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Low-cost audio computer helps NGO in its development work

25 November 2012

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A US based NGO has come up with the ‘Talking Book’, a low-cost, interactive audio computer that can be used with ease by the illiterate people.

In this age of increasingly connected world that demands increasingly sophisticated tech gadgets, there has been a preference for multi-purpose devices with multimedia capabilities. 

Nowadays, a mobile phone is capable not only of making calls but also does a slew of other tasks: take pictures, record audio or video , browse the web and even act as a personal assistant.  The days of simpler devices appear to be over. 

But with Literacy Bridge, a non-government organization based in the US state Washington, this does not appear to be the case; on the contrary, dialed-down versions of today’s gadgets have become useful and practical tools in their development work in rural and poor communities in Ghana.

Literacy Bridge recognized the inability or difficulty of the illiterate or barely literate population in using the content from gadgets, and how this further marginalizes and puts them at a greater disadvantage.

Even if these gadgets are made available to them, many of the features will not function anyway because of lack of Internet connection in their locales.  With this realization, Literacy Bridge came up with the “Talking Book”, a low-cost, interactive audio computer that can be used with ease and without any need for Internet connection.

The Talking Book has three main audio-based functions:

a) It lets users to listen to pre-recorded material - In the case of Literacy Bridge, educational audio clips and practical information on agriculture and health is pre-loaded in the Talking Books.  These clips are recorded using the local language of the community.  To ensure the relevance of the information within the audio clips, Literacy Bridge consulted local experts.

b) It lets users record their own material – anybody from the community may share expertise or practical information through a Talking Book, as the device can accommodate user-generated content through its recording capability.

c) Users can copy audio clips from one Talking Book to another – this can be done easily as each Talking Book comes with a USB cable and port for connection.  This comes in handy for the said rural communities that do not have communication service providers; with the Talking Books, the communities have a makeshift network to disseminate information.

The mini-USB connector on Talking Books enables collection of usage statistics, and aggregates all recorded feedback onto a single Talking Book.  If any computer is accessible, that Talking Book can exchange content and usage data with the open-source Audio Content Manager, which is a very simple library of all the audio, in all languages. This allows information that is relevant to each season or lesson to be easily stored.

The device also has a user-friendly set of command buttons so that users can readily access the content without being encumbered by a complicated interface.  Users can also adjust the speed of audio playback to suit their pace; this is particularly useful in schools, where children listen to text that is being read to them. 

 The Talking Book can be programmed to ask multiple choice questions.  Word definitions have also been included as part of the content and made available as “audio links” for reference of users. 

In designing the Talking Book, Literacy Bridge also considered the circumstances where the Talking Books will be used.  The device has been designed to be portable and sturdy enough to be passed around from one user to another.

It works with locally available batteries, which is an important consideration if the Talking Books will be used in rural communities – where electricity is not always available.  The device has also been designed to withstand harsh weather elements such as wind and dust.

Talking Books may be connected to internet-capable mobile phones that have a mini-USB port to enable users to upload and download audio content to the Web.  Literacy Bridge is working with community radio stations to share radio programs content via Talking Books.  The NGO is compiling a library of audio messages that can be adapted for use in different projects.


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