I recently (3 months ago) purchased an Amazon Kindle electronic reader (e-reader) device and since then I have only read once hard copy book in contrast to the five electronic books I have read on the Kindle. E-readers have many advantages, they are optimized to reduce eye strain, books are cheaper, can carry multiple books on them at the same time, and they consume relatively little power: a one-hour charge typically lasts two weeks or more.
A few days after receiving my kindle e-reader I realized the device could play a big role in improving the educational system in developing countries. Education and literacy are critical drivers of economic growth. Yet in much of the developing world, children have access to a vanishingly small range of reading material. Transportation issues, logistical problems, payment difficulties — all reduce the availability of books and written material in the developing world. Imagine what children miss if they never discover an encyclopaedia, an explanation of our solar system, or a favourite book about dinosaurs.
Governments from developing countries are running initiatives to get books for every child in their respective countries. The Zimbabwean government is a recent example of this after they launched a US $10 million facility to get books for students. This often entails providing a book for each subject a child enrols in. However as stated above there are many challenges that result due to this approach.
In a developing country’s educational system, digital books have three principal advantages over physical books. First, once e-readers are in place, schools and families have near-immediate access to hundreds of thousands of books, from new textbooks to current best-sellers. Second, the cost of shipping e-books is nearly zero, even to very remote areas, compared to $1.00 or more per book just to ship a container to port. And finally, the cost of digital content is falling quickly: many current and classic digital books are priced at one-half or less of the hardcover list price, and many others are free. Beyond these benefits, some e-readers have added features like text-to-speech for new readers or the vision-impaired, or for those children whose parents cannot read or whose native language is not the language of instruction. Built-in dictionaries and access to Wikipedia can be very helpful. And digital distribution makes possible the publication of much more local content, including newspapers, magazines, flyers and newsletters, health and voting information, and more.
The ideal model governments and aid organisations should be aiming for is providing an e-reader for every child in developing countries. There would definitely be challenges in implementing this model. Lack of electricity, lack of connectivity in order to distribute books to the devices, theft and abuse of the e-readers due to poverty are just some of the challenges to be faced in this model. There are multiple solutions to some of these challenges though, for example the lack of electricity to charge the devices can be tackled by solar power (either generators or providing solar powered e-readers) or even car batteries as chargers. The possibilities are endless, it is just a matter of imagination.
Worldreader has successfully conducted a trial of a similar model. Their first two trials took place in early 2010. Their first trial was completed in Barcelona, Spain, and helped them understand logistics issues and classroom use. Their second trial was in a village near Accra, Ghana, focused on logistics, power, support, and user experience in the context of the developing world. You can download a copy of the trial report and conclusions.
Children don’t really have a penchant for reading. They get bored easily. A great way to revive their interest is by using eReaders in schools. They are handy digital devices capable of storing several hundreds of ebooks which can be read at your convenience. They are well equipped with several useful features that can make reading a pleasurable experience. You don’t have to flip pages and neither do you need to lug around bulky books. All you need to do is click the right buttons to scroll through the book. Governments and aid organisations need to consider this as a possible option if they are to achieve the Millenium Development Goal of Universal Education.