Friday, May 20, 2011

For Developing Countries, a New Way to Read

On a Saturday morning not long ago I rode in a bus with some high school students out to a village about an hour beyond Accra, accompanying them on an outreach project.  From different parts of Asia, Europe, Africa, and America, they all attended a local international school with a strong emphasis on service.

We were going to the small town of Adeiso, site of a pilot project by the non-profit Worldreader organization.  Worldreader wants to improve literacy in developing countries by getting Kindle and other e-reader devices into the hands of local students, and they've started in Ghana.  The international students I bussed in with were coming to read with Ghanaian students, helping the local kids with reading vocabulary and comprehension while using their Worldreader-provided Kindles.

Beyond the immediate wow-factor of placing such a cool technology in the hands of a kid who might not even have electricity in the house, there's some obvious benefits here.  There's no costly and time-consuming shipping of physical books.  Students can choose books they want - a vast variety greater than any shipping container could hold - and download them through the local cell phone network.  The appeal of the technology and the ready availability of hundreds of volumes in one small package gets kids quickly hooked on the idea of reading for learning and for fun.

There's downsides, too, of course.  What about that student with no electricity at home, how will she charge her e-reader?  Won't the dust and the everyday hazards of village life be too much for a 'fragile' piece of technology?  What happens when a kid drops their Kindle and the screen breaks?  Will students be engaged for a moment then forget about their e-reader, or have it stolen, or try to sell it on the local market for cash?

Worldreader's thought of these problems, and more, and are coming up with solutions as they seek to expand their program beyond an initial two sites in Ghana.  And I have to say, for a school like the one I saw in Adeiso - where there was zero printed material lying around in the classrooms and no evidence of a bookshelf anywhere - the immediate delivery of a neatly packaged, hand-held library seems like a pretty revolutionary thing.

When I walked into the Adeiso classroom, the international school students were sitting on one side of the room.  The local students sat on the other, clutching their Kindles.  Soon, though, the two groups had paired up on the school's wooden benches, filling the room with the sweet sounds of reading.

In an ironic technological turn, it was the Ghanaian students - whose previous experience with electronics has likely been limited to a cell phone - who showed the international kids how to use the Kindle.  The international school kids all have laptops and iPods, but few had ever used an e-reader before.

And in another turn, as they sat and read mainly Ghanaian folk tales together, the international school kids found that the local students were teaching things to them just as much as learning from them: how to pronounce unfamiliar names in the local stories, some phrases of the local language Twi.

The local students also taught the international ones some of their popular hand-clapping games.

As one high schooler pointed out to me later, the Ghanaian kids seemed to base their play on physical, body-related things like hand-clapping or football (soccer), which don't need any of the sophisticated sports equipment or video consoles the more wealthy international school students are used to.

Our trip finished up with a walk around the village, with the visiting students getting a peek at a much different life from then one they live in their relatively fancy Accra homes.  I hope it was a good learning experience on all sides.

And I hope that Worldreader can find ways to successfully get kids in Ghana, and other less-developed countries, to read and keep reading.

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