/ 24 August 2012

Putting books into their hands

The limited web-browsing ability of Kindles ensures that pupils can focus on reading.
The limited web-browsing ability of Kindles ensures that pupils can focus on reading.

The recent textbook crisis that has crippled schools in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape has highlighted some of the problems relating to the production and ­distribution of traditional books. Fiction and non-fiction books have also suffered and disused, empty school libraries are common in poor communities.

The government and the education sector urgently need to explore alternatives. Electronic reading devices, known as "e-readers", could provide a sustainable long-term solution.

As prices of e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle continue to come down, what was once regarded as a middle-class gimmick is playing an increasingly significant role in classrooms in the developing world. It can be seen in African countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, which have led the way with technology (see, for instance, ­worldreader.org).

With this global trend in mind, the eLibrary project (elibraryproject.org) is exploring the efficacy of e-reader technology as a tool for literacy development in disadvantaged schools in South Africa.

Using a sample of grade 11 students, the eLibrary project launched its pilot study last month at St Francis College, a small, low-fee independent school in Benoni, east of Johannesburg. Each of the 58 students will have their own Kindle to explore and use on a daily basis for one year.

The pilot study has involved extensive benchmark testing on the reading ability and interest in reading among the test group of students and we will measure the effect of these devices over a sustained period of time.

There are several reasons why we have chosen Kindles over other ­tablet devices, such as the Apple iPad, for our pilot project:

  • Kindles are easy to use and have an intuitive interface;
  • Unlike more energy-intensive back-lit tablets or smartphones, Kindles use e-ink technology that  makes for a more comfortable reading experience. As a result, the battery life exceeds a month, even with constant use;
  • Although the Kindle has basic web-browsing ability, it is primarily designed as a reader. Email or other web-based applications will not distract students; and
  • The Kindle can store up to 1 400 books and many works are available without copyright, giving students access to classic literature from around the world for free. Our Kindles are loaded with almost 300 classic and contemporary works.

Local publisher Pan Macmillan supports the project and has kindly donated e-books from its talented crop of local authors. They include University of the Free State rector Professor Jonathan Jansen and journalist Mandy Weiner, who has provided her bestsellers, Killing Kebble and The Youngsters series.

As a non-profit initiative, the project is dependent on the goodwill and generosity of others.

Although capital intensive, long-term savings in terms of electronic books will offset the initial cost of purchasing the device, especially if bulk orders of devices can drive down costs.

Part of our research will investigate the financial viability of these projects on a broader scale through a detailed cost analysis.

Once the pilot is completed, these and other research outcomes will be shared with policymakers and non-governmental organisations. We hope that our findings will assist them in determining whether e-readers could act as a realistic alternative to traditional libraries in underdeveloped schools.

Our overall objective is to get young South Africans to read more and to fall in love with reading. The ability to read well is not only essential for passing or achieving good marks, it is also a way of unleashing the imagination and enabling people to think critically about their environment.

We hope that this technology will catalyse an interest in reading in young people that will stay with them and develop over the course of their entire lives.

Mark Oppenheimer and David Ansara are co-directors of the ­eLibrary project, a non-profit, ­private initiative dedicated to ­promoting literacy development in South Africa through technology. See elibraryproject.org