UNESCO report: A mobile reading revolution

Mobile phones offer a new channel to literature and an opportunity to improve literacy that is revolutionary. Such is the conclusion of the recently released report by UNESCO titled Reading in the Mobile Era (infographic).

Millions of people do not read for one reason: they do not have access to text. But today mobile phones and cellular networks are transforming a scarce resource into an abundant one.

Drawing on the analysis of over 4,000 surveys collected in seven developing countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe) and corresponding qualitative interviews, this report paints the most detailed picture to date of who reads books and stories on mobile devices and why.

I led the Mobiles for Reading project while at UNESCO, in partnership with Nokia and Worldreader, and am proud and inspired by what the report has uncovered, namely:

  • Large numbers of people in developing countries read books and stories on inexpensive mobile phones.
  • Mobile phones—even those with small, monochrome screens—provide a valid and widely used portal to text, opening up new pathways to literacy in communities where physical text is scarce.
  • While most mobile readers are male, female mobile readers tend to read far more than males. On average, women read for slightly over 200 minutes per month on a mobile device, six times as long as the average time for men. Given that 64% of illiterate people worldwide are female, interventions to facilitate mobile reading among women could help alleviate the global literacy crisis.
  • Both men and women read more—in absolute terms—when they start reading on a mobile device. Because increased reading carries numerous educational and social benefits, governments and other institutions can take steps to promote mobile reading, especially in areas where illiteracy is widespread, but mobile phones are common.
  • Nearly one third of study participants read stories to children from mobile phones. 34% of respondents who do not read to children said that they would if they had more books and stories for children on their mobiles. This highlights an opportunity to build and strengthen children’s literacy with technology that is increasingly ubiquitous in even the poorest communities. More digital content appropriate for young people should be made available on mobile devices as should portals that easily allow parents, teachers and caregivers to find books targeted to children.
  • Many neo- and semi-literate readers use mobile phones to search for and access text that is appropriate to their reading level. More can be done to ensure that beginning readers have access to content that corresponds to their reading ability, allowing them opportunities to improve their literacy skills.

When asked why respondents read on their mobile phones, convenience was the clear winner:
m4r_why

 

The report has received excellent coverage, including from The GuardianTime MagazineForbes and the Wall Street Journal. The accompanying presentation provides a succinct summary of the findings and recommendations.

Mobiles for reading is a passion of mine. In 2009 I founded Yoza Cellphone Stories (project info here). The report confirms my earlier beliefs that the mobile phone is — and will be for the foreseeable future — the “Kindle of Africa” simply because it is already in the hands of millions of people. While mobiles offer an unprecedented opportunity for increasing access to text, a key challenge remains around sustainability. So far there is no clear example (Yoza included) of mobiles for reading initiatives that are profitable. Indeed, many are funded by governments, foundations or CSI budgets (and the report’s recommendations talk to these stakeholders).

I believe that the answer to sustainability exists, it just hasn’t been worked out yet.

Clearly there is an unprecedented opportunity here to change the game for reading, including for children, women and girls, and semi-literate adults. All stakeholders need to engage with this opportunity to work through the challenges.

I would like to thank and congratulate the excellent M4R team, including (from left) Periša Ražnatovi (Worldreader), Rebecca Kraut, Elizabeth Hensick Wood (Worldreader), Sanna Eskelinen (Nokia), Mark West (UNESCO), myself and Han Ei Chew (United Nations University).

M4R Team at MLW 2014_small

 

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