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Worldreader is leading a reading revolution in the developing world

David Risher

In April of this year, I wrote the following in the Educational technology Debate post 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.”

Having just returned from visiting Worldreader’s program in Ghana, as well as looking at the recent trends in e-reader pricing, I believe this more strongly than I did six months ago. The planets are coming into alignment for a true revolution in the way the developing world reads, and consequently for the way students learn.

Worldreader’s impact

First, a bit of background. Worldreader is working to put books into the hands of one million children in the developing world by 2015. Working with USAID and a private aid agency in Ghana, we’ve put e-readers into the hands of hundreds of children, and then loaded them with local text- and story-books, as well as international fiction.

In total, we have distributed over 80,000 e-books in the past nine months. It’s worth thinking about that number for a second, because it’s staggering: it’s the equivalent of two-and-a-half shipping containers. In our case, they were all delivered wirelessly, using the same cell-phone infrastructure that is becoming more ubiquitous every day. (Ghana’s Daily Graphic reports that mobile phone penetration stands at 81%.)

What’s even more interesting is that number doesn’t count the thousands of books that the children and teachers have downloaded themselves over the same period. Just looking at the four-month period from May-August (much of which was over vacation), we logged downloads of 1,301 free book downloads and samples (one popular book: No Good Deed), 1,036 educational game downloads (including Thread Words— I played it with a few students while I was there), and 92 subscription downloads for free trials of newspapers and magazines.

Remember that all of this is against a context of a severe lack of books. 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.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that when we put books into students’ and teachers’ hands, they read them. Two weeks ago I met a girl named Patience who had read 90 books in the past six months, and she wasn’t alone: children across the classroom had devoured 50, 60, or 70 books. In fact, on average children are now spending 50% more time reading than those in control schools, and primary students’ test scores have increased some eight points more than those of students in comparable schools.

While everyone knows that test scores fluctuate wildly over the short-run, it’s clear that these children are reading more than ever before, and the effect is almost palpable. (The USAID observer who dropped in on our program admitted he’d never seen young children so engaged in reading… and he’d been a teacher for 10 years before joining USAID.)

Interestingly, the “reading effect” wasn’t limited to students. The English teacher at Adeiso Presbyterian Junior High School teaches one class with e-readers and one without. He admitted to me that he felt a bit lazy (his words) in the e-reader class, because the students had already competed all the reading. Cynthia, a primary-school teacher, proudly showed her collection of religious and inspirational book samples that she had collected. And parents we surveyed reported that their children were reading to their siblings after school.

Local publishers embrace e-readers

Equally interesting is how publishers are responding. Local publishes see this as an opportunity to expand their market dramatically, both within the developing world and outside. As Elliot Agyare of Ghana’s SMartlin Publishing has said, “I’d be more than happy to drop my prices to [50 cents] if I could sell on hundreds of thousands of e-readers.”

Meanwhile, international publishers have taken note: Worldreader has obtained the rights to use books from Random House (including the Magic Tree House series), Penguin (including four of Roald Dahl’s books), and more in our program for free. For international publishers, it’s an inexpensive way to help the developing world become active readers.

A selection of the 230 books in Worldreader’s program.

Overcoming issues – real and perceived

The other interesting news is what’s not happening: theft hasn’t been a problem. Of the 500+ e-readers in circulation in Ghana, we’ve lost a grand total of three over the past six months. And a boy came up to me while I was there and reported he thought he’d seen one of the missing units in town— we’re tracking it down. The communities have been magnificently unified in working with us to see our work together succeed.

Of course, there’s less-good news too: e-readers still break too often (though Amazon has done good analysis on why, and is helping with solutions, plus we’re now using different cases and rolling out an incentive program to keep the Kindles unbroken). It’s not always easy to keep up with the kids’ appetite for new local books: it takes a fair amount of effort to maintain momentum with local publishers who have lots of issues to juggle. But these issues get easier with scale, as we build demand for more hardware and books.

At this point, most observers will be thinking two things: the program, though early, seems to have some traction, but the cost must be high. And there’s no doubt that e-readers are still too expensive to catch on widely in the developing world. But recent evidence suggests convincingly that prices are coming down fast: Amazon’s least-expensive Kindle is now $79, as compared to $399 three years ago. Of course, that’s for an advertising-supported, WiFi only model.

Still, if you assume the existence of a $50 e-reader, and spread that cost over 5 years, you’re approaching costs that many parents and governments can bear. In fact, the enclosed picture of a receipt is for the purchase of a single math textbook that a headmaster purchased on behalf of one of his teachers. The cost of the book is 12 Ghanaian Cedis (about $8.00) for only one of about eight required textbooks across the curriculum.

Expanding past Ghana

But perhaps the success we have seen so far is specific to conditions in Ghana, or to the people involved in this pilot. Well, early indications from our work in East Africa suggest otherwise. This past weekend, Al Jazeera aired a piece on our work in Kenya’s Rift Valley, and the results are largely consistent with what we’ve seen in Ghana.

What’s remarkable is that after the initial set-up, content load, and training, much of the on-going work has been in the hands of local teachers. We believe this is a fundamental ingredient to the success of any ICT program: teachers have to embrace the program, and for that to happen, implementation needs to be easy. In the case of e-readers, this is the case: the technology is simple to use, and in the end, incorporating it into the classroom feels familiar. After all, they’re really just books.

Worldreader is just getting started. The technology we’re using is still early in its development, and prices are still high. But the trends are all headed in the right direction to allow us to achieve something unimaginable before, potentiall allowing entire countries to skip the paper stage of books in favor of e-books. If that happens, we’ll unleash a wave of creativity that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.

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