Reading on Mobile Phones? mLiteracy Opportunities and Challenges

Digital Content

Recently, the Goethe Institute of Johannesburg hosted an mLiteracy Networking Meeting to examine the opportunities and challenges for mobiles to increase literacy development, especially in Africa. It was an incredibly valuable, interesting and much-needed gathering by some of the old and new players in this space. While reflecting on how far the field of mobiles for literacy has come since 2009 when I first launched Yoza Cellphone Stories, two key points really struck me.

The mobile uptake in South Africa is continuing to grow. Based on number of subscriptions, mobile penetration is estimated at 146% of the population. Smartphones are on the rise with the introduction of $50 handsets from the two largest mobile operators, and the government is starting to invest in large-scale tablet implementations at schools.

Next, the mLiteracy field has grown immensely. Back when we launched Yoza, it was the only dedicated mLiteracy service in South Africa. Today there are a number of offerings, reaching different target audiences. To mention a few, FunDza is aimed at teens and young adults; Nal’ibali is aimed at improving literacy levels of young children, but works through their parents and caregivers; and Worldreader has an extensive enough library to cater to a wide audience, from children to adults, with titles at varying levels for each group.

To really appreciate the opportunity for mobiles to impact literacy, these trends should be contrasted with traditional book penetration: 51% of households in South Africa do not have a single leisure book to read, and only 7% of school libraries are functional. It is not surprising that only 5% of parents in South Africa read to their children.

As an aside, such a dearth of access to printed materials is common around the developing world. A recent Pearson survey found that in India, only 2% of parents polled from low socioeconomic groups said their child has access to storybooks at home (compared to 87% amongst the equivalent group in the USA).

Yet, there is so much more potential opportunity that is not being tapped. Why is it that when there are so few books to read and such a high level of mobile access, people are not reading more on their mobile devices? Why are South Africans not following the 25 million Chinese who read books only on their cellphones? There are many reasons for this, but I think that work needs to be done on both the supply and demand side of the literacy spectrum.

On the supply side, while new mLiteracy offerings have emerged, there is still not enough quality content, in local languages, targeted at particular audiences, and leveled for different reading abilities. The UNESCO report Reading in the Mobile Era highlights this issue very clearly. While public domain content that is read and studied at school is readily available to be published for mobile, content that is made for mobile (that is cognizant of the platform) and targeted to the interests of readers is most desirable.

On the demand side, we have seen that simply providing titles on mobiles has not resulted in every mobile phone owner turning into a bookworm. This is because users either simply don’t know about these exciting offerings (a point raised by many librarians at the mLiteracy Networking Meeting) or that they don’t think of themselves as readers. By increasing visibility, and tying mLiteracy to reading campaigns, the word can be spread in a way that motivates people to pick up their phones and try an m-novel.

Lastly, the issue of cost cannot be ignored when considering low user demand. Or rather, the perception of cost as a barrier. Compared to buying a printed book, most books on mobile are significantly cheaper, or even free. The difference is that the user also pays, in most cases, data charges to the mobile network operator for browsing/downloading the book. Even though it might only costs cents to read a book online (the average Yoza story chapter costs 0,5 cents US to read), the de facto perception is that anything involving mobile data is expensive and should be approached with caution (lest it “eat my airtime” – a real quote from South African low income users). WikiAfrika shared that even in countries where Wikipedia Zero was present, the volume of traffic did not increase because people don’t know that access is free. Visibility and education around true costs are the gamechangers here.

The mLiteracy Networking Meeting was truly inspiring and important, because it reminded me of the enormous opportunity – completely unprecedented since the invention of the printing press – to improve literacy through mobiles. The enthusiasm and commitment of the mLiteracy pundits was palpable. They “get it”, and it drives and excites them.

But so much more work is needed to truly tap into this potential, starting with more quality materials to offer, greater visibility for what’s on offer, more impactful reading campaigns, and inventive ways to change perceptions around cost for every day citizens of South Africa. We need to examine seriously the pros and cons of print versus digital, including costs, and follow the most judicious strategy for going to scale.

Source Steve Vosloo for ICTWorks 6 April 2015

To see Elizabeth Wood, Worldreader in interview on this topic, click here: