Can Cellphones Improve Literacy in Poor Countries?

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PARIS — In the last two decades, cellphones have become an integral part of our daily routine. Whether it is for work-related activities or leisure, we are at a point where we cannot remember what life used to be like without these precious devices. However, in some countries these little devices have been making a huge difference. According to a report released by UNESCO last month, cellphones can improve literacy in poor countries.

In countries where incomes are barely enough to cover basic food—if at all—books are luxury items. While illiteracy is not a major problem in most Western countries, in poor countries it remains a problem. However, according to UNESCO, this might be changing thanks to the spread of mobile technologies.

Cellphones have made books accessible to more people without having to buy them separately. People in poor countries already depend on cellphones to work, send money and maintain contact with family members, which otherwise would be impossible. Using them to read is an added benefit without the added cost.

According to UNESCO, this study,  jointly conducted by Nokia and Worldreader, was the largest ever on mobile reading in the developing world. The results point toward a growing trend of using mobile phones to read. People are constantly seeking new content to read. Indeed, parents are increasingly using mobile phones to read to their children.

The report surveyed 5,000 cellphone users in seven countries—Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. It used questionnaires and interviews with peoples using the app Worldreader—created by a San Francisco based nonprofit—to measure the impact of mobile technology on reading patterns in the developing world. It was found that today, the app has over 300,000 monthly active users in developing countries. Moreover, Worldreader estimates that it has delivered over 1.7 million e-books since its inception in 2010.

Another interesting finding of the study is that 62 percent of the people surveyed reported that after reading on their mobile device, they began to enjoy reading even more. Also, over 60 percent said that they used their mobile phone to read to their children. The study also uncovered differences in reading patterns based on gender. While men make up the vast majority (77 percent) of people reading on their mobile devices, women tend to read more (277 minutes per month, on average, compared to just 33 minutes for men).

To put things in perspective, the illiteracy rate in the U.S. is approximately 3 percent, whereas in these countries the average is 20 percent among children and 34 percent among adults. This is 774 million people worldwide that cannot read or write. According to a lead author of UNESCO, Mark West, “A key conclusion from this study is that mobile devices can help people develop, sustain and enhance their literacy skills. This is important because literacy opens the door to life-changing opportunities and benefits.”

While this study cannot establish a causal relationship between the use of mobile devices to read and a reduction in literacy rates in developing nations, this trend at least promises to nourish a literary culture, exposing developing countries to new alternatives.

Sources: The Verge, The Guardian, Time,
Photo: Phone Power

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