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eReaders will transform the developing world – in and outside the classroom

David Risher

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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:

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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.



12 Responses to “eReaders will transform the developing world – in and outside the classroom”

  1. We absolutely love the idea of eReaders for the developing world. Yes, we all have a passion for the printed book, but when it comes to empowering those in need, eReaders have an important role to play. Let's all support the technology and get it into the hands that need them.

    Great stuff!

    Brad Wirz
    CEO & Founder
    Gone Reading International

  2. I will wait with great interest for the results to be published around improved literacy results since all this fantastic downloading and book consumption has been in place. Two questions – 1.Has pedagogy changed/ adapted to take advantage of the eReaders, or is the main advantage expected to come just from the presence of the books themselves? 2. Was it cost that saw eReaders rather than netbooks or tablets purchased? Or the extra simplicity?

  3. Building on Jonathan's questions, what's been the teacher usage model so far? Do they use the kindles/books to research better lesson plans or create better classroom content? Can teachers take the kindles home for private professional development or even just casual reading?On a technical note, how do you manage to get the WSJ or NYT in Ghana? The last I checked, kindles were "locked" to only download such content if the IP address was in the USA and select big name countries. Does Worldreader have an exception to this rule from Amazon? Or has Amazon (or more likely, the publishers) relaxed its content rules?

  4. Also, when you speak of transforming the developing world outside the classroom, what do you mean? Do you think eReaders will eclipse the laptop or mobile phone as the most common or most impactfull technology regardless of location? While I can see reading on an digital device to be transformative, couldn't mobile phones be a better platform for the masses? Yoza is a great example of this.I'm thinking that while some could afford multiple devices, most will only be able to access once device and will expect it to do many things.

  5. Megan Cassidy

    Let me start by saying how exciting the potential of this new technology is for resource-constrained settings. I am eager to see the results of this project in the medium- to long-term. I do have several questions that are similar to many of the questions that arise from introducing a technology that was not designed for this specific environment. First, to reemphasize the questions voiced earlier, what does the model for teacher training and pedagogical integration look like? How are they using the e-readers for their own continued development? You also mention working with a number of sub-Saharan African publishers. How successful has that relationship been in transcending issues of language and regional specificity? And finally, what kind of relationship have you established with the manufacturer? Is segmenting the market even a thought at their level or does that have to be facilitated to a certain extent within your organization?

    As I said, I'm eager to learn more about the model and its transformative impacts. Keep up the amazingly innovative work you're doing!

    • Great questions Megan. And your first point about "not been designed for this environment" was a little part of the impetus to put this project in motion, where we are demonstrating that e-readers with mobile connectivity have much more utility in northern Ghana where paper doesn't (and can't economically and continuously) get to, than in a NYC or London subway.

      The teacher training model is a work in progress. Why? Because we prefer to observe how teachers naturally integrate the e-reader into their class than prescribe how they do it. What we do see is that teachers embrace the e-reader because it is simple and dovetails into their own experience and capacities. Teachers are using the device to adress lesson planning (often an evolution of their plan for the first time in many years) but are happily using the e-reader to access material that they enjoy at home at the weekends. This will ultimately make them beter advocates to the students for the ereader and reading. Remember teachers are the main protagonists in most classrooms of the developing world and we would rather enhance their confidence in the classroom so that they positively advocate the joy of reading to their students. Students already get it (they are often way ahead) but it is so much better if the teacher is reinforcing the message.

      Publishers are very positive about digital books (and so they should be) and we continue to give preferential access to their local content in our pilot. A vibrant local publishing sector is key to ultimately developing a culture of literacy.

      And finally we will indeed spec the ideal device as one output from our pilots. The Kindle is one of many in the market, but it is frankly the best by far for our needs. We aim to directly stimulate manufacturers to design specifically for this market and our specs will enable them to do exactly that. Many challenges ahead no doubt but we will keep this forum informed of what we observe and learn.

  6. robvanson

    There is also the Open Textbook Initiative of the Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/tag/open-textbooks

    There are many other Open Textbook initiatives, eg (am I not quite sure about the content of these projects), http://www.opentextbook.org/ http://p2pfoundation.net/Open_Textbooks http://www.openaccesstextbooks.org/

    I would also point out that there are numerous other ebook readers, beyond the Kindle. I love my Bebook One, which is simple to use, has no artificial limitations, and has WiFi connectivity (but no mobile phone connection).

  7. This is a really intersting post with an impressive range of equally interesting comments and challenges. I have been blogging (among other things) on some of the 'supply-side' issues from an academic perspective, i.e. why providing digital content and ebooks at low prices or even for free will become a key issue in the future and will change publsihing significantly.
    My main point was that the current academic system supports a publication model that ensures high profits for (academic) publishers, but that does not do much in terms of sharing knowledge, starting debates or helping academic writing to get feedback from the ‘real world’ – vital for research on international development, anthropology or any other social science.
    Issues around self-publishing and academic content will become as important as providing the right tools and pedagogical approaches 'on the ground'. If you are interested in the full post with further links etc you are most welcome at: http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2011/03/publishin

  8. Anthony Bloome of USAID has just sent me a 5 Minute Digest: eReaders from his monthly m4ed4dev series that focuses on WorldReader. Worth the read for more information from David's presentation at the series.

  9. Exactly, but a major factor could be interesting things to read which also contain useful information and ideas. Now some of the oldies but goodies are free.

    Black Man's Burden by Mack Reynolds http://sfgospel.typepad.com/sf_gospel/2008/08/machttp://www.feedbooks.com/book/4826/black-man-s-bu
    Border, Breed Nor Birth, by Dallas McCord Reynolds http://www.readbookonline.net/read/44240/93267/
    Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper http://librivox.org/omnilingual-by-h-beam-piper/ http://www.feedbooks.com/book/308/omnilingual

InfoDev UNESCO

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