‘Make love with books, be happy forever’ says a sign on the exterior wall of a school in the Mbale district of rural Uganda. Yet as I walk into the school building and wander around the classrooms, I see no books.
‘Last year, I won a reading competition and my teacher gave me a bible. But I have no other book to read or study at home,’ says Peter, an 11-year-old pupil. One of the biggest difficulties experienced in rural education is the lack of educational material and books. If children are lucky enough to complete their schooling, this happens without proper access to books which could help them to enlarge their horizons.
According to Margaret Ekwang, School Inspector for the Masindi district of Uganda, lack of educational material, and especially books, in rural schools is a pressing issue: ‘Children have to depend largely on the notes of their class teachers, which is seriously limiting for their academic excellence. Lack of educational material also means children cannot be exposed to self-teaching through reading. These can sometimes be reasons for pupils to drop out of school.’
The second of the Millennium Development Goals is to ‘ensure that children everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling’. However, nothing about the efficiency or quality of the education is mentioned in this goal. Especially in remote areas, it is possible for a student to complete her schooling without having read a single book. Although there are a number of NGOs that give book aid to developing countries, these efforts remain insufficient for rural schools.
Books are one of the cheapest and most effective ways of stimulation for children. They can make an invaluable contribution to a child’s intellectual development, which can result in improved school performances and better opportunities for the future, thus contributing to the country’s economic advancement. Yet most rural children have severely limited access to books. But thanks technological advances in the form of e-reading devices, it doesn’t have to stay this way
E-readers could tackle the book hunger experienced in rural areas of developing countries. Other means of technology, such as computers, can be challenging to use, due to issues such as lack of technological infrastructure, energy problems and literacy. However, e-readers fit to the needs of rural education almost as if they are specifically designed for it.
E-readers are cost and energy efficient. Most models’ batteries can last up to two months with a single charge. There are also versions which work with solar energy. An average computer would require not only constant energy, but also someone with moderate computer literacy to operate it. But e-readers don’t have such obstacles. Any child could start to use an e-reader within minutes, with no prior IT literacy. It is possible to fit literally thousands of books into an e-reader. With the combination of freely available children’s classics and perhaps copyright donations from individual authors and publishing houses, every child could own a large library.
Furthermore, every e-reader is a simple to use and efficient dictionary. It allows the reader to access the definition of any unknown word with a single touch. According to UNESCO, 476 million of the world’s illiterate people speak minority languages and live in countries where children are mostly not taught in their mother tongue. A significant proportion of school children around the world don’t take their education in their mother tongue. In multilingual countries like Uganda, it is not rare for children coming from two really close villages to speak different languages at home, and take their education in English. Many children who are not able to cope with this challenge drop out of school at early stages of their education. In a world in which it is difficult to ensure all children get educated in their mother tongue, an e-reader can significantly contribute to a pupil’s vocabulary and language skills. In the long run, this could pave the way for a decrease in dropout rates and improve the future employment opportunities of rural pupils.
‘If all the children had access to a library of 1,000 books, this would significantly accelerate the standards for our education. Academic competition would be higher, the poor reading culture would be minimized, and learning would be much more interesting for students. This way, retention and completion rate would be improved,’ adds Margaret Ekwang.
According to Dr Shakuntala Banaji, a scholar of pedagogy and communication at the London School of Economics, introducing e-readers to rural pupils’ lives is still a big technical and cultural challenge: ‘The books to be pre-uploaded to e-readers would need to be carefully chosen and customized according to local cultures. There would also be a pressing need for technology sponsors and content donors. However, if these challenges were overcome, children could greatly benefit.’
Although not easy, it is up to us to end the book hunger in the world, connect the disconnected, and enhance future opportunities for remote rural communities. If every child in the world can carry a library in his pocket, that would be a revolution.
This story appeared on New Internationalist.