What happens when you give Kindles to kids in Ghana?

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.”
• 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.