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What happens when you give Kindles to kids in Ghana?

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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

44 Responses to “What happens when you give Kindles to kids in Ghana?”

  1. What happens when the worldreader project (as like all other such projects) comes to a close? Who is gonna fund the generator and the computers that charge the kindles ? Who will replace the broken kindles ?

  2. Judith Baker

    It is becoming clear that improving African literacy requires a new collaboration among all of us who are working on getting books to African children and new readers. Please consider working with the African Storybook Project which is seeking to network all our efforts by building a free online archive of African storybooks for beginning readers. Your books will be posted in a format that allows users to easily re-version the story into local language and eventually local graphics, so that children and other first readers can connect to text in the language they already know and they can upload the re-versioned book for other speakers of that language. They can also read the book in its original version of course. We plan to supply authentic African content to all users – World Reader will hopefully be one of our partners – and format it so that phones as well as more complex devices can receive the books. Please join us. You can contact me for a lot more information. It is much more powerful to provide African books and books very appropriate to various African contexts than to simply make a million US and European books available online. If you are an author or publisher, put some of your books on the archive and let the world of readers know about your work. Help us usher in a reading environment of abundance for new readers in Africa. [email protected], Great African Storybook Project, a project of Open Education Resources, Nairobi and Johannesburg

  3. Vonny

    I find articles like this simply inspiring! I take my hat off to anyone who commits to helping people less privileged.

    I’m also inspired by the many authors here willing to participate in the program by offering free books. Brilliant work, guys.

    I’ve also noticed a few negative remarks here criticizing the project as well as offering the kids Kindles instead of food, clothing etc.

    Firstly, I think there are many ways to help people. I do believe there are already programs in Ghana to assist with the more short term needs. I think it’s great that someone is taking a longer term view and offering the children a chance to improve their education. Reading is critical as a basis for education. These children are also being given a chance to get to grips with technology. In this day and age, there are very few jobs left that don’t require some level of technological understanding. Even ‘blue collar’ jobs are now starting to be more automated.

    These kids need as much help as they can get. No single organization can provide for all the kids needs. Who are we to criticize the one program that offers education? Let people help in any way they can and be thankful they can.

    If you truly believe in them receiving other things besides Kindles… well, there is nothing stopping you from starting up your own program to help them in ways you feel they need.

    If you are not part of the solution, then you are just part of the problem.

    Best of luck with the kindle program!

  4. What’s so interesting about the often-recited “lack of infrastructure” in Africa is how this condition is also a great asset. With e-readers, these kids can get access to some of the best educational information out there. Hats off to Worldreader and USAID

  5. Sasa – you are right – simply sending a Kindle isn’t enough – but it helps a lot!

    I’m the co-founder of an organization that had been building schools in Kenya for the last decade ( and we have partnered with Worldreader to use Kindles to deliver books to our kids. Currently we have 65 Kindles with about 90 books on each one and I have to say, since the Worldreader rollout, the attitude of kids to their education has changed.

    Prior to Kindles, the only books our kids had seen were the Kenyan syllabus workbooks. No novels, no first readers, no story books. Kindles put a library of books in a child’s hand and opens their eyes to a world of literature. It gives them a chance to learn and to grow their minds. It also makes school a more fun place to be!

    To your other point – yes – kids need clean water, healthcare, and nutrition. We have found that to provide a good education, we have had to provide all of these as well as classrooms and books. Simply put – sick and hungry kids can’t learn.

    There are a lot of organizations that can help get the basics to kids – but Worldreader is the only one that has really tackled efficiently getting books to kids in the developing world. We are in the process of purchasing another 7500 books for our schools. When we do, they wil be delivered wirelessly at the click of a button. A truly amazing accomplishment.

    • Perry Frimpong

      This has to discussed more dispassionately. Is the project aiming at only a section of the children or the whole country? If the coverage is for only part of the children without equal opportunity for all children in school, then the project is a non starter.

      The truth is that the project cannot be deployed across the country. There schools where the communities do not have access to electricity but you need electricity to power or recharge the devices. We could talk about solar energy but the cost is so prohibit not to mention the maintenance of the solar equipment.

      While the concept is good, it is simply idealistic and one wonders whether it is not another tool for accessing donor funds for personal enrichment

      • Hi Perry,

        The school we have Kindles at in western Kenya has no electricity. We use a generator that can charge 30 Kindles at a time. Because the Kindle battery life is so long, we find we need to charge the devices about once a month.

        I know it’s easy to find places where this may not work, or may not scale. The best I can do is point you to the story of Namanyuk – a 10 year old Massai girl who doesn’t own a pair of shoes but, thanks to Worldreader, has access to hundreds of books and a better education. Her story is here –

  6. Charlie Michaels

    As someone who has worked with children in schools in Ghana, I am torn about this project. I see both potential benefits and major downfalls.

    Education, literacy, and access to information is incredibly important but so is clean accessible water, proper waste disposal, 3 meals a day, malaria, shoes on their feet. I’m not saying this project should tackle all major issues, there are obviously many ways to contribute and much to be done. That said, actually spending dedicated time with these kids and empowering them to work on projects in and for their community that help them understand the global system of power and privilege that their local challenges are embedded in would be ideal. (part of the problem IS western charity) In a real effort toward empowerment and self-actualization technology like this could be a useful educational tool, but simply dropping technology on kids in developing countries is not going to solve anything long term – though hopefully it will give some of them access to some piece of information that becomes a spark for something greater.

    Real, culturally sensitive, empowering education takes incredible dedication and years to see tangible results – and is, of course, not ideal for western corporations who want to give free technology away and post pictures of African kids holding kindles on the internet to boost their reputations in the west.

    When those things break or loose their magic to those kids (and they will at some point) they will be tossed on top of the trash pile or sold in the street. And now that kindles have entered the schools, there is a danger of pencil and paper seeming obsolete and useless.

    This could be a part of something fantastic, but simply handing out free technology is not the answer – please look at the history of western aid to Africa and realize that the unintended effect of charity is that it helps to perpetuate and maintain the position of the receiver instead of promoting growth.

    • Judith Baker

      Technology isn’t the whole project for WR, nor is it for African Storybook Project and others exploring new avenues to literacy. Helping people write down their own local stories and make up new ones is another piece of what we can all do that’s not expensive. One reason for low literacy is the lack of authentic reading and writing. If sharing local literature is enhanced by having it available on digital readers, cell phones, or printed out by local printers or print on demand providers, it will all work together for people learning to read/write in the beginning in their familiar languages and learning to read/write with 21st century proficiency and in new languages

  7. Kat Meyer

    Hey Laura,
    Thanks so much for putting a spotlight on World Reader. For those interested, the slides for Elizabeth Wood’s keynote from TOC Bologna this past March are available online. There is some great info on the “dumb” phone reading app she and binu have developed, as well as very interesting data from the pilot program. :) xo, Kat

  8. 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.

    • Perry Frimpong

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

      • 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.

  9. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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 $$$

      • 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.

        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.

      • 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:

      • 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.

    • 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.”

    • 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:

      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.

  10. 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.