The biggest challenge facing South African readers is access to books. For everyday South Africans, loading digital texts onto smartphones or tablets isn’t always viable solution due to the need for ICT infrastructure, as well as for meaningful well-constructed content suitable for digital media.
It is important to keep in mind that one can apply different definitions to electronic and digital publishing. Technically, we have been practicing electronic publishing for many years, through the medium of desktop publishing systems and mark-up languages. Digital publishing, some would argue, refers to creating publications intended for digital consumption. The two definitions are largely interchangeable, but it brings to light how the so-called “paper behind glass” has been failing outside of the academic and research world. A space where a print book is the norm and has the required functionality, digital media needs to offer something more.
South Africa is in an interesting situation in that while it is not unique, it is special as an emerging economy, with a small population and reasonable digital literacy. We also have an interesting dynamic in that we possess one of the most apparent gaps between rich and poor population groups. As such, we have both a driving need for innovation, and the professional and technical capacity to implement it.
We already have a history of technical innovation as represented by some of the companies described below. To begin though, we’ll take a look at an international venture which has strong ties to Africa.
World Reader serves to provide digital books for literacy projects primarily in Africa using either e-reading devices (Kindle primarily) or mobi-sites optimised for feature phones. They are also involved in research initiatives and infrastructure support by providing solar chargers. Worldreader negotiates with publishers to make ebooks available on pre-loaded devices. In areas where the devices are shared, and internet connections scarce. Pre-loaded readers can provide an instant library for a school or community. By using mobile phones, they have been able to gather research on reading patterns which can be used to provide more tailored ebook offerings.
Staying with literacy as a theme, the Shuttleworth Foundation has been instrumental in sponsoring initiatives to foster literacy amongst the youth. one such project was the m4lit campaign (or Yoza Project) in which interactive novels were distributed using MixIt. MixIt has been and still is an interesting communication platform has been used for exam tutoring, and education as well as creative content delivery. The dialogue format made an ideal model for novellas aimed at younger readers where the stories could not only be read, but commented on as well. In the m4lit project, readers could interact by suggesting and polling on plot points.
In areas without a thriving book delivery infrastructure, learners may not have reliable access to books through their local school or public libraries. Also, the international interest in media tablets is less relevant in a South African context where, according to research by World Wide Worx, 95% of adults surveyed who own a mobile phone don’t own a tablet. It is unlikely that tablet usage among the youth, especially in lower income market segments, is much better. Schools in middle to high income communities have been piloting the use of media tablets and digital textbooks for a few years, but this trend doesn’t address the problem of delivering cheap, easily accessible books to the greater population.
However, learners can have access to low-cost reading devices, as well as local copy shops. In order to address the issue of accessibility, we must consider business models that aren’t just carbon copies of those used in developed nations with low income disparity. Luckily, there are many organisations, both in South Africa and in the greater Africa, that are looking into alternative ways of getting our kids the books they want to read.
The first organisation, Book Dash, created by Arthur Attwell focuses on the free distribution of ebooks and printable content for children without the traditional rights and fees systems. Atwell (A Shuttleworth Foundaton Fellow) created Book Dash as an alternative to the traditional sales of children’s books in order to increase foundation phase literacy in more rural/impoverished areas and so foster a reading culture. Books are created as social collaborations in 12-hour hack day combining authors, illustrators, designers, printers, and developers.
Siyavula (siyavula.com/who-we-are/our-story) is an organisation founded by postgraduate students from the University of Cape Town. Siyavula produces free textbooks for high school learners. The learning materials, developed by volunteer teachers, are openly licensed under a Creative Commons copyright license — meaning that the materials are free to print and adapt. Siyavula is also supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation.
Finally, Worldreader (worldreader.org/about-us) introduces low-cost ereaders into schools. While media tablets and smartphones are still expensive in a developing context, ereaders have the potential of being low-cost, sustainable devices for dedicated reading. The most well-known ereader, Amazon’s Kindle, debuted in 2007 with a ZAR4000 price tag. In 2014, ereaders can be purchased for ZAR500. Since ereaders typically use a display technology that doesn’t use much power (namely, e-ink), and since these devices are designed primarily around reading, they have a lot of potential for developing markets. Worldreader has researched the effects of introducing ereaders into rural schools in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania since 2011. According to Worldreader’s research, children show improved literacy skills and desire to read after having been trained in the use of ereaders with pre-loaded titles.
If we can get copy shops to produce books (Book Dash), and if the books are made free to the public (Siyavula), and if we can push cheaper and more durable reading devices into our schools (Worldreader), we will go great lengths towards solving South Africa’s accessibility issues.
The implications of the free distribution of tablets to multiple schools in the 2015 school year is smaller than it first appears. Firstly: little to no training has been undertaken by the Department of Education. In stead, the publishers themselves (Heinemann and Macmillan largely) have undertaken teacher training on the successful implementation and use of e-learning devices. This, of course, implies that teacher training is platform (and publisher) specific, like DRM for learning platforms.
Secondly: the large-scale distribution of e-readers to the schools and learning centres of South Africa does not take into account the various socio-political, economical and practical challenges that these schools face. Many schools, especially in the traditionally disadvantaged, rural areas of South Africa, lack running water, sanitation and power. They thus lack the infrastructure to engage with the new technology.
Thirdly: the rollout of e-learning devices assumes the development of materials that do not exist. The use of the WWW to teach implies that the information of the entire world will be available to you: IN English. Ignoring that not every person, school, community or family can speak/read/write in English in a country like South Africa is paramount to a human rights violation. The development of new platforms for the distribution of learning materials should only follow of the successful implementation of the constitutional rights of the learners to learn in their mother tongue, or any other of the 11 official languages. Increased access to technology does not mean increased access to information.
In the arena of scholarly and academic publishing however there has been amazing growth in South Africa, as will be discussed by Ms Gravett from Taylor and Francis. This is likely due to the global language for higher and further education being English, thus overcoming the issues faced in foundation phase publishing.
Fiction in Africa has traditionally followed the same implementation model when it comes to ebooks as it has for any other large change. The perceived largest market goes first. While large quantities of titles for over 40 white women have been converted into ebooks, other titles, aimed at other markets, are only beginning now. Sapphire Press is only making their titles available via PDF, avoiding unnecessary expenditure, implying that their market may not be as motivated as others to embrace the digital revolution. Fiction and non-fiction such as bible verses have been successfully distributed in SA through MIXIT, SMS, and others, but has not yet fully embraced the ePub revolution.
Fundamentally it is important to acknowledge that the introduction of new and more accessible technologies my bridge the divide of physical access, but the need for information transcends the physical possession of technology. Access to information faces the same issues it always has.