What happens when you give Kindles to kids in Ghana?

Nonprofit Worldreader gives Kindles to students in sub-Saharan Africa (and is working on a reading app for mobile phones). The organization just published the results of iREAD, its year-long pilot program in Ghana, and many of the findings are promising: Primary school students with access to e-readers showed significant improvement in reading skills and in time spent reading, and the program is cost-effective. The theft rate was “near-zero,” but nearly half the e-readers broke.

USAID funded the Worldreader Ghana study and independent firm ILC Africa did the research. iREAD “involved the wireless distribution of over 32,000 local and international digital books using Kindle e-readers to 350 students and teachers at six pilot schools in Ghana’s Eastern Region between November 2010 and September 2011.”

The full results are here (PDF). Some findings:

  • Kids learned to use e-readers quickly even though 43 percent of them had never used a computer before. Also, not surprisingly, they were quick to discover “the multimedia aspects of the e-reader, such as music and Internet features.” (Kindle has an experimental web browser and can play MP3s.) Worldreader is “exploring ways to limit functions on the e-reader such as music” so that kids don’t get distracted during class, but points out that e-readers can also be a useful “bridge” device for students who’d never used a computer before.
  • Near-zero theft. Only two e-readers (out of 600) were lost in the whole study, partly because “community involvement was encouraged through e-reader pledges, community outreach programs, and support from community leaders.”
  • Kids got access to way more books. Before the study, primary-school students (whose average age was 11) had access to an average of 3.6 books at home. Junior-high students (average age 13.5 years) had access to an average of 8.6 books at home and high-school students (average age 16.6 years) access to an average of 11 books (mostly textbooks they had to buy for school.) With the e-reader program, kids had access to an average of 107 books, including books Worldreader “pushed” onto the Kindles as well as free e-books that kids downloaded themselves.
  • Primary school students’ test scores improved, but effects on older kids were less clear. The reading scores of primary-school students who received e-readers increased from 12.9 percent to 15.7 percent, depending on whether they got additional reading support. That was an improvement of 4.8 percent to 7.6 percent above the scores of kids in control classrooms without e-readers. But results for older kids were mixed: “Student reading was affected almost exclusively at the primary level, and not at the junior and senior levels. This conclusion supports external data that students are most affected by reading interventions at the primary school stages between the ages of 4 and 10.”
  • Students sought out access to international news. “Amazon data revealed that students were downloading The New York Times, USA Today, and El País etc., demonstrating that students want to access a wide range of reading materials that were previously inaccessible.”
  • Some teachers worried kids became too dependent on the e-readers.  “For example, one teacher stated that students thought that everything on the e-reader was the ‘absolute truth.’ He had to correct them by  explaining that the e-books may contain mistakes just as paper books do. Teachers also observed that some students have started to favor classes that use the e-reader and neglect classes that do not.”
  • Kids shared their e-readers with their families and friends. Students, even primary schoolers, got to take their e-readers home at night and many reported sharing the devices. Kids in the study had an average of five siblings, so “the e-reader’s reach potentially extended to many people beyond the device’s owner.” Some kids whose parents were illiterate read to their parents from their e-readers.
  • Kindles break too easily. Worldreader had not predicted how many Kindles would break: 243 out of 600, or 40.5 percent. Each time an e-reader broke, Worldreader sent it back to Amazon to conduct “a post-mortem analysis.” Turns out “fragile screens are the main weakness” and Amazon is working on Kindles with reinforced screens (at the same cost), which started shipping to Ghana in October 2011. Plus Worldreader is providing more rugged cases for the Kindles and providing more instruction on how to use them (don’t sit on it, for instance).
  • The program appears cost-effective. Worldreader estimates that “for the years 2014-2018, using a calculation focused strictly on the provisioning of textbooks, the e-reader system would cost only $8.93-$11.40 more per student over a 4 year period [$0.19 to $0.24 per month] than the traditional paper book system.” That calculation is made with the assumptions that e-reader prices will fall and e-readers will become more rugged (so they break less). And of course, e-readers give students access to many books, not just textbooks.
Photos from Worldreader on Flickr