Can eBooks replace printed books in Africa? An experiment


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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.

Up front, let us stipulate that a few things are clear:

  • Reading digital content on portable electronic devices is the wave of the future -- and the future is coming faster than many people would have predicted only a few years ago
  • Printed books are not going away any time soon, even in the most technologically advanced societies
  • The markets for books and contexts for publishing and reading in OECD countries and in poor countries in Africa, in schools and at home, are very different in many ways
  • The means and methods of production and dissemination of reading content in OECD countries in OECD countries and poor countries in Africa are very different in many ways
  • Rolling out e-Book readers at scale would probably require complementary investments in related activities and industries (like, for example, digital content production)

There are lots of reasons why this might be a stupid (or at least quite premature) question to ask.  But why might this not be such a dumb question?

Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that a researcher had an agreement with a country to do a small, randomized control trial to compare how the use of eBooks might impact educational attainment against some pre-agreed measures compared with the use of old-fashioned books, and to determine and document what the related costs would be.

What would be important factors to control for in such an experiment, and what additional pieces of information would be important to consider? Are similar types of experiments already underway?

More practically:

  • What companies could and should be approached, and what products considered, to participate in and contribute to such an experiment?
  • Are there emerging devices that are perhaps 'below the radar' or only recently introduced that would be ideal candidates for deployment in such an experiment?

Your comments (either below, or via the contact link for this blog), are most welcome.

(Please note that this blog gets enough comment spam already, we do not mean to invite more here with this post.  This is especially true for spam masquerading as a comment that is, in the end, just an attempt by marketers to have the URL of their company, product or service published -- and, by having that their content linked to from a page on a domain, raise their Google rank ever so slightly.)

Depending on what we hear, we may have a preliminary answer to this question to share with you by this time next year.

Note: This was a topic discussed, in a presentation at the World Bank earlier this year, and as part of the online EduTech Debate sponsored by infoDev and UNESCO:

Please note: The image used at the top of this blog entry was obtained via Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.


Michael Trucano

Global Lead for Innovation in Education, Sr. Education & Technology Policy Specialist

December 18, 2009

I think it's definitely an idea worthy exploring. What about audio though? While the costs of E-book readers might be prohibitive for now, cheap MP3 players are easily available.

An audio syllabus could definitely supplement learning and could also be used for adult education.

December 18, 2009

Possibly, A mixture of e-books coupled with print-on-demand for paper-based books might be the way forward.

December 18, 2009

Great article that considers the important question of combining print and digital books in the classroom. It is the first such article that I have read. I like the way that you offer links at the end - for readers to find out more. Thanks!

Michael Trucano
December 18, 2009

Hi Charlie,

Thanks for your comments. I agree that audio devices are worth exploring as well.

There was a post a few weeks ago about one such initiative:

A Talking Book for Africa

And of course interactive radio instruction (IRI) has a long and well-studied history in some parts of Africa. Of course, broadcast radio and the use of MP3 players are not exactly the same thing (although one could view the use of MP3 players as a type of time-shifted radio), but presumably a lot of the lessons from IRI initiatives could inform the use of initiaitves utilizing MP3 audio players of various sorts.

Some links of potential interest:

EDC has been a leader in exploring the use of IRI:

In the United States, Duke University has had perhaps the most widely-known pilot using iPods: (admittedly, a device too expensive for consideration in most developing countries, given current price points)

Michael Trucano
December 18, 2009

Both Wilf and 'anonymous' make good points: that whatever 'e-Book solutions' eventually roll-out, these will be as a complement to (and not totally replace) printed material. The history of technology adoption is replete with examples of new technologies not totally displacing old technologies, a point explored at great length in the academic literature.

(Here's one example, from Ron Adner of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and Daniel Snow of the Harvard Business School:
“Old” Technology Responses to “New” Technology Threats: Demand Heterogeneity and Graceful Technology Retreats
[link is to a PDF document])

December 18, 2009

Considering that eBook readers from Sony and Amazon cost more than the $100 laptop, I suggest the laptop is a better educational tool. I've taken Robert Schiller's Yale course online, used YouTube to watch linear algebra classes from MIT. These tools were free and more helpful than my textbook. Paper is dirt cheap and recyclable, used textbooks are available at a fraction of the cost of new. So unless prices come down for ebook readers, a lot, I predict there are more useful ways that money can be spent.

My textbook costs typically exceed $300/semester. If my textbooks were free and open source, then a ebook reader would make sense for me. We're getting there, maybe some day.

Michael Trucano
December 18, 2009


Your comments point to one of the fundamental dilemmas on the device side confronting policymakers when it comes to investment decisions related to eBooks: what are the advantages and drawbacks (and associated costs) of promoting the use of a purpose-built device (like an eBook) over a multi-use device like a laptop? There are valid reasons why one might opt for one or the other, depending on the specific need.

(And, just to complicate matters further, some of the prototype next generation eBook readers that I hear talked about make this distinction even fuzzier, as they appear to offer hybrid functionality.)

In addition, at the very low end of pricing, there are niche devices that could conceivably fall under the eBook reader category like, for example, the Wiki Reader from Openmoko [], which offers the 'Wikipedia in your pocket', to say nothing of initiatives related to the development of inexpensive, rugged e-Bibles and e-Korans.

And all of this is to say nothing of the use of mobile phones as e-readers ...

John Powers
December 18, 2009

The proposed trial compares printed books with e-books, but one step up is the way content is being made today. Printed books follow strict intellectual property protocols and much digital content is being created with different protocols. The question the study hopes to provide answers about is whether investment in e-readers is cost effective. If the issue is best ways to distribute digital content, the trial should compare different ways of distributing digitally created content, for example the cost of providing open-textbook projects in different formats; printing or e-book.

December 18, 2009


I think the winner would likely be mobile phones as e-readers. Learners would also be able to do interactive tests with these same phones as a possible extension to what is already happening with surveys using Frontline SMS.

Pat Plonski
December 21, 2009

This is a great question that you pose. I think that some combination of hard copy books and e-readers or mobile phones would provide the most educational "bang for the buck". Providing hard copy books, especially donated books, has been proven to be cost effective at increasing education and literacy at a low cost. This does not unfortunately address local curriculum and language needs. However, local curriculum needs and local languages can make local procurement of high quality, hard copy books expensive. If we could find a way to combine hard copy books (even donated from the United States) for general library use, and combine this with locally procurred books and e-readers containing local content, that might provide the best of all worlds. The trick is to find the right combinations of educational materials and delivery methods and secure the financing.

Cavin Mugarura
December 23, 2009

Electronic books have the potential to reduce the knowledge gap for students in developing countries. They also have the potential to become a cash cow for Publishers and Authors. There is no doubt that Piracy has had fatal effects in attracting authors to the publishing industry. New business models are available for electronic books. Publishers can adopt a model where the content is freely accessible, and they obtain revenue streams but adding paid advertisements. Google Books is an industry that is raking in millions of dollars. Publishers can also break new barriers by selling in markets that would not have been possible a few years back. An author in Rwanda, can sell his book to a reader, in Afghanistan. Is such a feat, easily replicable in the traditional print versions.

January 12, 2010

I don't think so. The thing you get easily, you will try that. Electronic books are expensive .. and easy to use like that of common books. I think the idea is good but implementation is quite tough. In this mobile edge it's possible to introduce ebooks but, as said earlier, the right way of marketing is needed.

January 13, 2010

Yes I am agree that e-books can better way to reduce gap between books and other student and people who are not interest in reading the book.I think that the real question is 'Can new technologies make learning more accessible, especially for those who do not have access to a quality basic education now?'
It is clear to me that the cost of delivering learning material will eventually be less via the Internet onto low-cost ICT devices than paper books. I am just not clear if it is cheaper yet.

January 18, 2010

This does not unfortunately address local curriculum and language needs. However, local curriculum needs and local languages can make local procurement of high quality, hard copy books expensive. If we could find a way to combine hard copy books (even donated from the United States) for general library use, and combine this with locally procurred books and e-readers containing local content, that might provide the best of all worlds.

Michael Trucano
January 27, 2010

A recent posting on the O'Reilly Radar may be of interest as well:

Bringing e-Books to Africa and the Middle East
Infrastructure, economics and censorship are major issues

March 07, 2010

The people at Worldreader are doing exactly this. See:

March 12, 2010

Rather than buying kindles/nooks or new e-readers, why not use existing technology that is already in learners' hands? Take a look at the use of cellbooks/ mobile novels in South Africa - which have been used in education, and particularly in reaching school children who otherwise do not have access to printed books (but do have cellphones). Some wonderful pioneering work done by Steve Vosloo of Shuttleworth Foundation, who released a cellbook with good take-up in September last year. See more here -
We are exploring this model for reaching youth in rural and underdeveloped areas with educational material.
It dramatically reduces costs because you don't have to buy e-readers, but more importantly, it uses a technology (mobile phone) that learners are already comfortable with and therefore skills transfer is easier.

Michael Trucano
March 12, 2010


Thanks for your comments. Your question is mine as well!

Indeed, the use of mobile phones as e-readers is one area of eager inquiry for us here at the World Bank (and the use of mobiles in education general is a topic of keen interest in general going forward,

That said, while the utility of such devices is not in doubt (I read and approved your comment using a mobile device, and just completed reading an 850-page book using only an iPod Touch, which is essentially an iPhone without the voice functionality of the traditional 'phone'), they are only one device among many under consideration for use in many countries. Building a solid knowledgebase informed by actual on-the-ground experience utilizing a variety of tools, in a variety of contexts, is what we are after here.

The work that Steve is doing at the Shuttleworth Foundation holds much promise in this regard (as does the work of others, like the group noted in the comment immediately before yours, WorldReader). We look forward to following this work closely as it develops.

Additional note: In addition to his excellent blog, to which Sam links in his comment, readers of the World Bank EduTech blog may also be interested in some of Steve Vosloo's recent presentations,

March 25, 2010

It is clear to me that the cost of delivering learning material will eventually be less via the Internet onto low-cost ICT devices than paper books. I am just not clear if it is cheaper yet.

April 14, 2010

i just got to look at this article, and i, like a good number of people who have contributed to this post feel that the ereader is poised to be the change-maker as far as Education in africa is concerned.

Now Africa is a big place, 50 or so states, each with somewhat unique education systems and curriculae, but ideally, in my view, all knowledge meted out in schools world wide ultimately converges.

If this is the case, then let me propose a model that uses eReaders in schools. i live in Kenya and will use the education system here as a model and allow you to extrapolate this to your own settings.

The body in charge of education here is the KIE(Kenya Institute of Education) and they work to produce texts that are used in primary, secondary and tertiary level colleges. in essence, this is where a lot of kenya's students are. they make a tidy fortune from this, but what if they could make more, much more?

imagine they gave out an ereader to every student as they get into primary school. the ereader could access the KIE servers via 3G(which has over 80% coverage here) and download the necessary ebooks that they'd need for that years coursework. where's the money in that, you ask?

well, every student buys a scratchcard that's scratched to reveal a hidden number(top-up scratch cards are big here, mainly due to the mobile network operators that sell their airtime this way, so the whole process's a no-brainer). Here, they could do two things

A. put in the scratch card number into a custom app that comes with the ereader and which tops up their ebook credit
B. attach the scratch card number to the ebook request sent to the KIE servers using a custom application.

infact, if there weren't the resources to develop custom apps for the ereader, then users could send an SMS with the scratched numbers to the KIE servers, which would validate the details and load the users credit level.

(There're just so many models to this, i'm sure others are probably coming to you right now)

The interesting thing here is that KIE doesn't spend a dime printing, stocking and transaporting the books, users don't carry around huge bags stacked with books, and KIE can see their money come in as well all behind a computer!

is this, and other models, worth thinking about? if someone can come up with a model that brings in money, isn't that one of the main issues cleared out of the way?

Rob O.
July 21, 2010

There seems to be a lot of hope placed upon cell phones to function as ebook readers, but the idea of reading more than a few sentences or scant paragraphs seems torturous when considering the typical flip phone. Sure, I can somewhat more comfortably access & digest larger amounts of text on my iPhone, but is that really representative of the kinds of phones that are or could be in place in the locales this centers around? I suspect not. And my iPhone is all but worthless without a PC to tether it to and perform (at least initially) setup steps from.

And we are talking about children here - about half the times my Kindergarten-age son carries his own lunch to the table, his sandwiches end up on the floor. Am I going to trust that he can carry a $400 smartphone around without dropping and breaking it? And what's the impact on his schoolwork if that vital smartphone does get dropped and he's left without a device for some period of time?

I'm not being a naysayer, just trying to think this through...

Save our Schools and Community
December 08, 2011

Great initiative and discussion going here. I represent a education non-profit in Port Elizabeth South Africa. We are embarking to launch ebook readers as a replacement for textbooks with a school we partnering with as a pilot project in 2012. Anyone that might be interested in partnering with this organisation (SOSAC or Save our Schools and Community) feel free to email me. Lets continue discussing this. I will share our successes or failures as we venture down this road.

October 22, 2011

Great discusssion here. The use of mobile phones are agents of delivering content to schools/students/learners seems the most practical way to go. The torturous accessing of contnt notwitstanding, the other devices that deliver contnt are much way too expensive. One doesn't need a smartphone to access the Net in East Africa...basic phones are already doing this and maybe this is where the future for changing how educational content is delivered lies...we just need to get a way of making it easier for the user to read the text.