Controlled Trials across schools in Maharashtra. These evaluations will be undertaken in association with independent agencies and among a representative sample of schools drawn from chosen geographies across the state.

In addition, a longitudinal study has been designed in association with the ROI Institute (a US-based evaluation company with a global presence) for an in-depth examination of the contribution of the Program to technology-enabled learning. This study is planned for the district of Pune and will commence from February 2020.

Sustainability. The long-term vision for the Program is centred around finding ways and means to develop sustainability outside of the classroom. The expansion in Maharashtra will also spur other ways to increase the scope of the Program. This could take the form of enabling access to the curriculum-aligned material for students at their homes including access to the curriculum books through ReadToMe® on their Android devices or online. This effort is expected to create opportunities for students across all social backgrounds to help them use technology as an everyday education resource thus dissolving any prevalent digital divide.

3.5 A Case-Study in Collaboration

The large-scale deployment in Maharashtra in the short time-frame has been made possible by leveraging the existing systems as the back-bone for implementation. Implementing partners English Helper and Schoolnet work extensively with the Regional Academic Authority that serves as the on-the-ground agency representing the Government. By closely monitoring and liaising with District- (DIECPDs, District Education Officers), Block- (Block Education Officers), Zone- (Zilla Parishad Commissioners and Nagarpalika representatives) and school-level (Teachers and Principals / Head Masters or Head Mistresses) representatives, the Regional Academic Authority and the partnership of EnglishHelper and Schoolnet have been able to implement the project at low cost and on a large scale. The project is an exercise in building massive scale and change-related deployment. It provides a ground-level demonstration of the acceptance of a program that is relevant, unique and made easy to use through the access of technology.

4. Conclusion

Literacy and reading are big challenges in the Indian education system. Maharashtra has one of the largest school networks in the country. RightToRead has scaled in Maharashtra over 5 years from starting with a proof of concept, to scaling to a large pilot and eventually, to a full-scale implementation across the state. The full-scale implementation provides a model of collaboration for future replication. It is also evidence of the transformative power of technology achieved through teacher empowerment and enhancing effectiveness. This technology intervention has the potential to move students and teachers closer to using technology as an everyday education resource. Levers for building sustainability and enhancing the footprint of the intervention will revolve around harnessing engagement of other stakeholders in being able to reach students at home, enable study of other subjects and product enhancements that cater to specific needs like writing and comprehension support, to cite one instance. Lessons from Maharashtra have poised the project to be a case study for replication in India and across the world.

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