What we are learning about reading on mobile phones and devices in developing countries

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they tell me my generation is supposed to be able to 'leap frog'
they tell me my generation is
supposed to be able to 'leap frog'

Each year on 8 September, groups around the world gather together to celebrate "International Literacy Day", which is meant to highlight the importance of reading, and of being able to read. In the words of UNESCO, the UN organization which sponsors International Literacy Day, "Literacy is one of the key elements needed to promote sustainable development, as it empowers people so that they can make the right decisions in the areas of economic growth, social development and environmental integration." As contentious as issues around education around the world can be at times, there is little debate about the fundamental importance of literacy to most human endeavors.

New technologies can play important roles in helping to enable efforts and activities to teach people to learn how to read -- and to provide people with access to reading materials. As part of its communications outreach on International Literacy Day this year, for example, UNESCO highlighted recent experiences in Senegal targeting illiterate girls and women, where it has found that "mobile phones, computers, internet and TV make literacy courses much more attractive for illiterate women."

The potential for mobile phones and other mobile devices like e-readers to aid in literacy efforts has been a recurrent theme explored on the EduTech blog. In so-called 'developing countries', books may be scarce and/or expensive in many communities -- and reading materials that *are* locally available may not be of great interest or relevance to many potential readers. The fact that increasing numbers of people in such communities are carrying small portable electronic devices with them at all times capable of displaying text, and which indeed can hold tens, even thousands of digital 'books', has not gone unnoticed by organizations seeking to increase literacy and promote reading.

Two recent publications -- Reading in the Mobile Era and Mobiles for Reading: A Landscape Review -- attempt to take stock of and learn from many of the leading efforts around the world in this regard.


Reading in the Mobile Era: A study of mobile reading in developing countries [pdf] is the result of a year-long study to "explain the habits, preferences and demographic profiles of mobile readers in seven developing countries. By painting a picture of how mobile reading is practiced today and by whom, it offers insights into how mobile technology can be leveraged to better facilitate reading in countries where literacy rates are low."

As part of this effort, Mark West, the lead author of the report for UNESCO, asks and attempts to answer a series of quite useful, quite practical questions:

  • Who are the people reading on mobile phones in developing countries?
  • Why are people reading on their mobile phones?
  • What are mobile readers’ attitudes towards reading?
  • What are the reading habits of mobile readers?
  • What do people want to read on their mobile phones?
  • What are the barriers to mobile reading?
  • What predicts intentions to read on mobile phones?

The report concludes by discussing a number of key related recommendations and their potential policy implications. The report contains a rich amount of detail, data and anecdote, and for those interested in the topic, Reading in a Mobile Era should be considered a 'must read'.

Mobile Reading Survey:
Key Findings

1. Mobile reading opens up new pathways to literacy for marginalized groups, particularly women and girls, and others who may not have access to paper books.
2. People use mobile devices to read to children, thereby supporting literacy acquisition and other forms of learning.
3. People seem to enjoy reading more and read more often when they use mobile devices to access text.
4. People read on mobile devices for identifiable reasons that can be promoted to encourage mobile reading.
5. Most mobile readers are young, yet people of various ages are capable of using mobile technology to access long-form reading material. More can be done to encourage older people to use technology as a portal to text.
6. Current mobile readers tend to have completed more schooling than is typical.
7. There appears to be a demand for mobile reading platforms with text in local languages, level-appropriate text and text written by local authors.

from Reading in the Mobile Era, UNESCO 2014

Reading Without Books, a complementary publication due out soon, will analyze specific mobile reading initiatives around the world. Like Reading in a Mobile Era, it will emerge as a result of a partnership between UNESCO, Nokia and the Worldreader NGO (which has been featured on the EduTech blog previously and whose web site contains a section containing number of quite [pdf] useful [pdf] reports [pdf] documenting what it has been learning through its efforts to provide increased access to digital books to young readers, mostly in Africa, both using e-readers and mobile phones.)


This is also the focus of a new study supported by USAID and the mEducation Alliance, a consortium of institutions (including the World Bank) which investigating and sharing emerging lessons and insights from efforts to use mobile phones and other small electronic devices as part of educational efforts in middle and low income countries.

Mobiles for Reading: A Landscape Review [pdf] looks at "44 existing projects incorporating the use of mobile technologies (broadly defined) to accelerate reading, particularly in developing countries .... focus[ing] primarily on the use of mobile ICTs designed to help children learn to read, practice reading (reading to learn), and acquire a broader range of learning skills that support a literate society." Researchers exploring these topics may be especially interested in annexes A and B, which contain a detailed list of the projects reviewed, and which to my understanding represents the most comprehensive such listing gathered to date. The analysis is quite usefully grounded in an understanding about what we know about reading, especially by children in developing countries, and the research literature that has emerged in the nascent field of information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D).

The report, whose lead author is Daniel A. Wagner of the University of Pennsylvania, concludes by noting that "the relatively recent advent of mobile technologies that have tremendous reach into all populations—young and old, urban and rural, rich and poor—across the globe provides a new opportunity to reimagine traditional forms of educational design and delivery."



If you are looking for opportunities to connect with some of the key people active in exploring how mobile devices can be used to help promote reading, especially in low and middle income countries, there are a few events that you may wish to mark down on your calendar. The annual mEducation Alliance International Symposium will take place next month in Washington, DC. The third such annual gathering, this symposium has quickly established itself as one of the premier global gatherings for people leading 'moble learning' efforts, especially those targeting readers in low and middle income countries, as well as for groups who might wish to fund such projects.

Another particularly notable annual event is UNESCO's Mobile Learning Week, which typically takes place in the first quarter of the year at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Over the past few years, UNESCO has been leading an ambitious effort to share emerging knowledge about the use of mobile devices in education, and has sponsored a number of key related publications, including a number of regional surveys (which were the subject of a previous post on the EduTech blog, Surveying Mobile Learning Around the World (part one)) and guidance for policymakers related to key issues [pdf] and related policy implications [pdf].

EFF11, the next installment in the influential series of online 'debates' sponsored by Education Fast Forward, will bring together a virtual group of people on 17 September 2014 to talk about "Mobile learning for the Masses? Realistic expectations and success criteria". Professor Miguel Nussbaum, whose work on the One Mouse Per Child project was featured in a previous EduTech blog post, will kick off the debate.



Over the past few years, a number of prizes have emerged to acknowledge and support the work of groups involved in literacy efforts around the world, increasing numbers of which are exploring innovative uses of mobile and digital technology devices. All Children Reading, an inititive of USAID, the Australian government and World Vision, sponsors a number of grants and prizes. In the latest competition round, it explicitly seeks "technology-based innovations that support improvements in reading skills" and, in cooperation with Big Ideas @Berkeley, it is now sponsoring a Mobiles for Reading prize. I am on the advisory board for the U.S. Library of Congress Literacy Awards. While this year's winners did not include any groups with a strong technology focus, last year's winner of the International Prize, PlanetRead (featured in an EduTech blog post, Bollywood Karaoke and Same Language Subtitling to Promote Literacy) certainly did. While at acknowledging that the primary mobile device for reading for many people will remain the printed book for at least a bit longer, I expect that, based on a number of strong applications over the past years, many of the contenders for future prizes will be ones which feature the use of mobile electronic devices quite prominently. No doubt the soon-to-be-announced Global Learning XPrize will!


You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image at the top of this blog post of a girl jumping on the playground of a school in Guatemala City, Guatemala ("they tell me my generation is supposed to be able to 'leap frog'") comes from World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr. The photo was taken by Maria Fleischmann / World Bank and is used according to the terms of its Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.


Michael Trucano

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

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