Word power

By Julie Schlosser, Fortune associate editor

(Fortune Magazine) -- Problem: Illiteracy is widespread and instructors aren't cheap.

Solution: Teaching software

For 68 years Periya Muniammal could not read or write. She used a symbol rather than a signature to sign documents, which had to be read to her. Two years ago her tiny fishing village in southern India received a used computer and literacy software made and provided free by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), one of India's largest tech-service companies.

The women of the village now gather nightly under a thatched roof around a Hewlett-Packard 1024 monitor. After 35 to 40 hours of lessons, the students are able to read 500 words in Tamil.

The program is the creation of former TCS chairman Faqir Chand Kohli, 82. Kohli's method does not require an accredited teacher, just an instructor who can point and click the computer mouse. In six years more than 90,000 adults have learned to read using TCS technology, and today the program is offered in several Indian languages. In Muniammal's village, more than 50 adults have learned to read. And at 69, she can now sign her name.

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