How Katha India's award-winning, first-of-its-kind app is encouraging underprivileged children to read

Katha India, an organisation that has been actively working for children's literacy and reading, was recently recognised for its mobile reading application KathaKhazana. It was awarded the mBillionth South Asia Award for this first-of-its-kind app in India, which uses animated videos, games, characters and narration to introduce children to concepts such as gender equality, equity, diversity and inclusivity.

It is a self-funded, free app developed in-house at Katha, and its target audience is underprivileged children. Drawing from the 30 years of research practised in Katha's StoryPedagogy, the app contains several stories in Hindi that are meant to take reading outside the classroom and make it an enjoyable experience. "The app’s user-friendly interface and graded Hindi language makes it possible for anyone to use it... They are packed with colourful illustrations in a child-centered design. It promotes Active Story-Based Learning, encouraging children to think, ask, discuss, and act for the community, as problem solvers," says Geeta Dharmarajan, the founder of Katha.

Firstpost recently caught up with Geeta to understand how the app came into being, how children and mentors can use it, and what the emergence of such apps mean for the sales of traditional books.

Tell us a little more about KathaKhazana, about who its target audience is.

Based on the philosophy of Each Child Teach a Child (ECTC), 50 percent of the 300 million children in the country cannot read at grade level. Through ECTC, the one half that can read will teach the other half that cannot. So, every member of the community takes the responsibility of teaching a child to read. Reading for pleasure is a treasure!

As a volunteer, anyone can be a storyteller for social change and encourage children to share and care. The problem this app is striving to address: In a market where educational technology products are on the rise, the problem of access to infrastructure remains. Katha aims to bridge the gap between the underserved communities and technologically-enabled Indian youth to facilitate social change by providing them with an immersive storytelling experience. KathaKhazana is one more step towards making a seamless transition from three decades of work in children’s publishing and education, to digital learning.

Following Katha's Each Child Teach Child philosophy, KathaKhazana is shifting the focus of pedagogy from the teacher to the student by providing an interactive e-learning environment. Based on Katha's tried and tested StoryPedagogy that effectively disseminates curriculum through stories, the child gets to learn for fun and meaning. Busting the myth that one needs to be familiar with English to use technology, KathaKhazana’s books, videos and games are all in Hindi and will be translated to more Indian languages soon.

 How Katha Indias award-winning, first-of-its-kind app is encouraging underprivileged children to read

Geeta Dharmarajan, founder of Katha India

What research went into this project from Katha’s StoryPedagogy?

Action research is an ongoing process at Katha. Our Child Poverty Action Research Lab crunches numbers and data and brings research out of the ivory tower for us. It is headed by a sociologist with a PhD from Purdue University and 29 years of experience.

We have been testing app-readiness with our community children and women, as well as with MCD teachers for the past few years now. Specifically, constant and consistent research goes into the making of books at Katha. The writing, the activities are field tested so stories that are the base content encourage the joy of reading for fun and meaning.

The Katha Digital Lab, Katha’s in-house team has developed and designed the mobile application. By co-designing the mobile application with teachers, students, children and volunteers, we have built contextualised solutions for the children, by the children. Challenges of low internet connectivity, inaccessibility are daily obstacles while designing solutions for underserved areas.

We designed and released a website, for the use of MCD teachers. It contained more than 20 stories that were free for teachers. And we linked these to reading and the National Curriculum Framework. This was very well received, and has led teachers to develop and upload their lesson plans on the website—a first in many ways to encourage computer and mobile-based technology among Delhi’s government school systems.

Based on our learnings, we then trained all the teachers in about 600 MCD schools, and out of this selected about 100 as CloudGurus. The CloudGurus now lead tech-based sharing within clusters of schools. We did an in-depth survey of 10,000 families with an app that had 100 stories from the Katha publications, to assess reception, interactivity and acceptance.

But most important is the way every reading mentor and every teacher and child came into the making of this app in particular. And every writer, illustrator and designer we have on board. We are lucky that Team Katha makes this app what it is!

katha-app (1)

How will this technology enable underprivileged communities to read?

We see libraries as the centre of all happenings around reading, in underserved and hugely neglected communities in rural and urban India. Last year, Katha started community owned and operated libraries or hotspots in community libraries. Based on StoryPedagogy, this app carries the six enchanting stories, animated stories and games on gender series, created and published by Katha as paper and ink books into the app.

Captivating animation, voiceover, audio, text and games aimed at sparking the child’s imagination and curiosity to help them read for fun and meaning. It is easy to use and make into a habit by anyone. The mobile application can be used by anyone and everyone who wishes to be a reading mentor to a child.

The application will be used initially in the Hindi speaking belt of urban, peri-urban and rural areas of Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Punjab, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. We will soon go into translations to make our content accessible to every child in the country. Children learn best when they have fun! Therefore, each story is followed by interactive games that imbibe social, personal, intellectual, cultural and environmental ideas, and motivate the child to read further.

What has the response to the app been like?

We have 1,800 downloads on the mobile application on Playstore, with a rating of 4.8/5. With 23 reading mentors, five community mobilisers, 7 coordinators and a programme manager, 15,866 people in 151 slum communities in Delhi were screened to gauge and identify potential active user base, registering 2,351 users.

Do you think that the potential target audience for a digital app is much larger than traditional storybooks? Will this new form of publishing lead to a decrease in the demand for traditional books?

Yes and no. With increased internet connectivity, stories transmitted digitally can reach people who cannot afford traditional books. Innovation must be driven towards making exciting content accessible to children across class, caste, colour and creed.

An increasing number of the youth uses the digital medium in India. The number of mobile phones is increasing. And India has moved from way down to first position in data downloads in the world, thanks to Jio and other such players. But the interest in reading for upward mobility has to grow. I am told that the most number of downloads today is pornography. This has to change if every child is to bring herself and her family, her community out of poverty.

Stories told through apps can have more features, such as music, built in to aid the storytelling. Will these new added features lead to an increase in the popularity of children's books?

Yes, lots and lots of exciting features are available today. However, in a research study that Katha did on what kind of features will support reading, we came up with some very interesting observations! Our study shows that if we want reading, we need to tweak entertainment features to become features that enhance the joy of reading. And this is exactly what Katha is researching, exploring, AB testing and bringing back to the design table. The excitement of design thinking is the process and this will determine what goes into the app to bring all children to grade level reading.

Updated Date: Oct 26, 2018 12:45:26 IST