Inspired by the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge, Francesca Desmarais and I explored a side project within the Indian Education System.
The goal of the Challenge is to develop innovative, affordable solutions that make wearables and sensor technology a game-changer for women and children across the world. They’ve challenged the global design community to explore innovate opportunities for wearables that address the 7 pillars within UNICEF’s strategic plan: child protection, education, health, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, social inclusion, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).
What is Grasp?
A ‘wearable’ educational tool that can be clipped onto a student’s notebook and support them as they struggle to learn a concept. At moments of frustration, the clip provides subtle encouragement to the student, motivating the student to persevere. On an environmental level, Grasp acts as a subtle beacon to the un-tapped educational resource of peers, aiming to destigmatize ‘not knowing’ and instead create a learning environment that supports collaborative learning.
How Does It Work?
Grasp aims to support students as they struggle to learn a concept through two main channels: subtle encouragement and peer-to-peer learning.
Education research has shown that success in school is not directly correlated with general intelligence. Rather, one of the most important factors to educational success is a student’s ‘grit’—i.e. how likely the student is to stick with a lesson and keep working until they have learned a subject and completed their work. Perseverance. Rather than let frustration cause a student to give up, Grasp aims to encourages a student to persevere. One of the most effective ways of shifting this behavior is simply to teach kids that their brain can change, and helping them to develop a ‘mindset for change’. In tests with students in the U.S., students were more likely to stick with a challenging subject after learning how the brain works and how it is constantly changing and making new connections. This is one of the central tenets of the Grasp philosophy. The initial packaging & introduction to the product educates students about the way their brain works and then Grasp continually builds on this concept. Each clip provides reassuring light feedback at times of frustration to remind students that frustration is just part of the learning process—their brain is still ‘on’, working to learn a new subject.
Often we need more than just perseverance to learn something new, we also need guidance. In the current Indian education system peers are an un-tapped wealth of guidance for struggling students. In many schools, teachers are overburdened with large class sizes and illiterate parents cannot help at home. We observed that students are already helping each other (last minute homework completion before class, or teaching younger siblings at home). Grasp builds on this existing behavior, aiming to make peer-to-peer learning a fundamental resource in any learning environment. Indeed, explaining a concept is one of the best ways to learn a concept. By nudging a peer to reach out and help another, Grasp aims to destigmatize ‘not knowing’ and instead create a learning environment that supports collaborative learning.
The Low Education Gap
As I live in Hyderbad, I decided to focus on a topic and population that I am especially interested in working with: young, underprivileged students in the education system in India.
St. Alphonsus High School, a local medium high school in Hyderabad.
While India has high school enrollment rates, the quality of learning is a major issue. According to annual status reports, 78% of students in Standard III (8 year olds) and 50% of students in Standard V (10 year olds) cannot even read at a Standard II level (7 year olds). Students are slipping into a “low education gap” without developing the basic skills of reading, critical thinking, arithmetic and problem-solving.
The system suffers from high pupil to teacher ratios, poor teacher education, high teacher absence rates, and a general shortage of infrastructure.
To complicate matters further, the majority of parents in the lower-income areas are non-educated. In the school where we did our research, eighty percent of the parents were illiterate. Parents face a physiological challenge to support their children’s learning progress. One mother we spoke with had trouble understanding the subjects her children were bringing home; she could only retroactively check to see if her children were doing well and she had little to none recourses to help them once they did. “As my children have grown up, I can only look for cross-marks on their work as signs that something went wrong.” In the lower-income classes of India, students are struggling to learn in a system that is failing to support them.
Statement of Need
Students are well aware when they are struggling with a concept. In the current Indian education system, however, students can continue to be pushed through the system, even if they are failing and not learning: students are not receiving the type of support from teachers or parents to help them actually learn a concept. Students are slipping into a “low education gap” without developing the basic skills of reading, critical thinking, arithmetic and problem-solving. Shifting behaviors in a classroom to encourage students to seek help from their peers and motivate them to persevere with their studies could help students overcome this ‘low education gap’. How can we design a product and environment that encourages more collaborative peer-to-peer learning while motivating students to keep trying?
Who benefits from it?
Students would be the primary beneficiaries of Grasp. Struggling students would receive light encouragement and guidance from their peers—support as they learn a concept. Other students would solidify their understanding of a given concept as they explain a concept and guide their struggling peers. Teachers could also benefit from Grasp as some of their teaching responsibility would be carried by the peers and the teachers would have another method of understanding which students were struggling.
Grasp is a concept designed for any young student in India. If successful, it could ideally scale to reach this large user base and possibly extend to other students across the world as well.
From the beginning, our approach has been deeply rooted in a collaborative design process with the user. We conducted our initial research at St. Alphonsus High School, a local medium-high school in Hyderabad. We visited and observed a classroom, interviewed teachers, the director of the school, and conducted a home visit with two students and a mother. Through this research we understood a wider view of the existing ecosystem and were able to identify strong opportunity areas for behavior change. We envision returning to this and other schools to prototype and develop the concept.
We have only built a few rough prototypes, but our approach to the final wearable is deeply rooted in sustainability. The final product must contain simple electronics that are cost-effective, the circuit most be designed and programmed to consume as little energy as possible, the casing must be water-proof, durable, and made from a preferably reused material.
The current prototype is using off-the-shelf, basic and cheap electronics (like a piezo sensor) and is running from a small coin cell battery. Since we envision a low-power circuit, we would like to explore the use of small solar panels to power the system for a period of many years. Most importantly, the final wearable should not be something that students loose easily, or stop using. We envision creating a sense of ownership, building a strong narrative around the value of the clip, and delivering on that value—students should be motivated to carry their Grasp clip with them throughout their school day and to keep it from one year to the next. This is a wearable for the entire early education process.
With regards to the other UNICEF design principles, data (pressure sensing as a proxy for educational struggle) will be the trigger to enable behavior change (perseverance and collaborative learning) and we’re using Arduino, an open source platform. Data will also be able to drive our assessment of the product. In small case studies, we can use test score improvements to analyze if this product is indeed helping education levels.
Our intent is to do no harm, but we have no guarantees that our design might create unexpected and unforeseen problems in other areas. Our intention is to collaborate closely with students, teachers, and parents in the existing educational ecosystem to observe and learn from our prototyping and to be mindful of the material and energy impacts of the product. Ideally we can learn from our prototyping to ensure that our final concept is not directly creating new problems.