E-Reading in Africa

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a, b, c, d, ... E?!
a, b, c, d, ... E?!

Back in 2008, a World Bank study on Textbooks and School Library Provision in Secondary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa [pdf] noted that "There is little or no evidence in any of the 19 countries reviewed of any systematic approach to, or consideration of, the full range of secondary textbook cost reduction strategies", adding that "Only 1 out of 19 countries studied (Botswana) had adequate textbook provision at close to a 1:1 ratio for all subjects and all grades."

In other words: There aren't enough textbooks for most students in Africa, and what is available is too expensive.

A number of groups are looking at this reality and wondering if the use of inexpensive e-book readers may be able to help.  One such group at the World Bank is exploring an e-book pilot initiative in Nigeria (which has been examined previously on the EduTech blog). This pilot is looking at what it might take to deliver textbooks in digital formats for reading by secondary school students on dedicated e-readers, and what might happen as a result.  It is not just looking at the use of official textbooks, however.  The project team is also seeking to investigate the potential impact on educational achievement of making small libraries of digital books available to students on e-readers.  In doing so, it is intrigued by studies such as Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations, which found that

"Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China. Data are from representative national samples in 27 nations, with over 70,000 cases, analyzed using multi-level linear and probit models with multiple imputation of missing data."

(If you are interested in this study's findings but don't want to read the full academic paper, you might be interested in the related press release on the University of Nevada, Reno web site, Books in the home as important as parents’ education level.)

This twenty year comparative study of course looked at 'old-fashioned' books -- i.e. the kind made of paper and which often are grouped together on shelves.  As the world moves slowly but steadily toward increasing consumption of materials in digital formats, would we expect such findings to still hold?  Might there be a difference in the potential impact of the type of 'scholarly culture' identified in this thought-provoking paper when we talk about e-books?  These will no doubt be interesting questions to explore going forward.

(For what it's worth: I do wonder about the potential signalling effect of having lots of books visible on shelves in the home, and of children seeing their parents read books regularly -- and how this might change with the widespread use and availability of e-books.  In reading cultures where the consumption of digital materials is predominant and where the 'shelves' are virtual, some of the most obvious superficial markers of a 'scholarly culture' within the home -- shelves full of books -- are absent.  If these shelves disappear, and if it is difficult for children to tell whether their parents are reading a book, or an email, or the cricket scores, or playing a game, on their electronic media consumption device, would the same effects still be observable?)

The small World Bank e-book pilot (which will potentially be replicated in countries from Tanzania to the Philippines) is far from the only project exploring the potential for e-reading in Africa.  The Yoza (m4lit) initiative in South Africa, for example, is making an important contribution to our understanding of the potential for 'reading cultures' to be supported and enabled through the use of digital texts on mobile phones.  Another group exploring the potential for more 'traditional' e-readers (if one can even make such a statement about such a new class of devices) in Africa is the Worldreader NGO, which was founded by a former executive who helped oversee Amazon's very successful foray into e-books (the results of which today are most associated with its Kindle e-reading software and device).  Worldreader was the recent focus at one of USAID's excellent learning events exploring issues related to the use of mobile devices in education sponsored by the development agency's 'Mobiles for Education for Development' (m4Ed4Dev) initiative (in which the World Bank also participates).

The working hypotheses behind the work of Worldreader are that:

  • E-readers will increase access to books due to lower distribution costs and immediate visibility of millions of books available online.
  • This will result in a larger number and greater variety of books read, and increased excitement and exchange of ideas around these books.
  • The result will be a higher value placed on reading within the classroom, family, and community.
  • The results will be specific and measurable, and will, in the long term, increase literacy and opportunity for those involved.

As a way to begin to test such hypotheses, the group is engaging in some small scale pilots, including a year-long pilot study in Ghana (a popular place for pilot projects).  A recent progress report from the iRead trial [pdf] available on the Worldreader web site -- and a companion report [pdf] detailing the intervention in the OrphanAid Africa School in Ayenyah -- make for very interesting reading.   A final report is expected in October 2011; you may wish to monitor the well-maintained Worldreader blog to track progress.

(embedded video courtesy of YouTube)

It is perhaps worth noting that e-books are attractive to many ministries of education in developing countries -- and schools and teachers and parents -- in ways that laptops, for example, are not.  Laptops are attractive too, of course (!), but in many quarters, it is thought that e-books are a better fit with the current technical infrastructure (that, for example, ensures that people are able to charge their mobile phones) and are less 'distracting' than computers and phones (which, after all, allow students to play games, text each other, and offer access to the myriad 'distractions' of the Internet). My point here isn't to start a debate about the potential merits of various devices or educational philosophies, but rather simply to observe that, for certain groups of education policymakers (and not a few of their counterparts in international development agencies), the use of e-book readers often fits rather comfortably within their existing view of educational delivery ("in the end it's just a book, and we understand books", an African education official remarked once to me) in ways that potentially 'disruptive' and 'connected' technologies like laptops and phones do not.

Many people (rightly) cite the falling costs of e-book readers as a reason to be optimistic about the potential for the widespread adoption of e-readers over time in developing countries in Africa and Asia.  This is certainly a trend that is very exciting.  That said, I have been involved in more than a few presentations where the projected costs for physical textbooks and the costs for e-readers are graphed over time.  With the costs for e-readers projected to continue to fall, at some stage a point of intersection is achieved.  It is at this juncture, advocates say, that the costs for using e-readers will help ministries of education achieve significant cost savings.  This is potentially true ... assuming a whole set of other things are in place that ensure that locally relevant content is available at affordable prices to put on the (increasingly low cost) devices. While end user device costs are important, they are only one piece of the puzzle.

Even if the news that emerges from the pilots sponsored by the World Bank, Worldreader, USAID and other groups is encouraging, much work will have to be done if the necessary 'ecosystems' are to be in place to ensure that there are (to cite just a few examples) relevant, inexpensive digital texts in local languages and efficient distribution networks for related hardware and digital content -- to say nothing of vibrant markets in which firms, civil society organizations, education institutions and social entrepreneurs can participate to ensure that local needs and demands for reading materials are met.  As with any potentially disruptive innovation, there are also entrenched interests that may, um,  'complicate' things.  Traditional publishers, for example -- including, in some places, affiliated arms of ministries of education themselves -- are not disinterested actors here.

Questions about whether -- and how --  e-books can help bridge achievement gaps are certainly not limited to Ghana, Nigeria or South Africa.  But it may be from such places that some of the most interesting answers emerge.

Also of potential interest:

  • For another take on Worldreader, see this article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review
  • Many discussions of the potential for digital textbooks on e-readers draw inspiration from the movement to create 'open textbooks'.  Here's a useful review [pdf] of what's happening in that area.

: The public domain image of some young readers and their teacher in Djibouti used at the top of this blog post ("a, b, c, d, ... E?!") comes via Wikimedia Commons.  The embedded video of the Worldreader pilot in Ghana comes via YouTube.


Michael Trucano

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

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