April 27, 2012 at 3:33 PM ET
The Worldreader program studies the effects of bringing hundreds of e-readers like Amazon's Kindle into sub-Saharan Africa. They've published the results of a year-long pilot study in Ghana, and there's a lot to like about the idea.
The study put 600 Kindles into the hands of kids and tracked how they were used, how they changed teaching in the area, and how they affected literacy. The results were immensely positive, though not without caveats.
Teachers were able to create much more appropriate lesson plans and get up-to-date textbooks and resources. Kids were able to learn how to use the devices quickly and adapted to them very well, leading to improved test scores and literacy in general. And amazingly, only 2 of the 600 devices were lost or stolen.
On the other hand, the richly-featured devices (compared to books, that is) created the threat of constant distraction in the classroom, with some kids being attracted to the music and games functions more than the books. It's a familiar problem, and one that has no easy solution.
Perhaps the biggest problem was that the Kindles the program distributed broke rather easily. The breakage rate was a troubling 40.5 percent at the end of the year, and unlike a city-dwelling consumer, kids in Ghana can't bring theirs to the local Best Buy for replacement.
Despite these minor setbacks, the program must be considered hugely successful, and studies like this will hopefully drive home the need for literacy aid in impoverished countries. It also lends some legitimacy to programs like One Laptop Per Child, which plans to distribute its new low-cost tablet far and wide in an effort to reproduce the effects of this study at large.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.