A year ago, four neuroscience and engineering students out of University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management decided to do something extraordinary. With no background in early childhood education, they set out to close the ‘word gap’ that too often puts underprivileged children at a disadvantage.
The gap occurs when children are not exposed to a wide enough range of vocabulary during critical developmental stages that occur before the age of six.
The team worked on their proposed solution to the problem over the course of a year, and after many iterations and lively turns of thought, came up with a crisp new idea that is appealing and full of potential. They submitted their project for competition in the Hult Prize Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative’s 2015 Hult Prize Challenge, which offers a $1 million award to the social enterprise that best addresses the lack of early childhood education in poor urban communities across the globe.
The team formed a social enterprise company that they called Attollo. Aisha Bukhari, co-founder of Attollo, shared in an interview with social-startups.de that she and the rest of her team weren’t sure at first whether they should compete. While their scientific, engineering and business training might now have seemed an obvious fit for the competition, she said they were all so passionate about creating solutions to social problems and entrepreneurship that they agreed to look further into the Hult Prize Challenge. As soon as the Hult Prize released their in-depth case study that provided background about the scarcity of early childhood development and education in informal urban settlements, Attollo knew this was something they wanted to do. “The Hult Prize process was all very organized,” said Bukhari, “and then they released the case study, that gave us all the necessary research and context we needed to get started.”
Mission: close the word gap
The team determined the most effective intervention would be to close the word gap. Attollo states that by the age of three, underprivileged children are exposed to 30 million fewer words than privileged children. This impoverished vocabulary is a barrier to children’s success in primary school, if, in fact, these children are even able to gain entry to a primary school.
Knowing the critical role parents play in language development, Attollo narrowed its focus on a home-based solution that would help parents teach their children more words.
“We found through our pilot studies in India and Kenya that many parents and children were struggling with vocabulary. In these areas, parents had low literacy rates. Over 85% of a child’s vocabulary comes from the parents. Vocabulary is the heart of language development and language is the foundation of everything in early learning,” explained Bukhari. “We knew that if we could close the vocabulary gap, we would give these children the foundation they needed to thrive in primary school.”
The team had two guiding principles in the development of their project: the vocabulary-building solution must involve parent-child interaction and children must love it. They made the decision early on not to create a cellphone app as a permanent solution, because a cellphone, if available at all, stays with the parent. They sought to develop a solution that would stay with the child.
“We wanted a dedicated device that a child could take ownership of, which meant taking ownership for his or her own learning,” said Bukhari.
Learning through Play: Talking Stickers
After a good deal of brainstorming, they came up with the idea for Talking Stickers. Attollo took existing technology—quick response (QR) codes—and created stickers that were then paired with an easy-to-use, low-cost electronic reader, ollo. The stickers are pre-recorded with words and phrases by local facilitators who are multi-lingual, and given to the parents. Parents can also record nursery rhymes, songs or phrases that are played back to the child in the parent’s voice. Parent and child also choose to record words or songs together on the stickers.
Attollo partnered with AutoDesk Research, a Toronto-based company, to develop ollo, a unique reader to accompany the Talking Stickers. Attollo also established implementation and distribution partnerships with several well-known educational organizations, including Pratham, Aga Khan Foundation, and Right to Play.
Attollo follows a business-to-business (B2B) model, selling its ollo readers to its distribution and implementation partners. Attollo also works with its partners to create Talking Stickers materials such as stickers, flashcards and books. Parents buy directly from the distribution partners and pay a modest monthly fee. In the first month, they receive an ollo reader and get a bundle of related contentAfter that, parents continue receiving new content each month. The company believes that Talking Stickers is a financially-accessible solution for parents in poor urban communities, because they would spent only around 2% of their monthly income for access to Attollo’s program.
Bukhari said that there was widespread excitement among children, parents and educators when Talking Stickers was piloted in India and Kenya
Early results show promise
Bukhari said that one of the most promising findings from their pilot programs is the two-fold increase in the time that parents and children spend together. As their time together increased, the child’s vocabulary and learning increased as well.
The team has found these early results encouraging and rewarding. “In working with children between the ages of zero and six, we have high confidence we can close the vocabulary gap in one year,” said Bukhari.
Attollo is currently planning a longer-term study in order to replicate the results and scale up the program
Outlook: “We are all in”
Attollo’s decision to pursue the Hult Prize has paid off. The social startup is now one of six finalists out of 22,000 applicants vying for the $1 million in seed capital and ongoing mentorship from international business leaders. The Hult Prize partners every year with President Bill Clinton, Hult International Business School, and the Clinton Global Initiative to sponsor the Hult Prize Challenge. The winner will be announced September 26th.
Currently, Attollo’s biggest challenges are implementation and funding. But the Attollo team is prepared to do whatever it takes.
“We are all in,” said Bukhari. “We all left full-time jobs in June. We believe in our idea and the impact for these families. We are going forward no matter what. We are determined to make it a reality.”
About the Author:
Parisa Jade Baharian is a Washington, DC-based contributor in the US. She currently works as a freelance writer, editor, and research consultant. Parisa has over nine years of experience in business intelligence collection and analysis across a range of industries and market segments. Her writing covers a spectrum of topics, including education and social innovation. She serves as Chief Editor, English Language for social-startups.de and also develops and executes the organization’s PR strategy for the US market.