Developing an online system for endangered languages


Our client

Te Ipukarea, the National Maori Language Institute is located in the Faculty of Maori Development, Te Ara Poutama, at the Auckland University of Technology. Te Ipukarea works to achieve excellence in scholarship, teaching and research in the Maori language.

The Institute operates a highly collaborative business model, working with a number of partner organisations committed to advancing the mana of the Maori language.

Te Ipukarea is driven by passionate, skilled staff with a clear focus on innovating for the future of te reo Maori. As part of this, the Institute is committed to using online and digital resources as a means to retain and revitalise the language.

The Institute has also set up the International Centre for Language Revitalisation, with a goal of revitalising endangered and indigenous languages around the world.

The challenge

The Institute sought to develop an online language teaching and learning platform, and to share this resource with endangered language groups globally.

The challenge presented was to design an online platform that:

  • maximised the potential of the internet
  • was effective in teaching and learning language
  • could be customised for different cultures and languages
  • could operate as a sustainable non-profit business.

Our response

Applying human-centred design to the development of an online learning platform
We began with ethnography-style research with language learners and teachers. We investigated:

  • who are the users of this platform?
  • what do they need from the platform?
  • what is the wider context of online language learning?
  • how are indigenous languages taught and learnt?
  • how might the look, feel, and function of the platform support these users and their needs?

Uncovering the user and their needs
We started by finding out about the experience of learning an endangered indigenous language. We spent time with learners of endangered indigenous languages to understand their experiences.

Establishing building blocks and building on them
Drawing on our research, we identified key principles to guide the design effort for the online platform. We then used these principles to generate concept ideas. These concepts were tested and refined with language learners, teachers and staff of the Institute and Te Ara Poutama.

Identifying the way forward
As a result of the concept testing, we identified a final solution. The full specifications for the look, feel and function of the system were captured and now formed the way forward.

The results

Developing the learning platform for te reo Maori
Te Ipukarea can now proceed to build the online language learning system, knowing how it should look, feel and function for users. The Institute has gained a deep understanding of the users of the system and their experiences learning an endangered indigenous language. Institute has now has a clear framework from which to proceed to customise the online language learning system for different cultures.

Customising the learning platform for other languages
We also provided Te Ipukarea a means to communicate the system, and what it does, to cultures who are interested in acquiring it. Groups within the USA as well as iwi from NZ have expressed interest in acquiring customised versions of the platform for their own languages.


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Key tools and methods used:

  • Ethnography-style research
  • Design principles
  • Prototyping

"The experience of working collaboratively with Divergent has been invaluable. To undertake quality research to inform the development of a digital tool... to help other groups involved in the revitalisation of their own endangered languages is a dream which has been realised. It has meant that we can now share our knowledge and expertise with others all over the world and help them through digital technology in their language revitalisation efforts."

Tania Ka'ai

Professor in Māori Innovation and Development, Te Ipukarea