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Can eBooks replace printed books in Africa? An experiment

Michael Trucano's picture

Johannes Gutenberg isn't the only person interested in the answerIn the United States and Europe and a number of other places, sales of e-Book readers are growing by leaps and bounds, and many people hope to find shiny new portable electronic reading devices under their Christmas tree later this month. (Many of those who don't celebrate this particular holiday would be quite happy to receive them as well, of course.)

At the same time, organizations like the World Bank are being asked to help finance very expensive, large-scale purchases of printed educational material in many countries. (And because of the success of Education For All in many places, such purchases are bigger than ever before.)

Should poor countries in Africa be exploring investments in things like eBook readers for use in schools? 

Well, one way to find out would be to set up an experiment to test various approaches and solutions in pursuit of an answer to this question.


How do you evaluate a plan like Ceibal?

Michael Trucano's picture

I'd like to teach the world to code ... (used according to terms of CC license courtesy LIRNET.NET & AK Mahan)If you have had your fill of theories and promises about what the widespread diffusion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) might mean for teaching and learning practices across an entire education system and want to see what actual practice looks like, a trip to Montevideo (or better yet, one of the regions outside the Uruguayan capital) should be high on your list.

Under Plan Ceibal (earlier blog post here), Uruguay is the first country in the world to ensure that all primary school students (or at least those in public schools) have their own personal laptop.  For free.  (The program is being extended to high schools, and, under a different financial scheme, to private schools as well).  Ceibal is about more than just 'free laptops for kids', however.  There is a complementary educational television channel. Schools serve as centers for free community wi-fi, and free connectivity has been introduced in hundreds of municipal centers around the country as well.  There are free local training programs for parents and community members on how to use the equipment.  Visiting Uruguay last week, I was struck by how many references there were to 'one laptop per teacher' (and not just 'one laptop per child', which has been the rallying cry for a larger international initiative and movement). Much digital content has been created, and digital learning content is something that is expected to have a much greater prominence within Ceibal now that the technology infrastructure is largely in place.

Comparing ICT use in education across countries

Michael Trucano's picture

still lots of questions ...At a fundamental level, attempts to answer many of the pressing policy questions we have about the use of ICTs in educational settings around the world -- and the impact of such use -- are complicated by the fact that we still do not have reliable, globally comparable data in this area.  As hard as it may be to believe -- especially given the large investments being made in this area and the increasing strategic importance of this topic in many countries -- basic answers to many basic questions about the use of technology in schools around the world remain largely unanswered.  Such questions include:

  • How many schools are connected to the Internet (and what is the quality of that connection)?
  • How many teachers have been trained to use ICTs?
  • How many schools have access to sufficient reliable power?
  • How many computers are being used for learning purposes in schools?
  • In what subjects are computers meant to be used, and to what extent?

 
This is about to change.

A Talking Book for Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

a school in rural Ghana (courtesy World Bank photo archive)How do you provide vital information and literacy training to people with limited access to either -- especially if they are located in rural parts of Africa?  Cliff Schmidt, the founder of Literacy Bridge, recently stopped by the World Bank to discuss his work in northern Ghana to help investigate answers to this question.  Most groups seeking to harness the power of information and communication technologies in developing countries in support of such objectives pilot test their 'solutions' where it is easiest to do so -- often in (reasonably) well-off urban or suburban settings (often buidling off prior experience using such technologies in OECD countries).  Literacy Bridge is notable in that it prioritizes helping people with the greatest challenges, rather than focusing on the easiest to reach. 

The 'Talking Book' is a low-cost audio device device with recording capabilities -- imagine a rubbery MP3 player about the size of a grapefuit -- rather ingeniously engineered (and re-engineered) to meet specific needs and usage scenarios in very poor communities in Africa.  It is designed for use in local languages, using locally produced content, as tool to promote literacy among primary school children (to cite just one goal and target group). One way to think of the device, Cliff said, is as a  'small portable computer without a display'.  While the project is still in its pilot stages, it is notable for its express interest in investigating solutions that are low cost and scalable from the beginning, and in rigorously monitoring and evaluating the impact of its interventions.

An international digital library for children

Michael Trucano's picture

reading times, they are a-changing ... (image courtesy Deutsches Bundesarchiv)What will reading be like for children around the world in the digital age? 

Ben Bederson thinks this is a question we should be asking children themselves.

Bederson, a professor at the University of Maryland (USA) and the co-founder (with Allison Druin) of the International Children's Digital Library (ICDL), was the keynote presenter at an event in Hangzhou, China earlier this week sponsored by UNESCO, the World Bank, the Korean Education & Research Information Service and a number of other partners.  The ICDL (not to be confused with the International Computer Driving Licence, which shares the same acronym) is dedicated to building a collection of "outstanding children's books from around the world and supporting communities of children and adults in exploring and using this literature through innovative technology designed in close partnership with children for children". The ICDL, which is part of the World Bank-funded READ project in Mongolia, currently features children's books in over 50 languages and receives over 100,000 visitors a month to its web site.

At the heart of Bederson's wide-ranging talk (and indeed at the heart of the ICDL itself) is a belief in the value and importance of child-centered design. Notably (and rather famously, in some quarters) the ICDL utilizes children as design partners in the development of the digital library, and how it is used.  Adopting this approach sometimes yields approaches that, at least for many in the audience in Hangzhou, were rather surprising.

The Maine thing about 1-to-1 computing

Michael Trucano's picture

these days Maine is internationally famous for much more than just lobsters ...A personal digital device,
at the point of learning,
as defined by the student.

The Magellan Plan in Portugal, Plan Ceibal in Uruguay and other various One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiatives around the world ... before all of these well-publicized large scale national educational technology programs came the 'granddaddy' of all such 1-to-1 computing initiatives: the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) in the northeastern corner of the United States.

The Maine Learning Technology Initiative web site catalogues a number of Maine "firsts" :

  • first state to seize the potential of technology to transform teaching and learning in classrooms statewide
  • first state with a plan to equip all students and teachers in grades 7 to 12 with personal learning technology statewide
  • first state to equip every 7th and 8th grade student and 7th through 12th grade teacher statewide with personal access to learning technology
  • first state to empower every 7th through 12th grade teacher in every school statewide with professional development and support to fully tap the potential of computers and the Internet
  • first state to provide the option of home Internet access to every 7th and 8th grade student in every school statewide

 
For those looking to learn more about the potential of and practical lessons from 1-to-1 computing initiatives for students, Maine is the longest-running and most-studied such program.

Television for a change (revolution in a box)

Michael Trucano's picture

public domain image of the Braun HF television from 1958 comes courtesy of Oliver Kurmis via Wikimedia CommonsA quick check of the user logs for the World Bank's EduTech blog shows that postings on the use of mobile phones in education consistently draw the most readers.  While highlighting the new and innovative appears to grab the attention of visitors, there is no denying the impact that 'old' technologies like radio and television continue to have on education around the world.  In an optimistic cover story in the most recent edition of Foreign Policy magazine, my World Bank colleague Charles Kenny makes the case in Revolution in a Box that, despite the recent hype around new Web 2.0 tools (like Twitter or Facebook), it is not the computer, but the TV that "can still save the world". 

Linking up with Enlaces (Chile)

Michael Trucano's picture

Enlaces logoWith apologies in advance to initiatives in a handful of other countries considered world leaders in this area (including Costa Rica, Namibia, Thailand, Mexico and Brazil):

Of all the programs in middle income and developing countries that have sought to introduce ICTs systematically into the education, the Chilean experience is perhaps the most lauded.  Enlaces has been the subject of much scholarly and policy attention since its inception almost two decades ago (including a publication from the World Bank back in 2004 [pdf]).

The fact that Chile and Enlaces is considered by many to be a global model of good practice presents policymakers in Chile with a(n enviable) challenge:

Where should Chile look for inspiration as it continues to evolve its programs exploring the effective use of ICTs in education?

A (digital) library ... in your pocket?

Michael Trucano's picture

are paper-bound books destined to go the way of the card catalogue? (image attribution at bottom of this blog posting)

Amazon, the company behind the Kindle, perhaps the world's most famous e-reader, recently announced an international version of its digital book reading device that will allow users to connect via 3G to download content in over 100 countries.   The early success of the Kindle, together with products like the Sony Reader, and the excitement over recently announced products like the Nook and Plastic Logic e-reading devices (Wikipedia has a nice list of these things), portends profound changes to the way we consume and distribute reading materials going forward.  The excellent (and highly recommended) Mobile Libraries blog explores what all of this might mean for one of most venerable of all information gathering, curation and dissemination institutions: the library. While Mobile Libraries documents issues related to how e-books and the like may transform the roles of the library in the industrialized countries of Europe, North America and Asia, there is no clear equivalent information resource highlighting what such advances might mean for developing countries.  But, in various ways, many people and projects are hard at work exploring such issues.

Tracking ICT use in education across Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

watching you watching him - photo courtesy of the World BankThe announcement from the World Bank earlier this week about a new $215 Million Central Africa Backbone Program that will bring low cost, high speed Internet to the region is the latest in a series of good news about improving connectivity across the continent, and between Africa and the rest of the world.   Kenya is just one of many East African countries which can expect a decrease in costs and improvement in quality in the not too distant future as a result of the recent landing of the Seacom and TEAMS cables, and two projects which the World Bank supports, the Regional Connectivity Infrastructure Project (RCIP) and (through the IFC), the EASSy cable.

What does, or might, all of this improved connectivity mean for students and teachers in Africa? How can we keep track of all of the related changes happening throughout the continent?

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