The Wall Street Journal
Friday, June 15, 2012
Schools in developing countries are experimenting with digital books; endless titles, spotty electricity
By GEOFFREY A. FOWLER and NICHOLAS BARIYO
David Norman/Crossroads United Methodist Humble school students learning how to use Kindles in February. ‘It took the kids just a few days,’ says a teache
It is time for a vocabulary lesson in Bernard Opio’s sixth-form class at the Humble Primary School in Mukono, Uganda. One new word the students have already learned this year is “Kindle.”
Mr. Opio instructs them to pull out their Amazon.com Kindle e-reading devices. Within seconds, most of the teenagers have a digital Oxford English Dictionary open on their screens. “It took the kids just a few days to learn how to use them,” says Mr. Opio.
The Humble School, which serves needy children in a part of Africa ravaged by poverty and HIV, is on the front lines of an effort to reinvent developing world literacy programs with technology. The premise is that the new economics of digital publishing might make more and better books available in classrooms like Mr. Opio’s.
“Instead of just having 1,000 books, they have 10 times or 100 times that,” says David Risher, co-founder of a San Francisco-based nonprofit called Worldreader that is leading the experiment in Uganda and two other African countries.
A vision of “one Kindle per child” for developing countries faces considerable challenges, including the cost of e-readers and making sure that kids actually learn better on the devices than with old-fashioned books. Africa is littered with well-intentioned technology programs that fail because devices don’t get used, fall into the wrong hands or just can’t find enough power to run.
An ongoing project called One Laptop Per Child, which started in 2005 with the goal of creating Internet-connected laptops for educating kids in the developing world, spent $30 million to make its own laptop with a long battery life. The group has sold more than two million laptops, today priced at $185 each, but it has run into competition from commercial computer makers as well as criticism of its mission amid the basic needs of people in the Third World. It is now working on developing a laptop with a tabletlike touch screen.
Early results at Worldreader are promising, says Mr. Risher, 46, a former Amazon executive who has raised about $1.5 million for his two-year-old program from foundations, individual donors like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, publishers and Amazon itself. It has distributed 1,100 Kindles and 180,000 e-books to kids and teachers in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.
E-readers have some advantages over laptops in far-flung places. Kindles are lightweight and rugged, and can last weeks on a single charge. With built-in Internet connections, they are basically big mobile phones—a technology that has proved successful throughout Africa.
Kindles are still relatively expensive; some pilot schools lock them up overnight for safekeeping. Worldreader often teaches kids how to care for their devices by demonstrating with an egg: Drop it from a foot up, it will break; drop it from 8 inches, it survives.
Compared with traditional books, e-readers make it easy to distribute works from African authors that can be hard to get in print. Previously, Humble School’s library contained mostly books donated from America. “The first books we got were mainly about the U.S., with kids playing in ice—which our pupils would not understand,” says Ester Nabwire, the school’s head teacher. “With the Kindles, there are African authors, African names which are exciting the kids.”
Getting an e-book into the hands of one of Worldreader’s kids costs about $5 per title. That includes the approximately $100 price of the Kindle, which Worldreader gets as donations or buys from Amazon at wholesale, a protective case, training and support materials, and other overhead costs. Worldreader gets e-books from the public domain or donations from publishers, or by digitally publishing work by local authors.
By comparison, Room to Read, a 12-year-old nonprofit that builds libraries for elementary schools, says it can print and deliver one of its own books to a school for about $1 per book in Africa. In Asia, where it has the most programs, only 30% of the cost of establishing a library involves printing and distributing books, while the rest goes toward furniture, training teachers and monitoring to make sure the books are getting used.
In Worldreader’s first test, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development at six schools in Ghana starting in 2010, the group found that primary-school students who got Kindles increased their performance on standardized reading tests from about 13% to 16%.
For kids who develop a love for reading, there is another benefit that is hard to quantify: a seemingly endless library. “I can access every book I want to read very quickly,” says Eperence Uwera, a 13-year-old Rwandan refugee at the Humble School. “I would love to go [home] with the Kindle during the holidays.”