In the Developing World, Books Are Not Dead

From someone who has worked in the developing world for over a decade, it is hard to comprehend a world where traditional classrooms and libraries are no longer necessary. We need more of them, not fewer.
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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Twelve years ago, I quit my executive position at Microsoft to devote my life to bringing education to millions of children across the developing world. It's therefore always thrilling and gratifying when people or groups like TED decide to focus attention on helping this critically important issue. While I am excited for any innovation that will help children who otherwise cannot obtain an education, I must add a note of caution. I wish Sugat Mitra all the best in adapting (and most importantly scaling) his innovation, but please forgive me if I add a few thoughts on some of the big picture issues I fear are at risk of being overlooked.

1. The Importance of Literacy

The statistics on literacy cannot be overlooked. The fact is there are 793 million illiterate people across the globe, meaning they lack the basic ability to read and write. A computer screen does little good if a child cannot read or comprehend what he/she is seeing. Literacy is a baseline skill that every child needs and if they don't have that -- all the computers and clouds in the world mean nothing to them. They cannot comprehend the mass of information afforded through the internet if they have not learned basic reading skills, and they cannot communicate their own thoughts if they don't know how to write.

2. One Size Does Not Fit All

One thing we learned very early on is that it's all about relevant content. Children in the developing world need access to information in their mother tongue. Traditional publishers don't produce much content in languages spoken in some of the poorest countries, as there's little profit margin. The world's 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day cannot afford simple books, much less technology. Social entrepreneurs love a vaccum, so we fill that void by producing books in over 20 languages. To date, we have published over 850 titles in the languages of the communities we service, and we aspire to be at 1,000 by the end of this year. Over 8 million copies are in circulation. The cost for this is on average $1 per book. The world will never be fully educated if we don't produce content in the languages spoken by the world's poorest people.

3. In the Developing World, Books Are Alive and Well

Those of you reading this may be from a download society, but in the developing world, books are not dead. Books need no electricity or power switch and require no maintenance. Colorful children's books are single-purpose devices; a child can focus on the book fully with no distractions and thus have a richer experience. I am often asked, "Why aren't our children's titles available in digital form?" When asked this, my mind flashes to the tiny remote villages I have visited in Nepal, Cambodia and India where running water and food are in short supply. Electricity would be an extravagance and broadband is a luxury that has not yet reached hundreds of thousands of villages. I sincerely hope I live to see a day when any child in the world can walk into a digital library and access thousands of books, in their chosen language at the touch of a button, but I believe that day is further away than we imagine. There is the risk of putting the cart before the horse.

4. Nothing Will Replace the Importance of Teachers

Sugata Mitra mentions the natural curiosity of children and the importance of encouragement. But in my opinion "a lesson from a British Grandmother via Skype" (cited as an example in his TEDTalk) cannot compare to the interaction a child can have while in the physical presence of a great teacher. I simply cannot agree that children don't need great teachers, and don't need that one-on-one support. Go sit in one of our schools or libraries in Cambodia or Laos or Sri Lanka and you will see the very essence of curiosity and encouragement, in human form and with social interaction. As professional development sometimes falls short in the developing world, we provide our teachers with in-service training and a core team of education experts that help facilitate the teaching methods that are most effective in a particular part of the world. I imagine most TED attendees had great teachers as children. Why deny that to children in the developing world? As Gene Sperling once said in reply to the idea of eliminating teachers, schools and books in the developing world in favor of a technology-only approach: "That is a very easy thing to say... when you're talking about someone else's child".

5. It's More Than Brick and Mortar

To date, Room to Read has created over 15,000 libraries (six times what my hero Andrew Carnegie did in his lifetime) as a cornerstone where a child comes to learn. Building libraries and classrooms serves another organic, fundamental need - it creates a sense of community. We work only with "motivated communities". We create our projects with the people who need them, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Building something together gives these communities something of utmost value: a sense of ownership, of pride. I would hate to think I would never again see a child's face light up the day the red ribbon is cut on a library that before was only a dream. Building a school in an area where hope is in short supply, a library or new classroom is a beacon of hope - it's something the children can see, something they can touch, someplace they can go. It represents more than a place to read books, it means they have access to the same basic education the rest of the world has: It levels the playing field.

6. Low Tech Is Effective in the Developing World

In Animal Farm, Orwell imagined a world where we'd break things down into very simple dichotomies -- four legs good, two legs bad. I spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley and while you would think people in the tech sector would dismiss anything low tech without bells and whistles, the VC's, tech executives and tech entrepreneurs we work with and invest in us understand that low tech works well in the developing world. It can be inexpensive and immediately deployable. A new school can last for 50 years or more. Does saying this make me a Luddite? I hope not; I'm simply a pragmatist.

From someone who has worked in the developing world for over a decade, it is hard to comprehend a world where traditional classrooms and libraries are no longer necessary. We need more of them, not fewer. I think what Sugata Mitra is doing could augment education in the developing world, but the notion of replacing it does a disservice to these children. We are all born with the same gray matter but there is still a very big job ahead -- and until we have a scalable solution to literacy, we will have nearly a billion neighbors who can never take advantage of the full potential of technology. I wish him nothing but the best in his endeavors. We share a common goal in finding a solution to a very big global problem.

I leave you with this thought: for the same one million dollars it's feasible to provide 200 rural libraries across the developing world immediately serving 80,000 children. When investing in real-world solutions, those are the kinds of dividends that speak the loudest.

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