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What we are learning about reading on mobile phones and devices in developing countries

Michael Trucano's picture
they tell me my generation is supposed to be able to 'leap frog'
they tell me my generation is
supposed to be able to 'leap frog'

Each year on 8 September, groups around the world gather together to celebrate "International Literacy Day", which is meant to highlight the importance of reading, and of being able to read. In the words of UNESCO, the UN organization which sponsors International Literacy Day, "Literacy is one of the key elements needed to promote sustainable development, as it empowers people so that they can make the right decisions in the areas of economic growth, social development and environmental integration." As contentious as issues around education around the world can be at times, there is little debate about the fundamental importance of literacy to most human endeavors.

New technologies can play important roles in helping to enable efforts and activities to teach people to learn how to read -- and to provide people with access to reading materials. As part of its communications outreach on International Literacy Day this year, for example, UNESCO highlighted recent experiences in Senegal targeting illiterate girls and women, where it has found that "mobile phones, computers, internet and TV make literacy courses much more attractive for illiterate women."

The potential for mobile phones and other mobile devices like e-readers to aid in literacy efforts has been a recurrent theme explored on the EduTech blog. In so-called 'developing countries', books may be scarce and/or expensive in many communities -- and reading materials that *are* locally available may not be of great interest or relevance to many potential readers. The fact that increasing numbers of people in such communities are carrying small portable electronic devices with them at all times capable of displaying text, and which indeed can hold tens, even thousands of digital 'books', has not gone unnoticed by organizations seeking to increase literacy and promote reading.

Two recent publications -- Reading in the Mobile Era and Mobiles for Reading: A Landscape Review -- attempt to take stock of and learn from many of the leading efforts around the world in this regard.

Is Education for All Finally Possible?

Tanya Gupta's picture

The tragedy of our times is that access to quality education is limited.  Whether in the US, internationally, education remains a privilege that only select few are entitled to, whereas a majority of this without financial resources are forced to compromise on the quality of education or go without. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty and illiteracy which condemns the poor to stay poor. In the past few years technology has emerged as the single biggest game changer in the field of education.  As computing has become cheaper and more powerful, access to technology has increased proportionately. Another trend has been led by those who question traditional education methods and structure. For example many feel that teachers unions lead to a shift in focus away from the child to the pecuniary interests of the teachers. Others argue that the traditional classroom lecture where teachers talk and students listen is no longer effective. These trends have led to some interesting developments. Of these one is the focus of nonprofit organizations on supplying cheap tablets for free in the developing world. Another is the interesting possibility of eliminating school systems and teachers via innovative use of technology.

An update on the use of e-readers in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

you can't help but notice all of the e-readers in this classroom ... did you also notice the absence of books?What does it take to introduce e-books and e-readers into communities in low income countries -- and is this a good idea?

Judging by the increasing number of inquiries we receive here at the World Bank on this topic, we are not alone in asking such questions. If you want help in trying to answer these and related queries based on evidence from pioneers in this area, you will most likely find yourself at some point in contact with the folks at the Worldreader NGO. Co-founded by one of the former senior executives at Amazon, Worldreader is working with its partners to "bring millions of books to underserved children and families in the developing world".  Jonathan Wareham, a professor at ESADE in Barcelona who serves on the Worldreader - Spanish Foundation Board and collaborates with the organization on various research activities into the use of e-readers and e-books, recently stopped by the World Bank to talk about what Worldreader is learning from its work in Africa.

E-Reading in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture
a, b, c, d, ... E?!
a, b, c, d, ... E?!

Back in 2008, a World Bank study on Textbooks and School Library Provision in Secondary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa [pdf] noted that "There is little or no evidence in any of the 19 countries reviewed of any systematic approach to, or consideration of, the full range of secondary textbook cost reduction strategies", adding that "Only 1 out of 19 countries studied (Botswana) had adequate textbook provision at close to a 1:1 ratio for all subjects and all grades."

In other words: There aren't enough textbooks for most students in Africa, and what is available is too expensive.

A number of groups are looking at this reality and wondering if the use of inexpensive e-book readers may be able to help.  One such group at the World Bank is exploring an e-book pilot initiative in Nigeria (which has been examined previously on the EduTech blog). This pilot is looking at what it might take to deliver textbooks in digital formats for reading by secondary school students on dedicated e-readers, and what might happen as a result.  It is not just looking at the use of official textbooks, however.  The project team is also seeking to investigate the potential impact on educational achievement of making small libraries of digital books available to students on e-readers.  In doing so, it is intrigued by studies such as Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations, which found that