Worldreader, the lovechild of Amazon and higher education, gained three million new users in 2018, bringing the total number of individuals the company has reached to 10 million according to Publishers Weekly’s Ed Nawotka.
Worldreader, a charitable organization that promotes literacy and learning through technology, was founded by David Risher, previously both a general manager at Microsoft and Amazon’s senior vice president for Retail and Marketing, and Colin McElwee, the first Director of Marketing at ESADE Business School in Barcelona. As an AllAfrica article on Worldreader explains, Risher and McElwee’s initiative “provides people in the developing world with free access to a library of digital books via e-readers and mobile phones.”
Worldreader intends to bridge the gap in education that permeates developing nations. According to CIO’s article “Worldreader Launches E-reading Program in Rabai,” “only one in nineteen African countries has anything close to adequate book provision in schools.” To change that, Worldreader gives away Kindles and Tablets, loaded with e-books, to disadvantaged peoples in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
What Worldreader has to Offer
Worldreader re-evaluates its e-book catalog each year based on reading levels and gauged interest. The 35,000 works that it offers fit all different categories to engage readers fully – AllAfrica says the e-books are “texts for all ages; books that are supplementary reading for education; vocational books; books for low literacy adults; and basic books to get parents to tell stories to kids.”
Worldreader offers three different apps so that readers can access the e-books on mobile devices. The regular Worldreader app enables users to set and track reading goals through gamification and supports offline reading, which the frequently low-fi status of the villages necessitates. The unique language support feature contributes the most to Worldreader’s success: the app supports all modern written languages from Hindi to Arabic.
The organization also offers a “Worldreader Kids” app. Like the original app, it enables offline reading – however, the child-friendly app includes personalized avatars to entertain young ones while they read the illustrated children’s e-books.
The “Worldreader Student” app works on Android devices and supports reading level analysis as well as other insights to help the organization tailor the program for students.
Worldreader also offers a product it calls a BLUE Box, which the charity designed for schools and libraries. The BLUE Box costs $15,000 per package and consists of 5,000 e-books pre-loaded onto 50 Kindles (sometimes donated Android tablets) with full Worldreader operational support. The products Worldreader supports feed directly into its established programs.
Moreover, the charity boasts an incredible range of partners, donors, and patrons. Worldreader is partnered with publishers such as Pearson, Penguin Random House, and Rosetta Books, and supported by organizations like EBSCO, Google, LinkedIn, and the UN. Additionally, Amazon, Samsung, and Microsoft all make products for Worldreader at low cost.
Worldreader’s Reading Programs
Worldreader outlines four major reading programs: Pre-Reading, School Reading, Library Reading, and Lifelong Reading. The “Worldreader Kids” app feeds into the Pre-Reading program, which aims to get parents and teachers reading with young children to establish the importance of literacy young. Worldreader’s 2018 Annual Report says that learning to read at a young age dramatically increases a child’s earning potential which “increase(s) their chance of breaking the cycle of poverty and create(s) inner capacity to build healthier and more equitable societies.”
The School Reading program correlates with the student app and BLUE Box to provide material to both student and teacher. UNESCO states that “an astonishing 617 million children and adolescents worldwide are not reaching minimum proficiency levels in reading. A lack of books prevents literacy acquisition and learning, blocking students from reaching their full potential.” Worldreader challenges this problem by providing students access to online textbooks through their program.
Worldreader has several initiatives in both the Library Reading and Lifelong Reading programs: the Library Reading program has LOCAL (Local Content for African Libraries) and LEAP (Libraries, E-Reading, Activities, Partnerships) which engage the public in e-book consumption. The Lifelong Reading program has AvanzaLee, a Latin American initiative focused on Mexican e-books, and Anasoma, an initiative geared toward gender equality.
Why E-readers instead of Print Books
Donating e-readers makes more sense than providing print books in an environment where scarcity oppresses. As Linendoll from CNN explains,
Carrying heavy loads of books is not practical for Kenyan students who often have to walk miles to and from school. E-readers, however, are a different story. They’re lightweight and portable and give students access to entire libraries, including books from African publishers.
The e-readers also allow for more technological intervention – between being data-driven and fully supported remotely, e-readers encourage more engagement in continents like Africa by supporting African languages. The technological literacy the readers attain also promotes the use of e-readers.
The founders, Risher and McElwee, explain that the previous favor print books held counteracts the goal of the charity,
Donating paper books to a place like Africa is well-intentioned, but it’s actually ill-informed. You can’t actually get the right books to the people you want to get to, at the time they need it. It’s very expensive and highly inefficient.
The expense of sending print books would be astronomical – the cost of production and shipping alone would already eat through Worldreader’s funds, and e-readers contain more content in half the size for pennies on the dollar. The volume and versatility of e-readers make them the clear choice for an operation of this size.
Some might worry though about the danger of theft when using tools so valuable; as Linendoll expresses, “The students, after all, go home to a community filled with poverty.” However, less than a single percent of e-readers has disappeared, which indicates the absences can likely be attributed to other factors, such as moving. “Books and education are really the way out of this, and people take great care of books and education,” McElwee stated.
Worldreader has pushed literacy through e-books with great results on four continents. Though the charity currently boasts 10 million users, Nawotka’s article “Worldreader Added 3 Million Users” reports that, “The stated goal for the group is to ultimately reach one billion readers.” These results should come as great news for e-book authors as Worldreader has expanded the digital publishing universe by opening up audience demographics that were previously left untouched. All an author has to do is write something worth reading.