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Worldreader.org trials Amazon Kindles in Ghanaian schools and plans to roll-out in other African countries

Worldreader.org’s CEO David Risher is passionate about encouraging reading. After a “road to Damascus” moment in an orphanage in Ecuador with a locked library, he decided with his co-founder that Kindle e-readers would be an effective way of relighting the reading habit in developing country schools. He chose Ghana to try out this idea and this week he talks to Russell Southwood about progress so far.

David Risher took his family off round the world on a year long vacation, visiting places in Asia and Latin America. He and his wife schooled their children while away using books on an Amazon Kindle e-reader. During one part of their trip, they visited an orphanage and found that what had once been a library was padlocked and no-one could find the key.

”The girls in the orphanage had lost interest in reading.” These two things came together and he and his co-founder began to think about how they could give access to books to students using the Kindle e-reader device:”The technology is useful in the developing world where paper can’t reach.”

Worldreader.org chose Ghana because according to Risher:”Its Government was stable and it was focused on education.” It ran a two week trial and during that time it became clear that the students felt it was like using a mobile phone. However, there were four hours training time over the two weeks for both teachers and students.

Now it is in the process of putting e-readers into six schools, two from each different education level: primary, junior high and secondary. A research project will be conducted with another set of schools that have no e-readers for the purpose of comparison. So there will be 500 teachers and students with access to the device and 500 without.

An international donor is paying for the research that will ask two fairly fundamental questions: do the students with access to the Kindles read more and does their reading level increase? Alongside these two questions, it will look at how the Kindle is used in the family setting and how the teacher incorporates new material into the curriculum. Refreshingly, Ritter wants the research to be “arms-length and credible for us and the funders” rather than a piece of advocacy work.

The Kindle e-readers will have three roughly equal categories of material: classics like Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Nathanial Hawthorne for advanced years study (where the material is out of copyright); local books in English and vernacular languages that it has helped Ghanaian publishers digitise; and text books. Among the local books is one called The Shark about a student wrongly accused of having an affair with her teacher.

Content will be rolled out in three phases. Phase 1 will be pre-loaded books that come with the Kindle loaded on by Worldreader.org. Phase 2 will be materials that the teachers have added. And phase 3 is where it might get really interesting. Students will be given US$15-20 to buy any books they want:”If we give children a budget to rent or buy books, it will become demand-driven.”

So how well can the Kindle survive the rough and tumble of the school environment?: “It is good but not great. School is where kids throw things around. We haven’t lost any to this kind of damage yet. We partnered with M-Edge who make neoprene jackets for them and they’ve donated jackets that we hope will protect them.” In the medium to long-term, he’d like to be able to influence their design to make them faster and more rugged.

The money to be able buy the US$250 readers has come from a range of different sources, largely private: from some ex-Microsoft employees in Seattle who wanted smart ways to invest their money socially and through “in-kind” donations. Amazon donated some initial readers and is offering discounts on the rest.

Worldreader.org chose the Kindle because it is more or less a single function machine and is therefore cheaper than its equivalent tablet devices like the iPad:”For the developing world, an iPad is overkill.” Risher also believes that as a reader only it is less distracting for students. The 3G capability means that books can be delivered in relatively far-flung places as 3G networks expand. It has only limited Internet capability:”You can get it to cough up a Wikipedia article but its Internet functionality is very limited.” Furthermore, the 1 hour recharge lasts in most instances two weeks but obviously makes access to electricity a must.

The mid-term ambition once the pilot has been evaluated is two-fold: firstly, to learn the lessons of the pilot and to continue to expand and secondly, to roll-out to more countries, some of which will be in Africa in the near term:”In choosing, there are many factors but two are really important. There are infrastructure factors: is there 3G coverage? But the real issue is we’re trying to change human behaviour. So in the next geography we go to, it will be about the willingness of Government to embrace this.”

Worlreader.org are not the first organisation to travel this road so it’s worth reviewing some of the general issues raised when this kind of project comes into view:

* Africa’s not a reading culture: Yes, Africa has a wonderful oral tradition of storytelling and should have for many years to come. But reading is a key skill from the most basic functional literacy (filling in a form) to accessing the new digital world (SMS and the Internet). Notwithstanding the continuing debates about the dumbing- down impact of global culture, there is a clear causal link between reading levels and the development of a society. And perhaps this may be as strong a causal link as the roll-out of broadband. There are issues of local language and the availability of local materials but these are more likely to be solved if there is a distribution system in place.

* It’s a waste of money. Why don’t they just spend more money on education (or something else that the person thinks is important)?: This is a classic development argument that is both self-defeating and unreal. Ten years ago, development experts were arguing that more water stand-pipes were needed, not the Internet. The truth is that the development community does not really get to make these choices. Middle class African parents will buy themselves or their kids iPads or Kindles and get ahead in the race to succeed. Private investors put in 3G networks that others will use. Classrooms that have no windows when the Kindles arrive will simply demonstrate uneven development and in the best of circumstances, inspire people to improve things more generally. They find money to build churches and mosques, so why not money to improve schools? However, this will only happen if the teachers, parents and children love the device that is introduced and prove it can work. And on things like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the jury’s still out.

* Africans can’t afford it: At US$250, this puts it squarely out of the reach of all but the LSM9-12 categories. However, at US$100, which is where the price of Kindle-type devices is most likely headed, then it’s easier to imagine a wider range of users wanting to buy it for their children. We’ve seen iPad knock-offs that Chinese manufacturers are claiming that they can bring in at under that price. All over Africa, there is a thirst for education amongst parents of a wide range of backgrounds and incomes, and if they are convinced that reading will help their children get ahead, then it will begin to succeed both inside the market (where parents buy them) and outside the market (where donors buy them).

* But it doesn’t give them Internet access or full this or full that: The Kindle is uni-functional as against something like the OLPC, which is multi-functional. The strength of uni-functional is that it brings the price down and in concentrating on one thing allows the user to get quick access to that single function. You don’t always have to be worrying about software glitches, incomprehension at operating systems and the delicacy of PC innards in a tropical climate. However, there a ladder of expectations across all technologies. If some of your friends start getting smartphones to access Facebook, you don’t say to yourself, “well, I’ll just sit this one out while they get on with it.”

Too much African education is repetition and rote learning. The more students and their parents as knowledgeable, or even more knowledgeable, than teachers, the greater the opportunities of raising the level of expectation beyond learn and repeat-type lessons. Demand-driven education – both inside and outside the classroom – may well expand horizons faster than any Ministry of Education or curriculum can keep up with. The digital transition in broadcast has already seen education channels introduced in Kenya and Nigeria. Who knows, we may even get to a position where students understand how to analyse problems and then begin to solve them. And in that they’d certainly be ahead of most of the current elderly generation of African leaders. But hey, maybe I’m just an optimist.

It’s worth repeating that Africa now has the bandwidth to make these kind of technology interventions that ten years were the embarrassing failures where things like PCs were sometimes not even unpacked from their boxes in schools. Now there is the bandwidth to deliver to the edges of the 3G network, so the question will be: will students love to use this device and will it make reading more widespread?

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