eReaders will transform the developing world – in and outside the classroom
If Worldreader’s experience so far is any guide, e-readers are set to transform the developing world, both in – and outside the classroom. But this change won’t be driven by e-readers by themselves – it will be driven by human curiosity, ever-increasing connectivity, enlightened self-interest, and a gentle push from organizations like ours.
Let’s start with a very basic piece of technology: the book. Most people intuitively believe in the power and importance of books, and in fact recent research quantifies that benefit: having access to a library of books is roughly the equivalent of 3 or more years of schooling. The good news about books is that teachers and children all know how to use them – there’s no training required. But the bad news is that they often don’t get where they need to.
According to SACMEQ, half of the classrooms across six countries studied in Sub-Saharan African have no textbooks at all, because of cost and logistical issues. And as Michael Trucano notes in his World Bank blog, ”Only 1 out of 19 countries studied (Botswana) ha[s] adequate textbook provision at close to a 1:1 ratio for all subjects and all grades.” Books just aren’t getting to Sub Saharan Africa.
Now consider e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle, a technology that is moving astonishingly quickly in the developed world. (In January 2011, e-book sales surpassed those of hardback books in the US.) These devices were designed for readers in wealthy countries, but their impact on the developing world may well be even more profound due to the relative lack of access to books, and the ever-increasing popularity of mobile phones: it’s getting hard to find a part of the world where kids don’t have access to cell phones, and with that, some kind of power supply to keep them recharged… and of course, e-readers use the cell phone network to download new books.
Most importantly, e-readers offer a blend between something familiar and something new. What is familiar: teachers already know how to incorporate books into their classrooms, and students already know how to use devices with keyboard and screens thanks to the growth of cellphones. But what is new is the concept of nearly infinite choice: now students can read not only the books that are required in their classrooms, but also have access to any book that piques their curiosity. Watching a child finish a Curious George book and then ask: “Can I have another?” is magical.
Worldreader is currently working with 500 teachers and students across three grade levels in Ghana to measure the impact of e-readers, and the effects have been pretty dramatic. We’ve loaded e-readers with about 80 books each – a combination of local textbooks and storybooks we have digitized along with international books donated by Random House, including the entire Magic Tree House series. That’s 40,000 books already delivered – nearly impossible to contemplate without the use of e-readers.
But beyond that, two-thirds of the children are downloading an average of one free book a week, along with numerous free samples, free trial subscriptions to magazines like Popular Mechanics, and more. Along the way, we’re measuring the children’s reading levels, and are conducting mid-term evaluations right now. We can tell you that based on the number of books downloaded and read so far, we expect to see some remarkable progress in a short amount of time.
Here is a brief video about two of the students in our program:
Does our experience suggest a bright future for all tablet-style devices in the developing world? Possibly, but it may be that e-readers have some important characteristics that position them particularly well to have a large impact soon. We’ve talked about some already – connectivity, lower power consumption, and relative ease of incorporation into the classroom. But to that we should add their relatively low prices (we predict the highest-volume e-readers will dip below $99 within 18 months), and the enormous opportunities they represent for publishers.
In the developed world, publishers think of e-readers as a threat, but in the developing world, they’re more of an opportunity. We’ve worked with 10 Sub-Saharan African publishers already to help them digitize their books so they can be used not only in our programs, but sold throughout the world. And for international publishers like Random House, their enthusiasm to donate books to our program in the short-term is philanthropic, but in the longer-term, their enlightened self-interest can be a powerful motivator: today’s children are tomorrow’s book-buyers.
E-readers are still in their infancy, and we all have a lot to learn about how they work in the developing world. (In fact, we’re working with e-reader manufacturers to incorporate our feedback about reliability and durability.) But our early experience in Ghana suggests that this single-purpose device addresses a whole series of logistical problems that have plagued book distribution efforts for years, and adds an important element of choice that’s never been possible before in the world’s poorest countries.
Years from now we might look back and see entire countries who have essentially skipped the paper stage of books in favor of e-books, and whose citizens have grown up in a world where they have access to any book that piques their curiosity.