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Cellphones ignite a 'reading revolution' in poor countries

Cellphones ignite a 'reading revolution' in poor countries


A new study from UNESCO raises hopes of combatting illiteracy with mobile technology

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Illiteracy isn't a major issue for much of the Western world, but it remains endemic in many developing countries, where incomes are low and books are scarce. That may be changing, though, thanks to the spread of mobile technologies that have made books more accessible than ever before — something that UNESCO, in a new report, describes as a veritable "reading revolution."

The report, released today, examines the reading habits of nearly 5,000 mobile-phone users in seven countries — Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe — where the average illiteracy rate among children is 20 percent, and 34 percent among adults. (The US, by comparison, has an adult illiteracy rate of around three percent.) UNESCO describes the survey as the largest ever undertaken on mobile reading in the developing world, and its results are encouraging: people are reading more, they're reading to their children, and they're hungry for more content.

"A key conclusion from this study is that mobile devices can help people develop, sustain and enhance their literacy skills," lead author Mark West, of UNESCO, said in a statement. "This is important because literacy opens the door to life-changing opportunities and benefits."

"they'll read more, they'll comprehend more, and they'll grow into a culture of reading."

The study was based on questionnaires and telephone interviews with people who use an app from Worldreader — a San Francisco-based nonprofit that distributes e-books in low-income countries. The organization delivers Kindles to under-equipped classrooms, while its app allows users to choose from over 6,000 (mostly free) e-books on low-end feature phones. Today, the app has more than 300,000 monthly active users in developing countries, and Worldreader says it's delivered nearly 1.7 million e-books since its launch in 2010.

"We're working in parts of the world where historically, books haven't really arrived," says Susan Moody, director of communications at Worldreader. Technology has changed all that, Moody adds, and it's already having an impact. "If you bring a library of books to places where books haven't arrived, they'll read more, they'll comprehend more, and they'll grow into a culture of reading."

There is evidence to suggest that mobile technology can improve literacy test scores, though UNESCO's study focuses on the behaviors and demographics of users in developing countries, in the hopes of better understanding how and why they read. More than 62 percent of those surveyed said they enjoy reading more after they started reading on mobile devices, and one-third said they use their phones to read to their children (an additional third said they would do so if more child-friendly books were available). The survey also shed light on important gender-based differences. Although the vast majority of mobile readers are male (77 percent), women actually devote far more time to reading: 277 minutes per month, on average, compared to just 33 minutes for men.

"once women are exposed to mobile reading, they tend to do it a lot."

"Simply put, once women are exposed to mobile reading, they tend to do it a lot," the report reads, underscoring the potential benefits that digital books could yield for female literacy. Among the estimated 770 million illiterate adults in the world today, nearly two-thirds are women, and female education still carries a cultural stigma in many poor countries.

Somewhat surprisingly, 60 percent of respondents cited a desire for more diverse reading options as the primary hurdle to reading on mobile devices, while only 18 percent cited cost. This largely reflects the fact that Worldreader's app doesn't consume a lot of data; Moody says it can deliver 1,000 pages of text for about two to three cents, far cheaper than a physical book. And a surge in broadband connectivity has made them easier to access. The UN estimates that around 6 billion people have access to mobile phones today (compared to the 4.5 billion who have access to a toilet) and broadband mobile connections have seen tremendous growth in developing countries.

Greater access to books won't necessarily raise literacy rates — that's where policymaking and education comes in —but it could nourish literary cultures, while exposing disadvantaged readers to entirely new worlds. The alternative, as UNESCO notes, is far more dire: "While it is true that books, by themselves, will not remedy the scourge of illiteracy, without them illiteracy is guaranteed."