Netbooks vs E-Readers for BoP Education

Photo by aslakr

I started this post two months ago and it got lost in the shuffle of travel. Given this post by on the World Bank blog today, it seemed appropriate to finish it: 


When it comes to digital tools for learning in developing countries, is it better to start with a simple, if less full-featured, approach that can act as a building block, or hold out for the dream of a fully connected information powerhouse in the hand of each child? This is sure to be a controversial topic, but one worth exploring.

It's also one which we've already had some conversations about with people on both the technology and the development side, which we want to open up to wider discussion. It is a discussion that centers on what kind of technology approach might best provide a boost to students in the developing world and goes straight to the heart of how we approach ICT4D issues.

Bright minds have spent the past decade mulling how to get PCs with Internet access onto the desks of students in the developing world, and in the past few years a small army has spent thousands of hours and probably millions of dollars creating and deploying pilot devices with this aim in mind (see an index of many of these devices here). With the falling cost of notebook computers, their lighter, mobile form factor seemed to make this device the focal point, culiminating in the grandiose vision that became the OLPC—a small, durable, long-life, connected device that could deliver education, communication and creativity the far corners of the world at an affordable price. As we have seen, this vision was never realized, and while some devices made it to their destination, they never reached the pipe dream of the $100 price point, and maybe as many ended up in kid's bedrooms in the developed world.

As mobile phone penetration exploded in the developing world in the meantime, it didn't take a genius to recognize that a potentially powerful platform was already present, or would be soon, in many pockets, bookbags and villages. Simple, networked, less expensive than a PC and far more attainable, the humble handset is being turned to as a new possibility for delivering education to places like sub-Saharan Africa. 

But what about something in between, like an e-reader? With a larger screen size than a mobile, emerging e-readers sport connectivity (either Wi-Fi or cellular) that was optimized for downloading material for reading, and possibly other basic functions such as annotation, simple short messaging and pushing activity reports back upstream. The coming crop of e-readers have a number of things that make them attractive for educational use, particularly in less delicate environments:

  • They are being built to be more durable as designers get a better idea of usage patterns.
  • Functionality is being created around connectivity—not just for downloading books, but for more connection between booksellers and readers, and among readers.
  • They are being designed with low power consumption in mind.
  • Display technology is being optimized as well to aid in low power consumption and readability in many environments.
  • More of these readers are designed to take advantage of open publishing standards, making them open to a huge library of public domain texts or those distributed with an open license.
  • Touch-ready displays enable adding multilingual support and handwriting capture and recognition—a virtual slate in effect.
This list could go on, but you get the idea. Meanwhile, laptops and netbooks still suffer from various barriers:
  • Connectivity essentially makes them go, and larger processors invite the need for more bandwidth. Kicking the door open to the full Web isn't necessarily a good thing simply from the connectivity and support level alone. 
  • Licensing fees for applications and operating systems often push the margin beyond the ability to afford these devices, even with the sweetest deals.
  • Many moving parts mean more servicing requirements.
  • Special "netbook" OSs often mean dumbing down a more powerful device. Why bother to introduce it if you can't use it to its fullest potential?
Again, many arguments rest on this side as well. And, of course,  there are still many in favor of using a more complex device. My point here is to spark thinking about how these simpler devices that, unlike a mobile phone, is function- or application-specific: they are designed for reading and text, which a mobile is not optimally suited for. 
So, this is an argument to look a little more carefully at that glass to see if it is indeed half full. Many different solutions should be explored, and now we have a new one with particular potential. Let's see what the next generation of e-readers brings us, and if these innovations can not only help those of us in the developed world pass the time in flight, but also might help accelerate connected learning where it is needed.

Posted via email from Some Observers