[A2k] Lynn Neary on E-readers and developing world

Manon Ress manon.ress at keionline.org
Mon Dec 2 16:08:32 PST 2013

Heard on NPR today.  Interesting and disturbing story?

E-Readers Mark A New Chapter In The Developing World
December 02, 2013 4:09 PM


A former Amazon executive who helped Jeff Bezos turn shopping into a
digital experience has set out to end illiteracy. David Risher is now the
head of Worldreader, a nonprofit organization that brings e-books to kids
in developing countries through Kindles and cellphones.

Risher was traveling around the world with his family when he got the idea
for Worldreader. They were doing volunteer work at an orphanage in Ecuador
when he saw a building with a big padlock on the door. He asked a woman who
worked there what was inside, and she said, "It's the library."

Deborah, a participant in Worldreader's iREAD project in Ghana, reads her
favorite e-book with her mother. Worldreader has delivered more than
700,000 e-books via its e-reader programs.Enlarge image
Deborah, a participant in Worldreader's iREAD project in Ghana, reads her
favorite e-book with her mother. Worldreader has delivered more than
700,000 e-books via its e-reader programs.

"I asked, 'Why is it locked up?' And she said it took too long for books to
get there," says Risher. "[The books] came by boat and by the time they got
there, they were uninteresting to the kids. And I said, 'Well, can we take
a look inside? I'd like to see this.' And she said, 'I think I've lost the
key.' "

This, Risher thought, can be fixed. If it's so hard to give kids access to
physical books, why not give them e-books and the digital devices they
would need to read them? Risher had joined Amazon at its beginning, helping
it grow into the dominant online retailer it is today. He felt he could
apply some of the lessons he had learned at Amazon to the problem of

"We were really trying to change people's behavior, but once that started
to happen, of course it took off because it was convenient and because the
prices were lower," says Risher. "In a way, we are trying to do something
very similar here. ... Here's a culture where reading has never really
gotten a chance to take off because the access to books is so limited. So
we make it easy for people to get access to books and we try to put books
on the e-readers that are appealing to kids and interesting to teachers so
that we can, over time, help people shift a little in their behavior and
their mindset."

Working through schools and local governments, Worldreader launched its
first program in Ghana and is now in nine African countries. As of last
month, Worldreader says, it has put more than 700,000 e-books in the hands
of some 12,000 children.

Donations from corporate partners and individuals help pay for the Kindles.
E-books are donated by authors and publishers in both Western countries and
the countries where the schools are located. Risher says it may seem
counterintuitive to use e-readers in schools in poor, developing countries,
but it actually makes a lot of sense.

Jon McCormack
"[E-readers] turn out to be remarkably well-adapted to the developing
world, in part because they don't take very much power, they are very
portable. It's almost like having an entire library in your hand and, like
all technology, they get less and less expensive over time," Risher says.

A study of the Worldreaders pilot program in Ghana was funded by the U.S.
Agency for International Development. Tony Bloome, a senior education
technology specialist with USAID, says the initial results were mostly

"We definitely found that it provided more access to materials. That wasn't
surprising at all," says Bloome. "I think kids' appreciation and use of
technology is somewhat universal in terms of the excitement — so much so
[that] the kids would sit on their devices because they were concerned they
would be stolen. And that led to one of the challenges we had in terms of

Worldreader has responded to the breakage problem with tougher e-readers
and training for students and teachers in how to handle them. Even with the
breakage problem, though, the USAID study found the program to be cost
effective. It also found that kids who had never used a computer before
learned to use e-readers quickly and it didn't take them long to find games
and music. But Bloome says that their excitement was contagious.

"Especially with the group that was able to take the e-readers home,
basically the young people became rock stars in regards to being able to
introduce their parents or other kids in the community to e-readers," he
says. "But really focused on content, which is really exciting. It's about
the provision of reading materials."

Bloome says USAID is still assessing how the access to books is affecting
learning in primary grades. In the meantime, Worldreader is moving on to
smaller devices with a program that created an e-reader app for cellphones
used in developing countries. Risher says the potential for getting access
to books on cellphones is huge.

"It really is the best way to get books into people's hands where the
physical infrastructure isn't very good, the roads are bad, gas costs too
much ... but you can beam books through the cellphone network just like you
can make a phone call — and that's really the thing that changes kids'

Risher says he knows Worldreader alone won't solve illiteracy, but he hopes
it can be a catalyst for change.

Manon Ress, Ph.D.
Knowledge Ecology International, KEI
manon.ress at keionline.org, tel.: +1 202 332 2670

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