Should students be given laptops or e-readers?

Sylvia Namunyak, a Standard Five pupil at Ntimigom Primary School in Kilgoris, Narok County, reads from her Kindle during an English lesson. Photo/Jon McCormack/Courtesy
Sylvia Namunyak, a Standard Five pupil at Ntimigom Primary School in Kilgoris, Narok County, reads from her Kindle during an English lesson. Photo/Jon McCormack/Courtesy 

Sylvia Namunyak turns on her Kindle e-reader, flips pages to select a textbook, adjusts the font size and begins reading aloud to the class.

The English lesson for Standard Five pupils has just started and all eyes at Ntimigom Primary School in Kilgoris, Narok County, are trained on the six-inch electronic devices as they keenly follow the day’s comprehension lesson.

Located about 300 kilometres west of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, the young learners at the school have traded their physical textbooks for e-books loaded on the Kindles.

Closer home in Nairobi’s Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum, 17-year-old Morine Atieno presses the page-turn button on her Kindle and opens a page titled Acids, Bases and Indicators.

It’s a chemistry lesson for Form Three students of Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. At each girl’s desk is an e-reader. The girls periodically write notes in their exercise books.


Retailing for about Sh4,200 a piece, the Kindle 4 e-reader can carry thousands of books, lasts up to two weeks on a single charge and is relatively easy to use. The 2G/3G model costs Sh10,900.

This is the tech gospel that brought former Amazon senior vice president David Risher to Kenya last week. The American techie said the government should consider rolling out e-readers to primary pupils rather than laptops.

“The e-readers are rightly priced to provide learning materials, especially where the need is great— such as in developing countries where learners mostly lack text books,” said Mr Risher in an interview with Business Daily.

“We combine new technologies, mobile phone networks, and declining costs to provide immediate access to hundreds of thousands of local textbooks, storybooks, and international literature.”

Users can access the Internet and download thousands of books, newspapers and journals at no cost. Mr Risher has sparked off debate on use of laptops versus e-readers; bringing into question factors such as cost, maintenance, power consumption, simplicity, and durability.

Laptop prices range from Sh24,000, need software licences, are prone to breakages and consume power heavily; making them an expensive option for a cash-starved nation like Kenya.

It is estimated that only one out of every four households in Kenya is connected to the electricity grid.

“E-readers are sturdy and don’t break easily. They easily fit in the pocket. They are also not very attractive to thieves since they are largely a reading tool,” said the ex-Amazon executive while pitching for the mass adoption of e-readers in Kenyan schools.

Worldreader, a non-profit organisation that Risher co-founded in 2010, has supplied 1,690 Kindles to 25 learning institutions in Kenya.

These include Osborne Memorial Library in Maai Mahiu; Menara Primary School in Kisumu; New Dawn Educational Centre in Huruma, and Suzy Peacock Memorial Secondary School, Eldoret. Currently reaching about 5,030 learners across Kenya, Mr Risher believes that the programme can be scaled up countrywide.

Also present in Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania; Worldreader has distributed more than 441,000 digital books in sub-Saharan Africa.

Worldreader draws its funds from donor agencies, charitable organisations and well-wishers to make e-readers available to schools free of charge, train teachers, and provide local content to institutions.

In Kenya, Worldreader is working with 13 publishers — including Jomo Kenyatta Foundation, Longhorn, Kenya Literature Bureau, and Moran and has so far digitised 500 African educational titles.

Stimulated teaching

Titles available on e-readers include story books and educational games. “There are also books in four Kenyan languages,” said the Princeton University literature graduate who holds an MBA from the prestigious Harvard Business School.

Being portable, learners are allowed to take the devices home making learning anywhere, everywhere a reality.

Mr Shadrack Lemiso, the head teacher of Ntimigom Primary School, said that Kindle e-readers have stimulated teaching and learning since being introduced to the institution in 2011.

“Pupils are so excited to use the Kindles. We have seen a great improvement in their reading skills,” Mr Lemiso told the Business Daily. There are 165 Wi-Fi kindles at the school, almost enough for each of the 253 pupils.

The devices will be integral in the United States Agency for International Development’s Sh678 million project meant to improve language and mathematics skills of three million Kenyan children by the end of Standard Two by 2015.

Build skills

Dubbed the Kenya Primary Math and Reading Initiative (PRIMR), the project will introduce innovative teaching methods, new curricula, and professional development to build skills of educators and improve student outcomes in Kenya’s urban areas.

Mr David Lemiso, the director of The Kilgoris Project, said the government should consider Kindles in place of laptops.

“We have seen it for ourselves that they are easy to use. It brings the library to their laps,” said head of the community organisation that partnered with Worldreader to roll out the e-readers at Ntimigom school

“The children have also developed a reading culture which has helped them greatly improve in English and other subjects.”

Mr Risher said that most teachers lack adequate computer skills, adding that e-readers are easy to operate.

“We are currently piloting a solar-powered Kindle in Ghana,” he said, adding that if successful the e-readers will be deployed across Africa where there’s abundant sunshine all-year round.