Where Einstein Meets Edison

A Radio is a (Substitute) Teacher

A Radio is a (Substitute) Teacher

Jan 12, 2011

How do you scale up education in a place where teachers are present in less than half of the classrooms?

This is the question facing educators in Cambodia, a place still haunted by the ghosts of the Khmer Rouge which wiped out one-forth of the population (~2 million people) and 90% of the teachers a generation ago.  The obvious answer is to train more teachers–but in a country plagued by poverty (80% live on less than $2/day), qualified and motivated teachers especially in the rural areas that need them the most are in short supply.  

The other answer is to leverage the power of media.  

Stories to Share (www.storiestoshare.org) is an MIT D-Lab start-up that aims to do just that.  MIT’s D-Lab is the quintessence of MIT’s philosophy mens et manus (Mind and Hand) of applying the best technical minds to the most challenging environments on the planet.  My upstart team of Quinnton Harris, Sarah Southerland and Rachel Buchhorn and I launched this initiative after three months of research trying to understand how to approach the question of sustainability scaling up education in a place we had never step foot in: Cambodia.  

The idea is built upon two promising discoveries.  First is the power of audio in spurring the imagination.  In our iPad, HD, and smart-phone world, we are inundated by the visual from pop-up ads to high resolution touch screen machines.  What is often forgotten is the world that existed before TV where the written words and sound helped our minds provide the visuals to the stories.  In terms of our heritage, the very transmission of knowledge through generations was through an oral tradition, a medium which human society was once built around.  In a place like Cambodia, the ancient oral tradition is still alive and well although permanently damaged in many cases due to the genocide that specifically targeted the educated class.

The other discovery is the power of modern tools to bring media to a broad audience, one that does not have easy access to electrification let alone computers.  In this case, broadcasting stories is made infinitely easier by the development of cheap and durable technologies like solar-powered radios and tiny mp3 players.  For $30 on Amazon, you can buy an amazingly compact, solar-powered and hand-cranked radio from Eton sporting not just a flashlight but also a USB port to potentially charge up mobile devices.  For $30, you can also buy a 4GB video-enabled mp3 player from Coby.  In a strangely amazing way, this $30 compact radio is a teacher in classrooms without teachers and in villages without classrooms.  The $30 mp3 player is a library of 1,000 audio lessons.  Compare that with the $12,000 it costs Room-to-Read to build a library and you can sense the potential.  In Cambodia, radios are perhaps the only accessible information technology in the most poor and remote areas.  In the absence of radio, the seemingly age-old CD is the media of choice in Cambodia with classrooms and women’s village councils sporting CD-players (remember those?) to play them.            

These two discoveries helped fuel a bold mission for Stories to Share: build and broadcast the world’s largest Khmer-language audio story library. (Khmer is the official language of Cambodia spoken by at least 15 million people and almost the entire population.)  Building a significant collection of audio stories in Khmer 8,500 miles away from Cambodia in Cambridge, Massachusetts would seem like an impossible task.  However, with today’s power of the internet to crowdsource content from any place in the world, we could potentially tap into communities like Long Beach, California and Lowell, Massachusetts, the first- and second-largest groups of immigrant Cambodians in the United States.  Due to the Khmer Rouge genocide, significant numbers of refugees fled Cambodia to places as distant as the United States and France with almost 200,000 Khmer speakers located in the United States alone.

Our first stories came from two amazing, good-hearted native Cambodians, Vanya Run and Sopheap Phim, who just happened to be studying in the Boston-area this year and were eager to help.  You can listen to Vanya’s story on Ratha’s dengue fever and Sopheap’s story on how the river dolphin came to be.  To my delightful surprise, I awoke on Christmas morning to find a treasure trove of 15 stories in my Dropbox from Phnom Penh, donated by friends of another good-hearted Cambodian, Bun Chantheara, who woke up at 7 am on his one-day off to have several Skype conference calls with us about Stories to Share.      

This, however, is just the beginning to this story.  Our team will be spending three weeks in January in Cambodia to collect more stories, to understand the best way to bring them to children in the most remote areas, and most importantly, see how kids respond to them.  If you’d like to help and you speak Khmer, please consider sharing a story.  Otherwise, please spread the word.