I’ve been reading through the past few months of the blog at Worldreader.org, a project that is experimenting with using e-books (specifically, Amazon Kindles) to deliver textbooks and other reading materials to students. They’ve undertaken two trials, one in Barcelona, Spain and another in Accra, Ghana. The blog is a very thoughtful and honest reflection on the project, and if this is a topic that interests you, it’s worth spending some time browsing through the archives.
They started on this project because of the potential upside of replacing paper texbooks with a high-tech solution. Primarily, that upside is the relatively cheap, high-speed delivery of books. In Accra, texbooks are only replaced about every five years, and donated books are often irrelevant and of patchy quality (“All About Utah!” isn’t even something that I’d be interested in reading). With the Kindle’s connection to the local GSM wireless network, just about any book can be downloaded in less than a minute, at a fraction of the cost of buying a paper copy and having it shipped to hard-to-reach places.
In the blog, the authors also wrestle with the challenges that present themselves– the high initial cost of the eBooks that could make the program difficult to replicate (though they got subsidized Kindles from Amazon), keeping the eBooks charged up, and the relative fragility of an electronic device. They also wrestle with some of the bigger questions around a project like this: Is this addressing a problem the market would eventually solve on its own? Is this just another form of cultural imperialism? How much of the early success of the Kindles is because of the novelty factor?
All these problems have solutions, at least in the longer term. Costs will drop, batteries will improve, and durable eBooks will find their way into schools. For me, reading an eBook will probably never completely replace the tactile experience of reading an old fashioned paper book. But it’s hard to imagine a school of the future in which students are still lugging around massive, decade-old textbooks. That will be even more true in places like Accra, where schools and students stand to gain so much from the low-cost, instant delivery of the world’s best and most up-to-date learning materials.