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No screen, no problem: Low-cost audio computers deliver lifesaving info in Ghana

Computers without screens may seem archaic and nearly useless to consumers in more privileged parts of the world, but in Ghana’s poorest communities they’re relied upon as the delivery channels for lifesaving education. Talking Books, as these screen-less audio computers are called, will serve as crucial mobile devices for 40,000 people in Ghana as part of a large-scale endeavor spearheaded by Literacy Bridge, UNICEF and ARM Unite.

The Talking Books are equipped with micro SD cards that hold up to hundreds of hours of audio that educate illiterate listeners in about 50 poor, remote villages in Ghana about Ebola and cholera prevention and treatment, breast-feeding during the first six months of a child’s life, identifying and treating diseased crops, and creating and applying organic fertilizer made from livestock’s manure, among other critical topics.

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Each device speaks to its listener in their local language and dialect. It also gives listeners the option of pressing buttons to indicate their interests. “The message might be a song, a story, a drama, an interview with a public health officer or a peer in your own community,” said Cliff Schmidt, executive director of Literacy Bridge, in an interview with the BBC.

Schmidt adds that each Talking Book comes with a microphone so listeners can respond to what they hear. “They can provide useful feedback like, ‘I just didn’t understand what you meant here’ or ‘You mentioned this problem, but let me tell you about another problem that is even more important for our community.’”

Listeners can also adjust the speed of the audio and be prompted by “audio links” to hear definitions of words they don’t know or answer multiple-choice questions in interactive quizzes.

Talking Books, built to endure dust storms and tropical rain, contain cheap zinc-carbon batteries available in Ghana’s local markets, which offer up to 15 hours of power. However, researchers at the University of Michigan are working on a new design using a custom chip, which will allow for longer use. Literacy Bridge aims to make the Talking Book available in other African countries.

Will the future of the Talking Books, originally built in 2007, include screens? Ken Banks, an adviser to the UK’s Department for International Development, certainly thinks it should. “Rather than just assuming that illiterate people will likely always be illiterate, why not integrate something into this device which will actually help them develop skills, rather than just passively listening and never having the chance to learn to read?” he told the BBC. Banks points to older Kindles as examples of what the future of Talking Books should look like.