TechBridgeWorld event features tools, games for English literacy

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor

The Carnegie Mellon research group TechBridgeWorld held its annual interactive event in the Newell-Simon Hall atrium last Wednesday.

This year’s theme was “TechCaFE: Making Learning Fun.” The TechCaFE project, short for Technology for Customizable and Fun Education, offers tools for teaching and practicing English literacy. The four essential tools of TechCaFE — called CaFE Teach, CaFE Web, CaFE Phone, and CaFE Play — were all on display on Wednesday.

M. Bernardine Dias, an assistant research professor in the Robotics Institute, founded TechBridgeWorld in 2004 with the hope of implementing technological solutions that promote sustainable innovations in developing countries.

TechCaFE, which was initiated five years ago, has been one of the most successful projects TechBridgeWorld has done so far, Dias said.

Using TechCaFE tools, Dias explained, a student can link English grammar exercises to games on his or her phone. The games are developed by TechCaFE’s CaFE Play team, while the exercises are created online by teachers through CaFE Teach. Students are able to download questions for each new class.

“The biggest feature of TechCaFE was its high-level customization,” Dias said. “We try to customize it on different levels. The first thing is that we want the concept of the game and the content to be separated. That’s one of our key innovations.”

Teachers using TechCaFE have the power to customize their own exercises and create their own content through the games. In addition, TechCaFE can be customized through close partnership with local communities.

“We worked very closely to communities,” Dias said as she explained the project’s beginnings, and how it has evolved over the years. “It’s not like we sit in the lab and think ‘What shall we build next?’ There is always a partner, a partner in the community, that wants us to do something. When we first started, we begged people, asked them about their difficulties. So for the first year and a half, we had to work very hard. But now I get way too many requests, and we sometimes have to say no. It’s kind of sad that we can’t do everything.”

TechCaFE has been put into use in many places, including Tanzania, Somalia, Uruguay, India, Qatar, and the United States.

Jayce Maravich, a teacher from the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, attended the event on Wednesday. Her school began to use the CaFE Phone, a mobile phone game created by the project, two years ago. Maravich said that the tool was very helpful and that the school got a lot of positive feedback from the students. As a teacher, she used CaFE Teach to create questions online that students could download to their phones.

“It is very easy to use and very flexible,” she remarked.

TechCaFE not only has an impact on local communities, but it also influences the Carnegie Mellon students who become involved in the project.

Hatem Alismail, a Ph.D. student in the Robotics Institute, said, “It made me realize the importance of people, the importance of listening to what they want and what they need — listening to their feedback and encouraging them to contribute to the development.”

Students who attended the interactive event had positive reflections.

“I read the descriptions online and I thought [the event] would be all about robots or computers or machines. I was surprised to find here it was all everyday technology,” said University of Pittsburgh media and professional communications major Hebah Elmasri. “It has so much information here. I really appreciate the theme of CaFE to make learning fun.”

TechCaFE is still a research project, and it is free for public use. Dias said that her goal is to make the project as accessible as possible.

“We could go with some open-source license,” she said. “We are not planning to make money out of it, but the best way to get it to the largest number of people might be to let someone else to make money. So I haven’t fully decided yet, but from our purpose it’s free.”