February 14, 2018

Game artist Jackie Gan-Glatz ’05 knows how confusing it can be to try to piece together unfamiliar words into an intelligible sentence. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she spoke only her parents’ native language until she started preschool. Although she mastered English quickly, she occasionally experiences linguistic hiccups. “I might use an English word a bit differently or think of a phrase in Chinese before it comes to me in English,” she explains.

She draws on her own language acquisition journey to understand the challenges faced by the adult learners testing Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis. Gan-Glatz and other SMU video game developers and education experts created the puzzle-solving app in collaboration with Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT), a nonprofit service provider for low-literate adults in Dallas.

The engaging game with an educational mission earned the SMU/LIFT team, People ForWords, a place among the eight semifinalists chosen from 109 international teams competing for the $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

Corey Clark and members of the People ForWords team from SMU Guildhall.

The People ForWords team includes (clockwise, from top left) Simmons Ph.D. candidate Dawn Woods ’09, ’18; Corey Clark, deputy director for research at SMU Guildhall and development lead for the project; Guildhall alumni Brian Rust ’15, Jackie Gan-Glatz ’05 and Victoria Rehfeld Smith ’14. Skyping in on the screen is Lauren Breeding ’18, Guildhall master’s candidate.

The first-of-its-kind global competition aims to transform the lives of adult learners reading English at or below a third-grade level. Adult illiteracy has been described as a “crisis hiding in plain sight.” Low literacy is linked to high rates of poverty, high health care costs and low labor productivity. According to the American Journal of Public Health and the National Council for Adult Learning, low-literacy skills cost the United States an estimated $225 billion in lost productivity and tax revenue each year and add an estimated $230 billion to the country’s annual health care costs.

Near SMU, the number of adults needing intervention is staggering. “There are about 600,000 adults in Dallas County who have less than a third-grade reading level,” says Corey Clark, deputy director for research in the SMU Guildhall game development program and People ForWords development lead. “If we could help 10 percent of those people, that’s 60,000 people who could learn to read proficiently. That makes a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

SMU alumna Lisa Hembry ’75, LIFT president and CEO emerita, brought the idea of joining forces for the XPRIZE competition to SMU. Founded in 1961, LIFT spearheads the effort to mitigate the problem by delivering the educational resources, tools, teaching and support needed by struggling adults learning to read and write.

“Here we are, two years later, with a viable phonics-based app in a gamified solution that helps low-literate people learn to read the English language while having fun,” Hembry says. “In North Texas, where one in five adults cannot read, this is more than a competition,” she adds. “This is a dedicated effort by our team to tackle the growing issue of low literacy and poverty.”

SMU’s strong relationship with Dallas and the surrounding region offers myriad opportunities for students, faculty and alumni to gain meaningful experiences while strengthening the community and making a difference in the lives of others. The city provides a unique launch pad for realizing an ambition, making an impact or developing a revolutionary innovation.

“Working with LIFT and SMU Guildhall in the Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition highlights how communities and academia can collaborate to improve the public sphere,” says Paige Ware, the Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Endowed Professor in the Simmons School.

WATCH A CODEX DEMO

A national leader in K-12 literacy research, the Simmons School became involved with the initiative to expand its work on literacy issues. Diane Gifford, a clinical assistant professor, and Tony Cuevas, director of Instructional Design and clinical professor, both in the school’s Department of Teaching and Learning, oversee the instructional design and curriculum of the game, ensuring that it improves the literacy levels of users.

“I started my career teaching children to read, but low-literacy adults face different challenges. Just opening the door to walk into an adult literacy class can be challenging for them,” Gifford says. “We have the potential to touch millions of people who never walk through that door.”

Even though national studies show more than 36 million U.S. adults lack basic English literacy skills, “there hasn’t been as much significant research as you might expect, considering the magnitude of the problem, and there is almost no research on the use of video games to teach low-literacy adults,” Cuevas says.

Simmons’ Diane Gifford (left) and LIFT’s Lisa Hembry ’75.

“I started my career teaching children to read, but low-literacy adults face different challenges. Just opening the door to walk into an adult literacy class can be challenging for them. We have the potential to touch millions of people who never walk through that door.”

– Diane Gifford

Teaching and technology weave together throughout Cuevas’ career. He designed SMU Guildhall’s top-rated master of interactive technology degree program and served as the program’s academic director before joining the Simmons faculty. He specializes in integrating emerging technologies into teaching and learning and serves as director of Simmons’ Teacher Development Studio, where simulated pre-K-12 classroom environments and other leading-edge technologies are used to train SMU students to become effective teachers.

For Cuevas, the long-term goals at the heart of the project strike close to home. “I have two sons with special needs who have struggled to learn to read, so I understand how children can fall through the cracks easily into adult illiteracy,” he says. His sons, ages 13 and 18, have used the app and found it engaging and helpful. Both Cuevas and Gifford see future potential in modifying the game for use in a structured K-12 classroom setting.

While struggling children and adults share some learning weaknesses, the approach for ameliorating those deficits is very different, says Gifford, which is why the app development process started with focus group sessions with more than 20 LIFT adult students. “We heard firsthand about what interested, motivated and concerned them about using a mobile app to learn to read,” Cuevas says.

Those conversations and playtesting revealed that maintaining motivation is key, meaning harried adult learners have to feel that playing the game is worth their scant free time. “They need chunks of learning, instead of small pieces, so that they feel a more immediate benefit,” Gifford says.

Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis whisks participants to Egypt, where they play as enterprising archaeologists solving puzzles as they hunt for relics of the once-great civilization of Atlantis. Audible prompts for each letter and sound that appear on the screen teach the look and feel of written English. To minimize frustration, players learn to read very simple sentences from the beginning.

“We want them to have a sense of accomplishment immediately so they keep moving forward,” Gifford explains.

The 24/7 convenience of the app obliterates other obstacles, such as a lack of childcare, transportation and free time during the day. “Users can download it at home and play to their heart’s content when it’s most convenient for them, even if that’s at 3 a.m.,” Gifford explains.

Games also provide safe environments for learning, says the Guildhall’s Clark. “They allow you to fail in ways that aren’t overwhelming. They let you keep trying until you succeed.”

The XPRIZE project serves as one example of how research is incorporated into the curriculum at SMU Guildhall. Students explore a vast range of interests within video game development and its global implications and diverse uses. Both current students and alumni are able to apply their analytical and research skills by participating as funded research assistants on an array of Guildhall’s “games for good” projects.

WORD PLAY

LIFT adult learners tested the puzzle-solving app and provided feedback that helped the developers improve it. Gamers learn something new with every move they make. Take the app for a test drive:  Download the Codex: The Lost Words Of Atlantis app for Android at Google Play.

“All research is based on the idea that games have more purpose and value to society than just entertainment,” says Clark, whose expertise lies in finding solutions to large-scale problems by combining several areas of study, such as gaming, distributed computing, analytics and artificial intelligence. His recent work in reverse engineering gene regulatory networks and integrating gaming techniques into cancer research led to his appointment as adjunct research associate professor of biological sciences in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

Out of the gate, the Guildhall team had to grapple with the vexing issues of designing an adventure for gamers who can barely read and write and have likely never touched a computer. “This was the first time some participants had used a desktop computer,” Clark says. “Registering was a challenge for them, clicking and dragging was a challenge. So we had to think about how to make a game that’s fun and interactive, yet simple and intuitive enough to be a first experience with technology.”

He and his colleagues collected and analyzed data on game elements such as the amount of time players stuck with a task, how many times they repeated moves, how quickly they progressed and whether performing the game actions translated into the desired learning outcomes.

“First, games have to be fun,” Clark says. “From story to characters, you want to engage people enough for them to play over and over again. And this is the same process that reinforces learning.” And at its core, every game is about learning. “You learn something new with every move you make,” Clark says.

Out of the gate, the Guildhall team had to grapple with the vexing issues of designing an adventure for gamers who can barely read and write and have likely never touched a computer.

Guildhall alumni on the People ForWords team discuss their latest improvements to Codes.

People ForWords takes players from Egypt to Sydney, Australia, and the Great Barrier Reef for its next learn-as-you-go adventure. The Guildhall team includes Gan-Glatz, programmer Brian Rust ’15, artist Victoria Rehfeld Smith ’14 and research assistant Lauren Breeding ’18, a level designer working on her thesis for a Master of Interactive Technology degree from SMU Guildhall. They are joined by Dawn Woods ’09, ’18, a Simmons Ph.D. candidate, for weekly meetings where they dive into the nitty-gritty of development. Nuance matters for beauty, function and efficacy, so the conversation zigzags from topic to topic: Should an orb be recolored to look like an empty crystal? Where should punctuation marks appear? How should the capitalization of words be introduced?

They also discuss supplemental mini games that will synthesize skills and guide players to test themselves in real-life situations, such as reading street signs and a bus route map, within the safe haven of the app.

Meanwhile, Clark, Gifford and Cuevas meet periodically to deliberate progress and strategy. People ForWords has until April 2018 to complete additions and modifications.

Testing of the literacy software created by the semifinalists began in July 2017, with the participation of 12,000 adults who read English at a third-grade level or lower in Dallas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Postgame evaluation of the literacy gains among test subjects will help determine up to five finalists, to be announced in June 2018. The winner will be named in 2019.

Two years into the project, all involved admit that maintaining momentum over the protracted timeline has been a challenge, but they believe this critical experiment in improving adult literacy will be world-changing.

“I’ve volunteered with nonprofits that help people who have fallen on hard times for a number of reasons. I feel like this project would give some of them a second chance in life,” says Gan-Glatz. “Literacy would open doors of opportunity and allow them to contribute to society in ways they never thought possible.”