Guest Post: Monica McGlynn-Stewart: Talking Stickers

Image_TalkingStickersI (Monica) am an advisor to a team of recent MBA graduates from the University of Toronto who are one of six teams in the finals for a $1 million start-up fund for their product. Here is how they describe their work:

The Attollo technology assisted learning concept has been developed for use by parents and children in informal urban settlements in developing countries as part of the 2015 Hult Prize Challenge – which is the world’s largest student-based competition. Talking Stickers involves stickers with embedded bar codes (QR codes) that can be scanned by a device, which in turn is prompted to record and replay user generated audio content or replay pre-recorded audio content stored on the device. This spring and summer we have piloted our device in Toronto in George Brown College’s lab schools, and in Hyderabad, India and Mombasa, Kenya.

Whether these young professionals win the final prize this weekend or not, they are committed to bringing their technology to developing communities in India and Kenya to support the literacy learning of children in low-income communities.

Here is a link to a short video on their recent pilot projects in Kenya and India:

Here is a recent article in The Globe and Mail about the project:

Canadian school in global final for social enterprise prize

The question, on paper, is simply stated: How would you provide quality education by 2020 for 10 million children under the age of 6 living in the world’s urban slums?

Six business school teams from around the world, including one from Canada, think they have an answer to the question posed by organizers of the Hult Prize, a global competition for young social entrepreneurs that drew 22,000 applicants this year.

Next week in New York, at a session of the Clinton Global Initiative, a Hult partner, the winning team will walk off with $1-million (U.S.) and a chance to market a potentially game-changing, socially conscious business idea.

Win or lose, the four-person team of MBA graduates from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management plans to pursue its idea for “talking stickers” – quick response bar codes that activate a low-cost reader enabling children to listen to a recorded voice or to record their own voice to say or sing the words.

For example, with talking stickers, the child (or parent) could use a hand-held device to scan a bar code near, for example, a bright yellow star on the page of a nursery rhyme book to hear Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. By scanning over a differently programmed sticker with a bar code, the child or parent then could record their voices to practice their language skills. The stickers are not just in books; they can be placed on household items, which then become tools for the language development of young children.

Earlier this year, having scrapped their initial idea for the Hult Prize, the members of Team Attollo (Latin for elevator) turned their attention to the literacy challenges faced by young children in impoverished countries. According to Hult Prize organizers, 112 million children up to 6 live in slums without access to schooling while 70 million children, more than half of whom are girls, are prevented from attending school.

“We found that language development and vocabulary is the key issue in early childhood development,” says Jamie Austin, who like teammate Lak Chinta, holds a PhD in neuroscience and earned a Rotman MBA this year. The other team members are engineers Peter Cinat and Aisha Bukhari, who earned their Rotman MBAs in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Over the summer, with advice from early childhood professor Monica McGlynn-Stewart, the team conducted trials in Kenya and India, working with local school officials and families who cannot afford even modest school fees for their children. The early results were promising, with children and their parents adding to their vocabulary.

Meanwhile, with help from Toronto-based Autodesk Research and U of T engineers David Johns and Matt Ratto, the Attollo team developed a low-cost prototype for the hand-held device, with a view to making it affordable ($1.50 a month) to families who earn between $2 and $5 a day. As well, the team is working with local publishers and schools to develop school curriculum content for the stickers.

Over the summer, Hult Prize organizers brought finalists to a boot camp in Boston to make their business idea “investment ready.”

“It was a little bit collaborative and competitive,” says Mr. Austin, of the relationship with the other five teams. “We would talk out the ideas and we saw each other’s presentations every week,” he says, with coaching from academics and industry leaders. “We got tons of feedback from the Hult Prize business experts.”

Mr. Austin and his colleagues are so committed to their venture that, for now, they have quit their day jobs to found Attollo as a social enterprise company.

The other Hult finalists are: ESADE Business School (Spain); the University of Tampa (United States); Oxford University (England); and two from China – Jiao Tong University Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance and National Chengchi University.

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