| December 14, 2010

Let’s Talk Challenges


Teachers had drawn e-readers to explain how they work.

The iREAD launch marked the culmination of months of planning and preparation and it was very satisfying to watch everything come together. Many of the difficulties that we foresaw turned out not to be issues after all. We thought that the Primary students, who are just beginning to learn English, would have trouble with the small and arcanely labelled e-reader buttons (5-way controller, anyone?), but after a slightly slow start, they rose to the occasion beautifully.

Education professionals in Ghana had warned us that donated items end up wrapped in plastic and kept behind locked doors, only put into use, shiny and sparkly, when funders come to visit. Instead, after only one day of training, we discovered a group of children clustered around an e-reader at the Adeiso market — their teacher, Mr. Francis, had allowed them to take the devices home.

Augustina sharing with friends after school

This is not to say that we didn’t face our fair share of challenges along the way. We were taking on a never-done-before task (and a slightly nutty one at that, according to one of our funders). Putting 440 e-readers into kids’ hands in rural Ghana was not an uncomplicated task.

The Kindle 3, our e-reader of choice for iREAD, was designed for a connected world. Two simple clicks allows you to delete a book.   In truth, the book isn’t deleted. It is simply removed from the device, and can be downloaded again from the Archive. This download can happen near-instantaneously on a 3G or broadband Wifi connection. But with the slower GPRS or EDGE networks outside the capital city of Accra, accidentally removing the book that the rest of the class is reading can mean a delay of half the class period.

Most e-readers are also designed for individuals. They arrive in a virgin, bookless state, and the purchasing, downloading and licensing of books is handled on a per-user basis. E-reader manufacturers recognize that there is a market for group licensing and administrative tools for large numbers of e-readers. Amazon.com has been very helpful with many of these processes, but this is another area in which what we are doing is a bit ahead of the technology.

It was heartbreaking when the kids without e-readers asked us why they didn’t get them.

Joseph and David addressing a school assembly.

After thinking it over, we addressed the students when they convened for morning assembly. We recognized that some of them might be angry (murmurs erupted.) And jealous (“Yes!” they cried, in chorus.) But we had to start somewhere, and the children in the pilot study were chosen at random. While we work on getting them all e-readers, we decided to leave a handful in the care of their respective school libraries. It was not a perfect solution, but we hope it’ll improve matters.

It is challenging to recognize that the schools we’re working with have serious structural problems that Worldreader cannot solve. The system of education still relies largely on memorization and rote learning. The classrooms are hot, dusty and incredibly crowded. Teachers and resources are stretched to the max.  At Adeiso SHS, over a hundred students cluster together in a makeshift building while they wait for new classrooms to be constructed — the plan is to split the group into two classes in January.

Despite these constrained resources, the kids get by with an incredible generosity of spirit. During recess at Kade Primary, Elizabeth mentioned that she was hungry. Instantly, six tiny hands tugged at her sleeves. “Madame, do you want my food?” they asked her.  E-readers are not a panacea for a troubled system. Our work is anything but easy. But we are constantly energized by the positive signs that things are changing for the better.