774 million people worldwide -- more than double the population of the United States -- cannot read and write.
Illiteracy is rampant, but it is also highly concentrated in a few countries, where poverty, conflict, and poor health care often complicate efforts to provide education. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of illiterate people has increased by 40% since 2000, despite significant gains in other global regions.
Illiteracy can often be traced to book shortages. A survey of 16 sub-Saharan African countries found that a majority of primary schools have few or no books; in 13 of these countries, this situation is not improving. The lack of books slows down reading acquisition, which in turn impedes learning in all school subjects.
Yet while books are scarce, mobile phones are becoming increasingly common, even in areas of extreme poverty where illiteracy rates are highest. Research conducted by UNESCO reveals that hundreds of thousands of people living in developing countries read entire books on mobile phones, including inexpensive phones with small, monochrome screens.
©Worldreader. A Masai girl reads on a low-end Android phone, Kenya.
This is good news, as it helps eliminate an age-old obstacle to literacy: access to text. Just as the printing press made books accessible to huge numbers of people who could not previously afford them, mobile devices are sparking a similar transformation in developing countries. UNESCO has estimated that mobile books can be 300 to 500 times less expensive than their printed equivalents; they're also sometimes easier to share, update, and carry. This technological improvement is revolutionary by any standard, and it has enormous potential to bring books and stories to places where educational needs are most urgent.
Although mobile reading is well suited to help alleviate the global illiteracy crisis, very little is known about it. For this reason, UNESCO completed a large study of mobile readers in seven developing countries. The findings will be shared in a new publication called Reading in the mobile era: A study of mobile reading in developing countries. The report shines much-needed light on this important trend in reading and elucidates strategies to expand its reach and impact. This publication, based on over a year of research, is the first of its kind and will be released on April 23, 2014 (less than a week!) in conjunction with World Book Day.
UNESCO’s work in mobile reading is part of a broader program in mobile learning. The program seeks to help governments and other stakeholders better leverage inexpensive and increasingly ubiquitous technology for education by running projects in the field, publishing research and recommendations, and organizing an annual conference called Mobile Learning Week.