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Reading on Mobile Phones? mLiteracy Opportunities and Challenges

By Steve Vosloo on April 6, 2015


Recently, the Goethe Institute of Johannesburg hosted an mLiteracy Networking Meeting to examine the opportunities and challenges for mobiles to increase literacy development, especially in Africa. It was an incredibly valuable, interesting and much-needed gathering by some of the old and new players in this space. While reflecting on how far the field of mobiles for literacy has come since 2009 when I first launched Yoza Cellphone Stories, two key points really struck me.

  1. Mobile Usage is Skyrocketing
    The mobile uptake in South Africa is continuing to grow. Based on number of subscriptions, mobile penetration is estimated at 146% of the population. Smartphones are on the rise with the introduction of $50 handsets from the two largest mobile operators, and the government is starting to invest in large-scale tablet implementations at schools.
  2. mLiteracy is Expanding Just as Fast
    Next, the mLiteracy field has grown immensely. Back when we launched Yoza, it was the only dedicated mLiteracy service in South Africa. Today there are a number of offerings, reaching different target audiences. To mention a few, FunDza is aimed at teens and young adults; Nal’ibali is aimed at improving literacy levels of young children, but works through their parents and caregivers; and Worldreader has an extensive enough library to cater to a wide audience, from children to adults, with titles at varying levels for each group.

mLiteracy is Filling a Real Need

To really appreciate the opportunity for mobiles to impact literacy, these trends should be contrasted with traditional book penetration: 51% of households in South Africa do not have a single leisure book to read, and only 7% of school libraries are functional. It is not surprising that only 5% of parents in South Africa read to their children.

As an aside, such a dearth of access to printed materials is common around the developing world. A recent Pearson survey found that in India, only 2% of parents polled from low socioeconomic groups said their child has access to storybooks at home (compared to 87% amongst the equivalent group in the USA).

mLiteracy Challenges

Yet, there is so much more potential opportunity that is not being tapped. Why is it that when there are so few books to read and such a high level of mobile access, people are not reading more on their mobile devices? Why are South Africans not following the 25 million Chinese who read books only on their cellphones? There are many reasons for this, but I think that work needs to be done on both the supply and demand side of the literacy spectrum.

  1. We Need More mLit Content
    On the supply side, while new mLiteracy offerings have emerged, there is still not enough quality content, in local languages, targeted at particular audiences, and leveled for different reading abilities. The UNESCO report Reading in the Mobile Era highlights this issue very clearly. While public domain content that is read and studied at school is readily available to be published for mobile, content that is made for mobile (that is cognizant of the platform) and targeted to the interests of readers is most desirable.
  2. We Need More mReaders
    On the demand side, we have seen that simply providing titles on mobiles has not resulted in every mobile phone owner turning into a bookworm. This is because users either simply don’t know about these exciting offerings (a point raised by many librarians at the mLiteracy Networking Meeting) or that they don’t think of themselves as readers. By increasing visibility, and tying mLiteracy to reading campaigns, the word can be spread in a way that motivates people to pick up their phones and try an m-novel.
  3. We Need Better Cost Perceptions
    Lastly, the issue of cost cannot be ignored when considering low user demand. Or rather, the perception of cost as a barrier. Compared to buying a printed book, most books on mobile are significantly cheaper, or even free. The difference is that the user also pays, in most cases, data charges to the mobile network operator for browsing/downloading the book. Even though it might only costs cents to read a book online (the average Yoza story chapter costs 0,5 cents US to read), the de facto perception is that anything involving mobile data is expensive and should be approached with caution (lest it “eat my airtime” – a real quote from South African low income users). WikiAfrika shared that even in countries where Wikipedia Zero was present, the volume of traffic did not increase because people don’t know that access is free. Visibility and education around true costs are the gamechangers here.

mLit is Still an Amazing Opportunity

The mLiteracy Networking Meeting was truly inspiring and important, because it reminded me of the enormous opportunity – completely unprecedented since the invention of the printing press – to improve literacy through mobiles. The enthusiasm and commitment of the mLiteracy pundits was palpable. They “get it”, and it drives and excites them.

But so much more work is needed to truly tap into this potential, starting with more quality materials to offer, greater visibility for what’s on offer, more impactful reading campaigns, and inventive ways to change perceptions around cost for every day citizens of South Africa. We need to examine seriously the pros and cons of print versus digital, including costs, and follow the most judicious strategy for going to scale.

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Written by
Steve Vosloo is passionate about using technology in education. He's worked at UNESCO, Pearson South Africa, Stanford University, and the Shuttleworth Foundation on the use of mobile phones for literacy development, how technology can better serve low-skilled users, and the role of digital media for youth. All opinions expressed in this post are his own.
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4 Comments to “Reading on Mobile Phones? mLiteracy Opportunities and Challenges”

  1. Agreed on all points, Steve! Thank you for sharing that link to the Atlantic with the article on the Chinese. That was incredible! As I publish more from my doctorate, I hope to provide a gender-based, or more specifically, a girl-based perspective on this emerging phenomenon, exploring both the potential and the remaining barriers. There were a lot of surprises for me in what emerged from my own data in Kenya.

  2. Lesley Dunn says:

    We believe strongly in taking away all barriers to learning. Innovation equals, thinking, teaching, and reaching people differently. We work with low literate, low skilled, low employed and unemployed adults helping build skills to gain access to a job that pays a family living wage. Our learners may not have much, but they do have a smartphone. We are building an eLearning platform for low level learners that is smartphone friendly. We have tested it with a variety of learners and they love it, and the fact that they can access learning through their phone 24/7 means they can learn anywhere, anytime.

  3. sem says:

    Steve, thank you for sharing your reflection. we cannot emphasize enough the reading campaign and raising awareness of communities on the importance of reading. As you’d know, a lot of the African communities have oral culture. introducing the culture of reading is foreign for most and providing more materials will not cut it. a grassroots movement to cultivate the culture of reading is necessary. community members and their influential leaders need to see and accept the value to make it part of their life.

    • Steve Vosloo says:

      @Sem and @Lesley, thank you for your replies that affirm the potential, and work needed to unlock it, in the mliteracy space.

      @Ronda, I am excitedly looking forward to your research results. A girl-based perspective is sorely lacking and will prove to be most valuable to the many working in this space.