E-Readers Help Spread Literacy, No Apps Needed

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We often talk about the power of the Internet to spread knowledge and information globally, to make digital content accessible and affordable. But as we're also often caught up in the "latest and greatest" gadgetry, sometimes we overlook that broad promise of global education and accessibility.

Such is the case, one might argue, with the news last week from Common Sense Media about the so-called "app gap" -- the disparity between children in low-income and higher income families and their access to mobile applications.

There's little denying that the popularity of mobile devices -- Androids and iPhones and tablets -- has afforded a concurrent explosion in exciting new educational apps. The touchscreen screens, the accelerometers, the size, and the portability of these devices has enabled whole new genres of software and of imaginative and educational gameplay.

But if we focus on the "app gap" -- those who have iPads and those who do not -- are we ignoring or obscuring other aspects of the digital divide? Are we overlooking the potential for widespread dissemination of and access to information by rushing to prioritize that information bundled in the shiniest new package?

While many schools in the U.S. are rushing to embrace iPads, other types of e-readers haven't been widely adopted -- even though they cost less and display digital textbooks, which is one of the rationales for transitioning from print books to tablets. But a non-profit organization called Worldreader is demonstrating how utterly transformative e-readers can actually be, even without apps and videos.


Worldreader distributes Kindle devices to students in sub-Saharan Africa. The devices are pre-loaded with e-books -- some 63,000 e-books all told have been distributed through the program (including the recent addition to the Worldreader catalog of several of the best-known titles by children's author Roald Dahl).

The e-readers offer a huge advantage over their printed counterparts. There's the ability to put an entire library onto one device. A child can be given the e-reader at school and that device can be circulated throughout her or his family or village. There's the ability to distribute those devices to the most remote villages without additional shipping costs of thousands of titles. Plus, the cost of e-readers continue to fall. Furthermore, there are thousands upon thousands of titles available for free.

While e-readers don't have all the apps and features of tablets, they do contain some. They all include dictionaries. They often have 3G or WiFi capabilities. They have Web browsers. And they allow for the subscription to other news forms -- magazines, newspapers, and newsletters for example. These devices also tend to have extraordinarily good battery life, which is necessary in regions that don't have reliable electricity.

Literacy is one of the most important drivers of economic growth. Rather than concern over the "app gap" -- over who has access to iPads and who doesn't -- Worldreader highlights how the discussions around access to the Internet and to digital content still needs to address some of the more fundamental "haves and have-nots."