The recent announcement  that Amazon.com will be dropping the price of its latest Kindle e-reader to US$139 is only the latest news item from the exploding field of 'e-books', which is receiving increasing attention from education policymakers around the world.
Now, while some may argue that too much attention is paid to the retail prices of ICT-related hardware for use in education , there is no denying that, as prices continue to fall, discussions around the potential use of such devices in a variety of educational settings will only increase.
Back in December the EduTech blog asked, rather speculatively, Can eBooks replace printed books in Africa?  It turns out that this question is not only hypothetical. A number of organizations are investigating answers to questions as this -- including the World Bank, where, in response to requests from a few countries, researchers are investigating possible opportunities and potential impacts of the introduction of a variety of digital technologies (including e-readers) into learning environments in sub-Saharan Africa.
Preparations have begun for a potential pilot project later this year in Africa exploring the use of e-readers in specific local learning contexts.
As part of this preparation, a small number of e-readers were distributed to students as a first step in exploring potential use cases to consider and to begin assessing how the use of e-readers might fit in within larger needs assessment work related to potential activities to support a variety of educational needs in local communities.
While traditionally the World Bank only releases public information about its analytical studies after long deliberation and review, thought I'd share early 'findings' from this preliminary (and on-going) work, in case it might be relevant to others considering similar activities, and to shed some light on how the World Bank goes about its work, in case such things might be of interest.
Baseline information was gathered in June on reading habits and other possible conditions that might influence affect and impact the experiences of 30 students, who were given e-book readers for one month. In July, these 30 students were brought together to share their experiences as part of a 'de-briefing workshop' designed to help guide the development of a true pilot project. The workshop focused on two things: (1) results from a quick survey on student reading habits and familiarity with electronic gadgets; and (2) specific observations from the actual use (and non-use) of the e-reading devices by secondary school students.
Some quick highlights:
Access to reliable power was seen as a major obstacle to readers ability to use an e-reading device. Specific to the device used in the pre-pilot testing period, students noted that having a backlit screen would make it much easier to read when it was dark out (over the course of the month-long experiment, most reading on the devices took place during the day). The time lost by having to charge a device's battery was also cited; one use suggested that having removable batteries would facilitate quick swapping of used and charged batteries (this would obvious have other consequences).
- Text size
The ability to zoom in on text was of great importance to the African students.
- Aesthetics (and dirt)
Having e-readers in dark colors was something suggested by users, as there was a fear that white devices would quickly get dirty.
- Local content
There was a clear interest in having texts by local authors included on the e-reader, and not just the already digitized 'classics' already available.
Students requested that more 'cool functionality' be integrated into the e-reading device, including color screens, the ability to play music and games, etc. This was interesting for a number of reasons, including the fact that it showed that users compared the devices more to computers (or in some cases, phones) than they did to 'old-fashioned' books.
Overall, it was clear that the students had no problem understanding how to use the simple e-reader technology introduced in this beta pilot; they used it regularly and enjoyed the experience. The idea behind this quick exploratory user research  was not to draw large conclusions about the utility or cost-effectiveness of e-readers for 'students in Africa'. Rather, it was meant to provide useful input into the development of the parameters of, and to flag possible implementation issues for, a subsequent pilot project where a a variety of hypotheses and implementation modalities will be tested. The full pilot project will, among other things, compare the impact of access to texts in traditional book and e-book formats on student reading and study habits, explore what impact (if any) any changes in such habits may bring about, and attempt to identify the related costs.
The World Bank has already received requests to explore similar or related work from other countries in Africa, Asia and South America. We hope to provide periodic updates on this initiative as it develops. We'd be happy to hear from other people or organizations doing similar work.
Please note: The image used at the top of this blog post of old books from the Basking Ridge Historical Society ("not destined for the rubbish bin yet -- but you'd better make room on the shelf!") comes from Flickr user William Hoiles  via Wikimedia Commons  and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license .