Worldreader gives Kindles to students in sub-Saharan Africa. The nonprofit’s new report, funded by USAID, shows that access to e-readers improved primary school students’ reading skills significantly. But a lot of e-readers broke and results for older kids were mixed.

Nonprofit Worldreader gives Kindles to students in sub-Saharan Africa (and is working on a reading app for mobile phones). The organization just published the results of iREAD, its year-long pilot program in Ghana, and many of the findings are promising: Primary school students with access to e-readers showed significant improvement in reading skills and in time spent reading, and the program is cost-effective. The theft rate was “near-zero,” but nearly half the e-readers broke.

USAID funded the Worldreader Ghana study and independent firm ILC Africa did the research. iREAD “involved the wireless distribution of over 32,000 local and international digital books using Kindle e-readers to 350 students and teachers at six pilot schools in Ghana’s Eastern Region between November 2010 and September 2011.”

The full results are here (PDF). Some findings:

  • Kids learned to use e-readers quickly even though 43 percent of them had never used a computer before. Also, not surprisingly, they were quick to discover “the multimedia aspects of the e-reader, such as music and Internet features.” (Kindle has an experimental web browser and can play MP3s.) Worldreader is “exploring ways to limit functions on the e-reader such as music” so that kids don’t get distracted during class, but points out that e-readers can also be a useful “bridge” device for students who’d never used a computer before.
  • Near-zero theft. Only two e-readers (out of 600) were lost in the whole study, partly because “community involvement was encouraged through e-reader pledges, community outreach programs, and support from community leaders.”
  • Kids got access to way more books. Before the study, primary-school students (whose average age was 11) had access to an average of 3.6 books at home. Junior-high students (average age 13.5 years) had access to an average of 8.6 books at home and high-school students (average age 16.6 years) access to an average of 11 books (mostly textbooks they had to buy for school.) With the e-reader program, kids had access to an average of 107 books, including books Worldreader “pushed” onto the Kindles as well as free e-books that kids downloaded themselves.
  • Primary school students’ test scores improved, but effects on older kids were less clear. The reading scores of primary-school students who received e-readers increased from 12.9 percent to 15.7 percent, depending on whether they got additional reading support. That was an improvement of 4.8 percent to 7.6 percent above the scores of kids in control classrooms without e-readers. But results for older kids were mixed: “Student reading was affected almost exclusively at the primary level, and not at the junior and senior levels. This conclusion supports external data that students are most affected by reading interventions at the primary school stages between the ages of 4 and 10.”
  • Students sought out access to international news. “Amazon data revealed that students were downloading The New York Times, USA Today, and El País etc., demonstrating that students want to access a wide range of reading materials that were previously inaccessible.”
  • Some teachers worried kids became too dependent on the e-readers.  “For example, one teacher stated that students thought that everything on the e-reader was the ‘absolute truth.’ He had to correct them by  explaining that the e-books may contain mistakes just as paper books do. Teachers also observed that some students have started to favor classes that use the e-reader and neglect classes that do not.”
  • Kids shared their e-readers with their families and friends. Students, even primary schoolers, got to take their e-readers home at night and many reported sharing the devices. Kids in the study had an average of five siblings, so “the e-reader’s reach potentially extended to many people beyond the device’s owner.” Some kids whose parents were illiterate read to their parents from their e-readers.
  • Kindles break too easily. Worldreader had not predicted how many Kindles would break: 243 out of 600, or 40.5 percent. Each time an e-reader broke, Worldreader sent it back to Amazon to conduct “a post-mortem analysis.” Turns out “fragile screens are the main weakness” and Amazon is working on Kindles with reinforced screens (at the same cost), which started shipping to Ghana in October 2011. Plus Worldreader is providing more rugged cases for the Kindles and providing more instruction on how to use them (don’t sit on it, for instance).
  • The program appears cost-effective. Worldreader estimates that “for the years 2014-2018, using a calculation focused strictly on the provisioning of textbooks, the e-reader system would cost only $8.93-$11.40 more per student over a 4 year period [$0.19 to $0.24 per month] than the traditional paper book system.” That calculation is made with the assumptions that e-reader prices will fall and e-readers will become more rugged (so they break less). And of course, e-readers give students access to many books, not just textbooks.
Photos from Worldreader on Flickr

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  1. I’m ready to give every book I’ve written, royalty free, to any person with a Kindle in this program.

    Is there any author who isn’t?

    Any publisher who isn’t? If so, I hope they’ll speak up.

    Every Kindle they send over should have 400 books on it (mine won’t make the cut, alas) and an account that makes it easy to ‘buy’ more for free.

    When the marginal cost of a new book is zero and when the audience for these books does nothing to hurt the ability to sell books to more affluent readers, there’s no reason in the world it shouldn’t all be free.

    Shame on us if we don’t figure out how to make this happen.

    1. Laura Hazard Owen sgodin Friday, April 27, 2012

      Hey Seth, I’m so glad you want to get more involved. I will help you do that. Here’s a list of books in the program so far: http://www.worldreader.org/what-we-do/worldreader-books/ Includes titles from Random House and Penguin, many others, and they’re also digitizing many African publishers’ titles for the first time ever.

      1. Hi Laura, I’m a Ghana-based author and would be very happy to contribute my book to the program. I can be contacted on fiona.leonard@gmail.com

    2. Wow, Seth. That’s super-generous, and we’ll take you up on the offer. Many of the older students (and a number of the teachers) in our program will genuinely love this.

      And you’ll be in good company: for the reasons you’ve said, many forward-thinking authors and publishers have donated the use of their books, including from Mary Osborne to Roald Dahl to Meshack Asare to Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not!

    3. I had the same thoughts when I first heard of Worldreader, and I have given them my books for some months now. In my experience, it really doesn’t cut sales here.

  2. 40% kindle broke ? Maybe kids can be taught to handle their devices carefully.

    1. I don’t think this qualifies as “teaching them to fish”. except the fact 40% broke fast the other 60% will brake as well but not as fast. These kids are lacking in everything and all “we” thought to send them is a kindle? Come on….. send the medicine, clothing, clean water and send the teachers, send electricity and transportation ………… SEND THE SUPPLY FOR BASIC NEEDS AS FOOD AND SHELTER BUT NOT IPADS, KINDLES AND OTHER PROFIT ORIENTED “STUFF” MEANT ONLY FOR MAKING MORE OF $$$

      1. Sasa, I am sure we can agree that there are many ways to do good in this world, and that education is essential to kids’ success. On its website, Worldreader notes that “Digital books have several advantages over printed books, especially for the developing world where millions of children struggle to get even subsistence access to reading materials”–for example low- to zero shipping costs, access to many more titles and the ability to distribute local-language content. More here irst, it’s less expensive to publish and distribute e-books than paper books. Widespread mobile phone connectivity, the declining price of hardware devices and increasingly affordable digital content has made e-book delivery a viable low-cost solution for many developing regions. http://www.worldreader.org/about-us/faq/#faq2

        Other organizations are doing great work in this area as well — check out Room to Read, which supports literacy and builds libraries in developing countries and focuses on secondary education for girls.

      2. Food and shelter matter, but so do education, literacy, and for that matter reading for the joy of it. Some of the most significant moments for me doing this work have been when the parents lock eyes with me and say: “This is so very important for our children’s future,” or when the children say: “Thank you for what you are doing– you’re helping me to become a doctor.”

        If you’re interested in hearing the teachers talk about the importance of books in their class, here’s a brief video that you’ll find interesting: http://youtu.be/Bul23wfRk_0

      3. Literacy is a huge problem here in Ghana. Yes people need basics, but they also need education. Literacy is not just about reading novels, it’s about critical thinking, about being exposed to ideas that promote creativity and broadening your horizons so you can change the way you look at your own experience. The more you read and learn the more you can actively work to change your world.

    2. Laura Hazard Owen ManuD Friday, April 27, 2012

      Hey ManuD, keep in mind that e-readers are not the sturdiest devices to start — they’re pretty much designed for adults to use at home and on their commute and they’re now being used under harsher conditions and by many ages of children, who are allowed to take them home at night (which allows them to share the Kindles with their families and siblings).

      That said, Worldreader is working with Amazon to make the e-readers more durable (as I noted above). Also, Worldreader is implementing a new policy for this school year: “Under this new policy, after a student breaks an e-reader for the first time, the student will receive a verbal warning at a conference with his or her parents, teachers, and a Worldreader representative. After the warning, the student will receive a
      replacement e-reader. However, if the student breaks an e-reader a second time, he or she will
      not receive a replacement device, and will be transferred to a stream of students without ereaders. Worldreader hopes this policy is strict enough to encourage students to take care of their e-readers, but lenient enough to allow for breakages that are the fault of the device itself and not the fault of the student.”

      1. Laura, How close are you to getting the reading app for mobile phones? Also, do the African publishers offer their books for free on worldreader? Thanks

      2. Wilfred, I couldn’t reply directly to your comment, but Worldreader already has a reading app for mobile phones: http://www.worldreader.org/2012/02/13/testing-a-new-platform-for-books-for-all/

      3. If they break because of their inherent fragility, how can you justify this ‘punishment’?

      4. Wilfred
        Check out worldreader on biNu:

        16,000 people reading #ebooks every day via the app, an avg. of 30 pages/day.

    3. In fact, we are doing just that. We actually do some pretty careful work with the students on breakage– for instance, we use an egg and drop it from various heights to show how to think of caring for an e-reader. And as Laura has written, we have an incentive system to keep the e-readers safe– see a little note on that here: http://www.worldreader.org/2011/11/05/sources-of-inspiration/

      At the same time, we are very excited to see how much the Kindles are getting used. THe nightmare scenario is that you start a program like this with high hopes, and then a few months later you come back and see the devices have all been locked away so that nothing happens to them. We encourage the opposite: the children take the e-readers home every night, and in fact read to their siblings and parents. Yes, some will break along the way, but we’re OK dealing with that in the short-term, as we can see the devices are getting more sturdy and the kids are getting responsible in the long-term.

  3. “don’t sit on it, for instance”. -> They shouldn’t show this in ads : http://g-ecx.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/kindle/tequila/dp/KT-slate-04-lg._V139444984_.jpg

    1. Good point :).

      Actually, I’ll tell you one reason the kids do sometimes sit on these: they want to keep them safe from others. Maybe you’ve done the same with a cell phone (and in fact, cell phone penetration is 80% in Ghana, so many have picked up the habit that way.) So now we explain not to do that, as well as use sturdier cases than we started with.

  4. arjun moorthy Friday, April 27, 2012

    Very encouraging story; thank you for this diversity in news content GigaOm

  5. How about do this in the US at Title 1 schools as well. Good article!

  6. Vance Johnson Friday, April 27, 2012

    As someone who lives in the less developed world who works in education, THANK YOU!

  7. Certified Transmissions Friday, April 27, 2012

    This is a great thing for the entire world. We’re all on this planet together. The clean water people will do water. The medicine people will do medicine. The education people will do education. Will we let politicians or copyright people complicate matters? I pray not.

    We will be judged by our deeds. The results will be determined by our actions.

  8. Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm Saturday, April 28, 2012

    These are very similar results to our experience with the One Laptop per Child Program at the Inter-American Development Bank (http://blogs.iadb.org/desarrolloefectivo/2012/03/06/hay-veredicto-un-laptop-por-nino-no-es-suficiente/), as well as this recent article in The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/21552202). I think we still can get it right, and that these attempts offer valuable lessons learned.

  9. Simon Herbert Saturday, April 28, 2012

    Reblogged this on Faith and Rugby and commented:
    Inspiring post about reading and kids in Ghana – take some time and read it!

  10. Somehow I’m not able to reply to posts replying me…….. It does not matter ……….

    You definitely got my idea wrong. I do acknowledge education and literacy as a key out of poverty, eventually even from political instability in the region. What I oppose is sending the kindle over there as a solution.

    1. Looks like the other contributors dont seem to understand your position clearly. It would be helpful if elaborate further

      1. Thank you Perry,

        Well, if you look at education needs in Netherlands (where I leave at the moment) the biggest issues in education involve qualified and passionate teachers, and useful programmes. If a kindle was a educational tool it would already been used as one.

        Regardless of the fact if a school-system thinks that kindle, or iPad or barnes&noble readers are educational tools because of the easy access to the e-books there are a lot of other reasons why electronic appliances do not work. For one can argue that there is no need to print and ship books to Ghana (as if that has been done before), one has to produce kindle and ship those. If they go bust as fast as article mentions then more will be shipped. Other reason would be that “kindles” will not always reach the kids because of political instability in the region, general corruption matters and hight crime rate. Something else I could think of is rising energy costs or demand by either school or children.

        I believe, but I might be wrong that sending one teacher for one year is much more valuable to education than sending kindles for the whole school.

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