UNESCO's report 'Reading in the Mobile Era' sheds light on the mobile revolution taking place in developing countries.
Reading is many things, but it always and must necessarily begin with access to text, and more aptly books. Yet in many parts of the world this access is either non-existent or sorely lacking. Many people from Lagos to La Paz to Lahore – whether experienced readers looking for a good story or new readers taking tentative first steps towards literacy – do not read for one reason: they don’t have books.
The question remains: How do we bring text to the unreached?
Why mobile phones? Because people have them. Recent data from the United Nations indicate that of the estimated 7 billion people on Earth, over 6 billion now have access to a working mobile phone. To put this number in perspective, only 4.5 billion people have access to a toilet (United Nations, 2013).
To better understand how technology can facilitate reading, UNESCO, in partnership with Nokia and Worldreader, developed a survey to learn about the habits, preferences and attitudes of mobile readers.
The survey was completed by over 4,000 people in seven countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe) and supported by qualitative interviews with numerous respondents. The depth and breadth of data collection make this study the most comprehensive investigation of mobile reading in developing countries to date.
The findings are significant. Among other conclusions, UNESCO has learned that people read more when they read on mobile devices, that they enjoy reading more, and that people commonly read books and stories to children from mobile devices. The study shows that mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to text.
A key conclusion from this publication is that mobile devices constitute one tool – in a repertoire of other tools – that can help people develop, sustain and enhance their literacy skills. They can help people find good books and, gradually, cultivate a love of reading along with the myriad advantages that portends – educationally, socially and economically.
This finding echoes global trends showing that convenience is a powerful driver of mobile reading. Because of their multiple uses and portable form, phones are often carried around, offering instant access to content throughout the day.
Of the respondents who cited convenience as their primary reason for reading on their mobile phone, 38 per cent cited affordability as their second-most-important reason
The study found that women and girls, while outnumbered by men in terms of actual users, are significantly more engaged by mobile reading. Data indicate that female mobile readers consume more books and read more often and for longer periods of time than their male counterparts.
Mobile phones – by providing a convenient and affordable gateway to vast libraries of text – hold promise for improving female literacy, particularly in areas where paper books are inaccessible to women due to cost, scarcity or social stigma against female education.
Survey data also show that a significant portion of mobile readers use their mobile phones to read aloud to children. This is one of this study’s most surprising and noteworthy findings, indicating a largely untapped opportunity to support the literacy development of children through mobile technology.
Most child-targeted initiatives employ mobile applications that children use directly, often in the context of a classroom or after-school programme, yet these initiatives are limited in their reach, as children, particularly in developing countries, tend not to have immediate or individual access to mobile phones. It stands to reason that if more child-appropriate content was available and more adults knew how to access it, mobile reading could have a tremendous impact on early childhood education around the world.
...mobile reading advocates should adopt three broad strategies for extending the benefits of mobile reading to more people: 1) diversify mobile reading content and portals to appeal to specific target groups; 2) increase outreach efforts to create opportunities for potential users to experiment with mobile reading and learn about its benefits; and 3) lower cost and technology barriers to mobile reading.