The gift of literacy is being given to thousands of African kids by Worldreader.
I have often written posts about the work of Worldreader as they advance their project to bring reading to poorer parts of the world using ereaders, and I thought it might be interesting to stop and look at such a project, and to consider if it is realistic and likely to be a success.
What is Worldreader about?
What they are doing is distributing Kindles to schools in rural Africa mainly, though they have also used a few urban schools as well. But always schools that are for the poorer people, not big, well funded schools in those countries, as these are always well equipped with reading matter already.
Typically the schools they have chosen are schools that might have had libraries consisting of one or two battered and almost unreadable books, which dozens of kids have to share in the classroom.
Their mode of operation is to meet with the school’s administration, the village elders and the parents and kids of the schools, explain the whole project, and then distributed Kindle ereaders to all the kids in one or more classes. Generally these Kindles are actually given to the kids, so they can take then home with them, and read with them at any time they wish, and also are then able to share them with their families and friends.
The teachers are of course, instructed in how to work with ereaders and ebooks in the classroom. In other words it isn’t simply a case of a load of well meaning Westerners arriving with a truck load of Kindles and simply handing them out to the kids, but a carefully structured project.
Huge range of ebooks.
The actual ebooks they have access to are freely donated by a wide range of Western publishers, and increasingly also local publishers and authors, and are all free for these kids to download and read. Currently they have some 15 000 ebooks available for the kids I believe, both in English and in a whole range of local African languages. And this number is growing all the time, as all concerned see real advantages in such a scheme both for increased literacy but also creating a future market for such ebooks.
Further, the progress of this project is being continuously monitored by both independent experts, and by the Ministries of Education in these countries, in order to be able to properly judge the success – or otherwise – of the project. I am happy to be able to report that on all fronts there is a marked and measurable improvement in the literacy and reading skills of almost all the kids involved. These findings are available online at Worldreader’s website (link below) if you wish to see the details of this.
Too complex for such people?
A real problem with many well intentioned projects in poorer countries is that people rush in with highly complex technology, which requires expensive and difficult maintenance to function, and frequently fail owing to the lack of any real back up to the project on a technical level. Water pumps that break down, electricity generators that break down, and no spare parts can be found, or are simply too expensive for the villagers to buy or run.
Using Kindles this sort of problem doesn’t arise, as ereaders are tough and simple devices, need no maintenance and when equipped (as the Kindles are) to work with mobile phone networks which has almost universal coverage in rural Africa, simply work. Also owing to the extremely long battery endurance between charges of such ereaders, it is a simple matter to either distribute solar chargers, or set up a central charging station in the schools for the Kindles to keep them charged.
Theft and breakages?
The other criticism one sees of this project is the expectation that many of the Kindles will be stolen or lost, This remarkably, is not the case. The number of stolen Kindles is too small to represent any sort of real problem, and breakages are equally rare. These good folk really value their Kindles and look after them very carefully indeed.
Education is valued.
Anyone who has been to any developing country will know that the people of such places really value education much more than we “lucky” folk in the richer countries do, and they see the real value and pleasure that access to so many ebooks, both text ebooks and pleasure reading ebooks offers them, and behave accordingly.
Better suited to purpose than paper books?
There a a number of great projects involving bringing paper books to similar schools and communities, which are also offering an invaluable service to these communities, but they have huge logistical problems to overcome in getting their books to their clients. Books are heavy and bulky, can get stuck for months on the borders as the local Customs slowly deal with the import taxes and such like, and then the equally bulky business of getting them to the actual clients is not a small task either. And then there is the problem that paper books in such climates tend to rot.
And lastly, obviously, the number of different titles is of course restricted.
With the Kindles, the only problem they share with the paper book projects is the hassles at borders, for the rest it is easy work. A hundred Kindles fit in a small van easily enough, and work fine everywhere owing to the massive take up of mobile phone use in such places. They seem able to contend well with the hot and humid climates, and lastly one kindle weighing a few onces is actually 15 000 books currently.
Today Africa – Tomorrow the World.
The long term plans that Worldreader have is to spread out all over the world and to bring ereaders to every underdeveloped country as soon as they can. Given that they have only been working at this now for about 4 years, and are now operating in 9 sub-Saharan countries, this dream is likely to take form in a very short time. And also, now that the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation have joined with them by means of a donation of about $200 000 for a pilot project to spread the use of Kindles to libraries in such communities as well as schools, their future looks pretty solid.
A development project that is working.
So, here we have a project that is both simple in vision and execution (relatively that is) and which is demonstrably working. Bringing that most priceless gift – literacy and pleasurable reading – to thousands of kids who otherwise would have effectively no access to any sort of reading material. This has to have a tremendous effect on the future of these countries as many thousands of their people grow up with access to books and the ideas that are in them… What an incredible gift to bring them!
Link to Worldreader: www.worldreader.org
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