World Book Day: new UN report spotlights potential of mobile technology to advance literacy

In countries where physical books are hard to come by and illiteracy rates are high, mobile technology is being used to facilitate reading and improve literacy, says UNESCO. Shown, in Kenya, a Masai girl reads on an Android phone. Photo: Worldreader

23 April 2014 – Mobile technology can advance literacy and learning in underserved communities around the world, according to a new report published today by the United Nations education agency on the occasion of World Book and Copyright Day.

The report, Reading in the Mobile Era, highlights that hundreds of thousands of people currently use mobile technology as a portal to text. Findings show that in countries where illiteracy rates are high and physical text is scarce, large numbers of people read full-length books and stories on rudimentary small screen devices.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says that 774 million people worldwide, including 123 million youth, cannot read or write, and illiteracy can often be traced to the lack of books. Most people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not own a single book, and schools in this region rarely provide textbooks to learners.

Yet the report – the first ever study of mobile readers in developing countries – cites data showing that where books are scarce, mobile technology is increasingly common, even in areas of extreme poverty.

“This report calls attention to what is currently an underutilized potential – this is a cost-effective vehicle to improve education,” said Mark West, Section for Teacher Development and Education Policies at UNESCO and one of the authors of the report.

Mr. West noted that many people expressed doubt that small screen, monochrome devices can be used to access full-length books and stories. “But we have strong evidence that people throughout the developing world are doing just that. And these are often people who have limited access to other educational opportunities.”

The UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that of the 7 billion people on Earth, 6 billion have access to a working mobile phone – this is larger than the number of people who have access to a working toilet.

UNESCO’s study of mobile reading was conducted in seven developing countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Drawing on the analysis of over 4,000 surveys and corresponding qualitative interviews, the study found that large numbers of people (one third of study participants) read stories to children from mobile phones.

Also, females read far more on mobile devices than males (almost six times as much according to the study); both men and women read more cumulatively when they start reading on a mobile device; and many neo- and semi-literate people use their mobile phones to search for text that is appropriate to their reading ability.

The study is intended as a roadmap for Governments, organizations and individuals who wish to use mobile technology to help spread reading and literacy. It recommends improving the diversity of mobile reading content to appeal to specific target groups such as parents and teachers; initiating outreach and trainings to help people transform mobile phones into portals to reading material; and lowering costs and technology barriers to mobile reading.

On the occasion of World Book and Copyright Day, observed annually on 23 April, UNESCO invites all women and men to rally around books and all those who write and produce books.

“This is a day to celebrate books as the embodiment of human creativity and the desire to share ideas and knowledge, to inspire understanding and tolerance,” the agency’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, said in her message for the Day.

“Books are not immune from a world of change, embodied in the advent of digital formats and the transition to open licensing for knowledge-sharing.”

By championing copyright and open access, she said UNESCO stands up for creativity, diversity and equal access to knowledge. “We work across the board – from the Creative Cities of Literature network to promoting literacy and mobile learning and advancing Open Access to scientific knowledge and educational resources.”

As part of the celebration, Port Harcourt in Nigeria has been named as the 2014 World Book Capital, on account of the quality of its programme, in particular, its focus on youth and the impact it will have on improving Nigeria’s culture of books, reading, writing and publishing to improve literacy rates.

“In all of this, our goal is clear – to encourage authors and artists and to ensure that more women and men benefit from literacy and accessible formats, because books are our most powerful forces of poverty eradication and peace building,” said Ms. Bokova.


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