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

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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