An update on the use of e-readers in Africa

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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.

Those of us who work in the educational technology field are all-too-familiar with the phenomenon of locked computer rooms. Locking up the valuables didn't start with computers, of course.  This phenomenon has its direct antecedents in the locked bookcase -- something one still encounters in too many schools around the world, especially those in very poor communities where books are seen as too valuable to use (except perhaps on special occasions), lest they get 'damaged'.

Worldreader is trying to fight against, and reverse, this phenomenon by increasing access to reading materials. Many groups donate books to Africa; some have done so for decades. In some ways what Worldreader is trying to do is a 21st century, digital twist on something that has been going on for quite a while.  

The Worldreader presentation began by focusing on  literacy.  During the course of the presentation and subsequent discussion, it became clear that it is interested in a good deal more than this, but in today's funding environment, simplicity of message is often key for NGOs, and so it was perhaps not surprising that the presentation kicked with some general comments about the fundamental importance of literacy.  That said, very few people need to be convinced of the social benefits of reading.

Worldreader is informed by a basic belief that, the fewer interesting things someone has to read, the less she reads. It operates according to a few core, simple assumptions, including: Kids will think it's cool to use e-readers and so will spend time doing so (this was labeled the "shiny gadget hypothesis"). And: Having access to lots of books on an e-reader will increase the probability that kids will find something interesting, and so makes reading more likely.


Worldreader began its activities by wondering: What if we *only* influence the supply of e-readers, what will happen?  To some people, this may sound a lot like the approach commonly associated (rightly or wrongly) with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) approach. Worldreader actually studied the OLPC experience quite closely before launching, hoping to learn from the lessons of that high-profile initiative so that they would not face some of the same challenges.  One result is that they deliberately decided to complement the delivery of the devices with extensive engagement with local stakeholder groups, did a lot of capacity building with teachers and trainers, and tried to help align what they were doing with what was happening in the formal education system.

Of particular interest to many readers of this blog (some of whom I know are planning for large e-reader pilots in various places, including at least two African countries) may be lessons being learned by Worldreader about some practical operational challenges that might be common to initiatives of this sort:

1. Theft
This has not (yet) been a problem. WR feels that extensive consultation with local community leaders has has helped with this.

2. Power
Power has not yet been a serious issue.  Just like you can find Coca Cola in pretty every market in the world, even some of the remotest places, people seem to be able to find enough access to sources of electricity to keep their mobile phones charged as well.  Given the long battery life of e-reader devices (where charges last weeks, and not hours, as is the case with tablets), and despite the fact that, across much of Africa, the 'digital divide is as much about access to electricity as it is about access to computing resources and connectivity, power has not been a real problem so far.

3. Dust
Dust, and other environment hazards, like water, on the other hand, are very real issues.  Most e-reader devices were not designed with usage scenarios in rural communities in developing countries in mind. This can lead to ...

4. Breakage
Breakage is a very real issue. User education is one solution to this challenge, but Worldreader is finding that this will only go so far -- you also need sturdier devices. As it becomes more clear to device makers that there are (potentially large) markets for their e-readers in places where they don't currently exist, one would expect that this would begin to change -- but it hasn't yet.

One way around the dust and breakage issues is to utilize a device already in widespread use in the target communities.  Until now, Worldreader has basically been a Kindle-centric project, but going forward one expects that it will be increasingly device-agnostic.  One device with obvious potential to serve as an e-reader is the mobile phone, and last month a mobile phone app was announced to allow e-books distributed by Worldreader to be delivered to and read on mobile phones.

If you have a look at the Worldreader web site or at the great pictures included in their standard presentations, you will probably quickly note that all of the e-reader devices are Kindles.  While known as the 'Kindle NGO in some quarters, perhaps the most notable but under-recognized contribution from Amazon, Worldreader explained, was its help in finding a way to manage hundreds of devices at once (normally management is one user, one device, which complicates efforts to push lots of content to multiple devices at once). Back-end issues such as this become increasingly important as initiatives grow beyond small pilot projects, and it may be in regard to things device management and content distribution that some of the most impactful lessons from the Worldreader experience of immediate relevance to other initiatives of this sort may be found going forward.


All that is well and good, some might say, but what is actually being read on these devices -- especially if local curricular resources have not (yet) been digitized?  There is of course no shortage of classic texts available (through things like Project Gutenberg) for download and dissemination on these sorts of e-reading devices.  In addition, Worldreader has signed deals with a number of publishers to make lots of additional well known content (e.g. from Penguin, for the Roald Dahl estate) available. That said, there are very real concerns in some quarters that e-book initiatives from the 'West', however well-intentioned, are potentially an important tool contributing to a subtle form of, for lack of a better term, cultural imperialism. Worldreader is apparently working on a platform for African authors and publishers to be able to distribute their works electronically, so that it will be easier for students to read books from local authors, consistent with the learning goals of local school systems.  While not downplaying the difficulties of getting large educational publishers to make their content available digitally for use by students in Africa, this desire to help promote digital marketplaces for African reading materials is perhaps the most ambitious aspect to the Worldreader initiative. When they initially approached African publishers and authors about making their content available for free, they (not surprisingly) didn't always get the warmest reception.  When they went back and asked, "what if content was digitized and made available at $1/book?", many people suddenly got very interested.  (For what it's worth, Worldreader features about 240 or so digitized African titles right now, which they have co-published using the Amazon platform.) Who knows what (if anything) will eventually come of such efforts, but it is clear that many of the long-standing business models of large Western publishers are about to (if they have not already) face some large (and perhaps existential) shocks as a result of the move towards e-books. As in other areas where business as usual may not be viable going forward, perhaps some of the most compelling business models may emerge from so-called frontier or 'edge' markets (exactly the types of places where groups like Worldreader and scores of other tech-savvy firms and NGOs are active).


OK, you might say, we accept the importance of reading, we concede that reading will increasingly take place on portable digital devices, and we acknowledge that there are a great number of interesting implementation challenges that need to be solved along the way before this sort of thing can happen at any real scale in many communities in Africa. What do we know about the actual learning impact of doing this sort of thing?

A number of research efforts of various sorts are underway trying to help provide some tentative answers to this important question, based on Worldreader pilots.  Most notable has been the iRead pilot in Ghana (here's an executive summary of the first independent evaluation commissioned by USAID [pdf]), which used a set of pre- and post- literacy tests to three groups: a control group; a group which received just the devices; and a group that received the devices coupled with a number of 'pedagogical interventions'.  Worldreader is encouraged by the results it is seeing so far -- the biggest effects are being seen around grades 4-5, a result that many of the literacy experts attending the Worldreader presentation did not find surprising, for a variety of reasons -- but they are not yet seeing the types of 'blockbuster results' it is hoping. Part of this may be due to the fact that the effects are best observed over the long term (I must confess, I am as a rule immediately skeptical of the claims of most of the NGOs and firms who regularly send me reports of 'astounding, unequivocal, and immediate impact' of their education programs); part due to the need to experiment more with their implementation models; and part due to the need to look for different types of impacts, using different measures, tools, and methodologies.  Worldreader does appear serious and diligent in its approach, however, and so I look forward to receiving updates on the research output that I expect will emerge over time, which it plans to make available on part of its web site dedicated to "learnings". (Parenthetical note: Preliminary results from the World Bank's e-book pilot in Nigeria are expected later this year; background here, here, and here.)

What's next?

Based on preliminary successes and lessons from its first set of pilots, Worldreader is wondering, how do you scale initiatives like this exponentially so that they can have the broadest impact?

The first challenge in this regard is (as always) money. Here Worldreader is now starting to confront a phenomenon known to many who have worked in the ICT4D area for a while.  Finding funding support for small pilot projects, while not always easy, can be done. Large national educational technology projects are being funded in various countries around the world.  But what about the in-between level, where you do things at a much larger scale so that you can learn about how best to scale when you do things at a really big, national level?  Few funders seem able to provide support at this level.  As a result, one approach being explored is a franchising model, combining both donor and local partner funding, and a prototype 'Worldreader-in-a-Box' solution for local implementing groups is being rolled out and tested.

Whatever path it chooses, Worldreader says that, at the grassroots level, there are a few things that need to happen if its work is to have any sort of real impact.  They include:

1. Support from local education officials -- or there won't be the space to introduce new approaches and innovations
2. Support from teachers -- or the tools simply won't be used (effectively)
3. A need to give reading a higher social currency in many  local cultures, especially those that have very strong oral traditions -- often, where there are few books, this leads to not a lot of reading, which leads to reading not being highly valued (a vicious cycle)
4. Dedicated 'face time' in schools -- important to keep momentum going
5. Buy in from local support structures at the community level -- without which, an initiative from outside the community may remain 'foreign', and thus less likely to be embraced

The first stage of Worldreader activities in introducing e-books and e-readers into a few small communities in Africa has convinced the organization and its backers that what it is doing is worth doing.  We no longer need to convince ourselves "if" we should be doing this, they say.  Now the question is, "how?" 

Whatever conclusions you yourself draw in response to these questions, it will be interesting to learn from the attempts of Worldreader, and other groups doing similar things, in the coming years. 

Note: The picture used at the top of this blog post ("you can't help but notice all of the e-readers in this classroom ... did you also notice the absence of books?") comes from Worldreader and is used with its permission.


Michael Trucano

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

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