Bolo: A reading app for the literacy gap in SA

PHOTO: Supplied
PHOTO: Supplied

Bolo – a reading app for children announced this week by Google SA – is an educational tool that combines learning and reading out loud with rewards (gold stars) in a visual and game-like environment, all overseen by an artificial intelligence tutor called Diya.

Developed and launched primarily for India, Google is expanding the app to other regions, mainly in developing countries and in regions where the literacy rate among children is low. The app is already available in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.

Bolo, which comes from the Hindi word for “speak”, encourages children between the ages of six and 12 to read out loud, with Diya guiding them on what to do and when to do it. Diya also assists children if they get a word wrong or are not sure how to pronounce it. The virtual assistant reads the word aloud and even spells it out if need be.

Children can choose from four levels of reading – tiny stories, which has one sentence per screen; short stories with about two lines; long stories with about four lines; and very long stories with about six lines per screen and dialogue. Each story has between 10 and 15 screens.

PHOTO: Supplied

There are also three games that children can play to collect stars – jumbled words, a game for learning to spell; speed reading; and pop the balloons, a phonetic game.

The app does not need to be connected to the internet to work and is ad-free, with Google saying this minimises distractions. It does not require a sign-in nor does it share personal data.

“The app has been designed with children’s safety and security in mind,” says Google.

But while testing, the app asked me to grant it permission to collect voice data, app usage activity and photographs, which made me suspicious, even more so when it relates to children.

Voice data and app usage data are integral to the app, and collecting that data seems to make sense, however, requesting access to photographs is going overboard.

One cannot collect stars or save reading progress if a photo is not taken. This type of reinforcement is dangerous and for parents who make it a conscious point to keep all images of their children completely private, this might dissuade them from the app.

However, Bolo does state that voice data and photographs will stay on the device and parents or guardians must consent to this to use the app.

Google says the app has more than 30 African origin books, most of which come from the African Storybook Initiative, written and illustrated by African authors and illustrators, which makes it relatable and relevant for children. A lot of these are not preloaded and will have to be downloaded, thankfully for free.

The consent page, where parents or guardians must click on before using the app.PHOTO: Supplied

Diya, “powered by the same speech technology that is in the Google Assistant”, has trouble reading out African names and words. It’s gogo, Diya, not go-go.

Asked if Google had approached the department of basic education to roll out the app in schools, the company seemed surprised that it had not thought of that and said it would most certainly investigate the option.

Bolo is a great app idea, with Google stating that more than 800 000 children have used it, reading in excess of 3 million stories in more than 28 000 towns and villages.

That being said, it seems a little rushed for the region and it would be nice to have the accents and enunciation done correctly before launching here.

You can download the app from Google Play or from the App Store.


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