Giving kids access to almost any book in the world

Elizabeth Wood on Worldreader's work to improve literacy in the developing world.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that one in five adults worldwide is still not literate. In this interview, Elizabeth Wood (@lizzywood), director of digital publishing for Worldreader and a speaker at TOC Frankfurt, talks about the social and infrastructure issues affecting literacy and how Worldreader is making a difference. She says Worldreader’s goal is to reach 1 million children by 2015.

Our interview follows.

What is

Elizabeth-Wood.jpgElizabeth Wood: Worldreader is an innovative non-profit organization that uses ereaders, like the Kindle, to cultivate a culture of reading in the developing world. Since printed materials and books are nearly impossible to come by in many areas, Worldreader uses the GSM network to give kids and teachers access to a library of electronic books.

What countries are involved at this point, and how is the project organized?

Elizabeth Wood: We have projects up and running in Ghana and Kenya, and have plans to expand soon into other African countries. Through our partnerships with technology companies, publishers, and public and private organizations, we’re able to deliver thousands of local and international ebooks to students and teachers. Our key funding partners include a mix of governmental support (USAID), private investors (Jeffrey Bezos and John McCall MacBain), and foundations (The Spotlight Foundation and Social Endeavors). From publishing, we’re working with big players such as Random House and Penguin, and local African publishers like EPP in Ghana and Longhorn in Kenya. On the technology side, we’ve teamed up with Amazon, which has provided us with discounted pricing for the Kindle 3G device and delivery support for the ebooks.

To date, we have delivered more than 56,000 ebooks to kids and teachers participating in our programs.

Once kids have the hardware and the connectivity, what needs to happen next?

Elizabeth Wood: Given that the developing world has leapfrogged the Western world in mobile phone technology, from a tech perspective, using ereaders with built-in 3G connectivity makes more sense than relying on the Internet, which is sporadic at best in places like Africa. Prior to delivering the ereaders to the kids, Worldreader registers the Kindles to our internal account database and uploads — or “pushes” — a starter collection of books into the ereader.

Once the ereaders are in kids’ hands, we continue to push new content on a weekly basis. Additionally, kids and teachers can choose from more than 28,000 free books in the Kindle store and download as many as they like. They also have access to free samples (the first chapter of almost any book in the world) and some periodical subscriptions. Getting a new book is as easy as receiving a text message.

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Can you put the global literacy situation into perspective?

Elizabeth Wood: According to UNESCO, some 793 million adults lack minimum literacy skills. That means that about one in five adults is still not literate. Additionally, 67.4 million children do not attend school, and many more attend irregularly or drop out.

In many parts of Africa and other emerging countries, there simply is no access to any sort of books or printed materials. There are no libraries, school book shelves are completely bare, and paper books that do occasionally arrive there (via expensive shipping methods) often inadequately meet the current educational needs. For many kids, Worldreader provides the only opportunity they may have in accessing any kind of book.

Worldreader believes improved reading skills empower people to change their personal economic and social situations. Over time, increased literacy helps individuals rise above poverty and creates new opportunities for families and communities.

It’s early, but are ereaders making a difference at this point?

Elizabeth Wood: We are just beginning to understand the effects ereaders can have on reading, but early signs are very positive. Primary students in Ghana are showing improvements of up to 13% on reading comprehension in just five months. Anecdotally, a majority of students expressed that they never became bored of the ereader, and teachers have said they noticed increased student enthusiasm toward reading.

For additional information and stats, check out the “E-readers inspire future writers” post on the Worldreader blog and the videos on our YouTube channel, such as this video:

How is the program going so far and what’s next?

Elizabeth Wood: Our iRead 1 pilot will move into its second year, really allowing us to understand the deeper effects of ereaders on literacy rates. We will be expanding to more children with the launch of iRead 2, which will affect more than 1,000 students. Worldreader will move into more markets soon, and our goal is to reach 1 million children by 2015.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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