UNESCO Sees Mobile’s Potential to Boost Global Literacy

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Not only is the spread of mobile devices around the world creating new access to content and boosting literacy, according to a new UNESCO report, it’s being done largely without the latest in digital reading technology. It’s happening on pre-smartphone cell phone handsets, otherwise known as feature-phones.

Readers in the developing world tend to read more when using mobile phones to read, according to the report.

In partnership with Nokia and Worldreader, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding literacy rates throughout the developing world, UNESCO surveyed over 4,000 people in seven countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe) to learn more about their mobile reading habits.

While the report’s findings are not representative of the broader mobile-device-owning populations of any of the regions studied—data was collected only from current Worldreader Mobile users—its key conclusion is encouraging: people tended to read more when using mobile phones to read. Some 65% of respondents reported an increase in their time spent reading, and 90% said they planned to read more on their mobile devices over the next year.

The report’s authors conclude that “mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to text.” That doesn’t necessarily mean a surge in literacy itself, but it does address one of the greatest barriers to progress: the availability of reading material.

Worldreader Mobile offers a free app that allows users to read ebooks from its cloud-based library of over 6,000 titles. Only the app is stored on the device itself while content remains on the cloud, and it’s designed to work on less expensive feature-phones, not just smartphones.

Worldreader bills itself as one of the most popular reading apps in developing countries. It reported an average of 334,000 active users per month in 2013. In October last year, Worldreader received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop an illiteracy-eradication program for African libraries.

Mobile device ownership is growing rapidly around the world. Literacy could well do the same, with tools like Worldreader Mobile facilitating that expansion. The platform aims to keep data costs down (only 18% of the UNESCO survey’s respondents said those costs prevented them from reading more) and, through a number of partnerships with publishers, offers most of its titles free to users.

For the more than 6 billion of the 7 billion people on Earth who have access to mobile devices today, that could mean a lot more reading, and soon.

Rich Bellis

About Rich Bellis

Rich Bellis is a senior editor at Digital Book World. He has a background in print and digital book production and has held positions at Hachette and Macmillan. He has also written for The Atlantic, World Policy, The Awl and other publications.

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One thought on “UNESCO Sees Mobile’s Potential to Boost Global Literacy

  1. It’s noteworthy that of the seven countries surveyed – Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe – only one is on the radar of the big western retailers.

    The likelihood of Amazon and co. ever venturing into territories like these is beyond nil, leaving Google Play as the only likely candidate among the usual suspects.

    Our thoughts are that the currently neglected regions of the world will gain the attraction of the new generation of e-retailers in the east as the centre of e-gravity shifts to the orient.

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