THE BLOG

Our Illiterate Children: Does Education Technology Put More Responsibility on Parents?

02/13/2013 06:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2013

Education technology company Ooka Island is targeting parents and communities, not just teachers, in its quest to eradicate illiteracy. Is it a great example of technology's potential or a reflection of a broken school system?

"Our game is designed to act like a live tutor that responds and adapts to each child," says Joelle MacPhee, Director of Reading Partnerships, from her Manhattan office. The technology startup is the second successful venture in a MacPhee family mission that began over 40 years ago.

"My father was born with only 5% of his hearing," explains MacPhee. "My grandmother (Dr. Kay MacPhee, former educator) found the school system wasn't geared toward his learning needs so she researched and developed a supplemental program to help him."

Hearing-impaired kids aren't the only ones with learning difficulties. In their 2011 Nation's Report Card, the National Center for Education Statistics found 68% of all US fourth grade students cannot read at the proficient level. Two-thirds of those kids will end up in jail or on welfare, the study claims.

This led the elder MacPhee on a lifelong mission to eradicate illiteracy. SpellRead, an intervention program for struggling students, received recognition from the U.S. Department of Education and was acquired by Kaplan, Inc. in 2006. Now with the recent launch of Ooka Island she's taking a technology-enabled preventative approach to tackle illiteracy before it becomes a problem.

Aimed at kids 3-7 years old, the software game combines adaptive learning algorithms with proven reading methods. Using what they call the Eye/Ear Reading Method, the program first teaches young children to associate the English language's 44 sounds with letters, then blend them together to make words. The platform includes 6,698 steps over 562 skills activities but kids learn at their own pace, a stark contrast to the challenges met by teachers with large classrooms.

Education technology is a growing industry. Dreambox Learning, a Netflix-owned adaptive math curriculum for kids, targets kids from kindergarten to the 5th grade. And Khan Academy has delivered over ¼ billion free educational lessons online with subjects ranging from math and finance to history and art for students up to Grade 12. With at-home technology options ranging from free to highly affordable, the blame for illiteracy can no longer fall entirely on the education system.

How important is the adaptive aspect of online training? In a presentation to technology entrepreneurs and investors in Manhattan, Joelle MacPhee used this analogy: "Imagine a child learning to ride a bike. She doesn't quite get it the first day, and the next day she's given a unicycle. Maybe she only needed another day of practice, but now she must keep moving on to a new skill and she's struggling to catch up."

In a classroom, even the best teachers can't tailor their classes to match every child's pace. Ooka Island's Adaptive Reading Platform uses a learning algorithm to adapt to each child's progress. Kids learn at their own speed so they're challenged without being overwhelmed. "The adaptive component is the game changer," says MacPhee. "That and the gamification of education. Kids spend hours on the game without realizing they're becoming fluent."

Whether or not Ooka Island's early success points to a flaw in the US education system might be a controversial topic but it doesn't hit the MacPhee family's radar. "Our mission is to eradicate illiteracy," explains MacPhee. "And thanks to technology that can happen at scale to millions, one child at a time."