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The mission of the Your Mark on the World Center is to solve the world's biggest problems before 2045 by identifying and championing the work of experts who have created credible plans and programs to end them once and for all.

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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

Students Create App for Dumb Phones to Help Illiterate Read to Their Kids

Michael Custer and a team of students at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, inspired by the Hult Prize, saw a problem and created a solution for it.

As Michael explains, “The problem is illiteracy. Across the developing world, millions and millions of people remain illiterate. The UN estimates there to be 900 million illiterate people worldwide and a third of this population lives in India, where 289 million Indian adults are illiterate.”

“Illiteracy is not just a problem for the individual though, it also creates tremendous problems for the next generation. Academic research has repeatedly proved the inter-generational transmission of illiteracy and its close link to poverty. The worst part is, that for young children, the best way to develop the skills necessary for future literacy is to be read to during their early years (ages 6 and under), a task that is literally impossible for illiterate parents,” he continued.

Their solution, called teleStory, is as simple as it is brilliant.

Combining modern cloud telephony and mobile phones, teleStory has created a system that empowers illiterate parents to read to their children for the first time. To accomplish this, we first buy and record the audio for local children’s books. This audio is then uploaded to our cloud. We then partner with ngos already operating in the early childhood space in India and establish our libraries or book distribution centers. Parents then take a book from one of these libraries and give teleStory’s number a missed call. When the parents receive a call back they will be prompted to enter the ID of the book they took. The ID and our phone number will be on a label on the front or back cover of the book. Once they enter the ID the audio that corresponds to the words will play page by page. To go to the next page the parent presses one and to repeat a page the parent presses two.

Michael says the team has a big goal. “Our goal is to intervene in a child’s early years – the year’s most important to brain development- and break the illiteracy cycle, a key step towards ending the poverty cycle. The inability to read traps a person in poverty, drastically holding back one’s economic potential.”

On Thursday, October 29, 2015 at 11:00 AM, Michael will join me from China for a live discussion about their novel program and their experience competing for the Hult Prize. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.


You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

More about teleStory:

Twitter: @tele_story

teleStory is an app for dumb phones that empowers illiterate parents to read to their children for the first time. To reach our end users, teleStory partners with NGOs already operating in the early childhood education space to establish community libraries. Parents take a book from the library and give a missed call to teleStory’s number. When they receive the call back, they enter the book’s ID and the corresponding audio plays. Parents can press 1 to go to the next page and 2 to repeat and throughout the story we program in games and questions designed to create parent-child interaction. Presently, teleStory operates in India and China, reaching over 1500 children in four different languages. In rural China, children are listening to teleStory for over an hour a night and in the slums of Mumbai, neighborhood children rush to gather around the nearest teleStory user’s phone for the nightly story.

Michael Custer, courtesy of teleStory

Michael Custer, courtesy of teleStory

Michael’s bio:

Michael is an avid traveler, ice hockey player and passionate about economic development. He completed his undergraduate studies at NYU, graduating cum laude with a degree in International Relations, and minors in Africana Studies and French. After his undergraduate studies, he spent two years abroad working as an Education Consultant. The first year in Dubai and the second year in Shenzhen, China. Michael Founded teleStory while completing his masters degree in Shanghai at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

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Devin D. Thorpe

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