Champions Needed to Build Literacy and Technology Skills in Developing Countries

Future of Developing Countries: Joshua Haynes at TEDxRosslyn

July 7, 2013  TEDxTalks. Retrieved from

As defined by Imtinan, Chang and Issa (2012), “mobile learning is a way to learn independently at anytime, anywhere due to advancement in mobile technologies”  (p.164). The symbiotic relationship of mobility and learning has led to an increased use of mobile phones for learning purposes. In other words, “placing a mobile device in learners’ hands will allow them to access learning materials and empower them to learn” (Ally and Samaka, 2013, p.16). With an increased access to mobile devices in developing nations, the push has been to “utilize everyday life-worlds [such as mobile phones] as learning spaces” (Imtinan, Chang and Issa, 2012, p.164).

However, many barriers exist that limit the successful adoption of mobile devices as learning tools. Inadequate power supply and computing facilities, user inexperience, and limited technical support have been identified as significant barriers to the successful adoption of using mobile devices for learning in developing countries (pgs. 163-164). Another barrier, according to Ally and Samaka (2013), is the need for a major shift in the design, delivery and assessment of learning outcomes to achieve UNESCO’s goal of achieving Education For All with mobile learning (p. 20).  Despite these barriers, mobile learning has the potential to offer education in underprivileged communities where traditional education was not possible (p. 165).

Imtinan, Chang and Issa

Ally and Samaka

Building opportunities for literacy improvement and for technology skill development in developing nations requires champions to take up the cause. In my research, I came across a blog written by Bob Lenz (2009) on He described his experiences of presenting at a World Summit on Education Innovation in Qatar in 2009. He stated that “up to 75 million children worldwide do not attend school or have access to a teacher — most of these children are girls”. Lenz urged that it is time for a change in how we define innovation. Innovation should no longer be described as “do the old job better — same task, just better” but as something that “redefines the problem and creates solutions we cannot imagine yet” (Burrus, S., as cited in Lenz, 2009).

Lenz discusses the need to increase access to education and affirms how “technology, especially mobile devices, holds great promise for creating access for children and adults who do not have schools or teachers available, and for transforming learning itself” (Lenz, 2009).

After hours of research, I struggled to find adequate information and examples of world libraries and the use of mobile devices to promote learning in developing nations. So, I decided to focus on a few projects and the champions that initiated them. Who are these champions and what innovative projects are they involved in? I have chosen a few to highlight.

  1. Pocket School

Kim, Miranda, Olacirequi

“A child playing a mobile learning device in UN Refugee Camp in Africa”

Image retrieved from

Paul Kim at Stanford University partners students from Stanford with other universities to develop educational games and learning resources for mobile devices specifically designed for their low-cost and low-power. (approx. $50)  With the use of the pocket devices, students have opportunities to read, write and learn mathematics in remote locations (Lenz, 2009)..

In these communities, students learn to read, write, and do math while their parents can learn more advanced agricultural techniques. He has even arranged it so stories created by the children in these countries can be sold on to earn revenue to provide more mobile devices”  (Lenz blog)

2. Room to Read

John Wood is another such champion (Bernard, 2008). Formerly an executive with Microsoft, his life changing moment occurred as he traveled through Bahundanda, Nepal, in 1998. He was shocked to see the school’s only twenty library books under lock and key.  This led to the formation of ‘Books for Nepal’, which later became ‘Room to Read’. Through this international literacy nonprofit organization, libraries, schools and computer labs are being built in developing countries . The program has now expanded to include Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zambia (Bernard, 2008). This organization has opened approximately 400 schools and more than 5, 000 school libraries and has .touched 1.5 millions students in developing countries (Bernard, 2008). Although at this time, the focus has been more on ‘paper’ books, the goal is to move towards increased access to technology at these locations.

Room to Read Website

There is a local chapter in Vancouver if you are interested in getting involved.  Great suggestions are provided such as hosting “Booktober” events during the month of October to raise funds and awareness for global literacy. (Retrieved from

Room to Read Vancouver Chapter

Or check it out on Twitter   Room to Read Twitter

Room to Read Fact Sheet

Map of countries where Room to Read works

Image depicting where Room to Read is currently working.

Retrieved from

Room to Read Fact Sheet


3. Write to Read

I realize that this third project is not directly related to technology. However, I love how it is impacting the lives of children in rural areas of our own province.  Our former Lt. Governor Steven Point (2008-2012) initiated this program with the purpose “to build ongoing and lasting relationships between people living in urban environments such as towns and cities, and the First Nations people of British Columbia who live in rural, remote or suburban communities that may not be well served by educational and employment opportunities” (Write to Read Website/Purpose).

Write to Read Project

I was introduced to this project this week while attending the BC Teachers’ Institute on Parliamentary Democracy. This month, Lt. Governor Judith Guichon opened the 11th library of its kind in the province. These libraries are stocked with books and computers which will increase access to learning in remote communities in BC.  This latest library is located in community of Nooaitch, near Merritt. In reading about this project, I was struck by the excitement of the seniors as they can now use the technology to digitally record their native history and language to ensure that they can be passed on to future generations (McCarthy, 2015). What a great use of technology within a library!

I had the privilege of sitting next to the Honourable Lt. Governor Judith Guichon at a dinner last evening. I enjoyed hearing further details of this exciting project in our own backyard. This project is a fantastic way for local teachers and students in urban B.C. schools to create partnerships with rural Aboriginal communities.

Honourable Judith Guichon

Personal Note:

This past spring, my daughter and I had the privilege of traveling to South Africa with Edu-Deo Ministries. Along with three others on our team, we volunteered in a school in a rural part of north-east South Africa. (near Zimbabwe)  We spent one day helping to organize their library. (note the top image) It was evident that most of the books were the discards and rejects from other countries. We found picture books dating back to the 1950’s from England and Australia that were clearly outdated. Besides the outdated research books, politically ‘incorrect’ picture books, we found what seemed like a whole colony of silverfish. They were rampant through the pages of the books. How I wished I could have given new, updated books to replace the sad, torn, broken and infested ones.


Ally, M., & Samaka, M. (2013). Open Education Resources and Mobile Technology to Narrow the Learning Divide. International Review Of Research In Open & Distance Learning, 14(2), 14-27.

Bernard, S. (January 11, 2008). Room to Read: Building Libraries, Schools, and Computer Labs in Developing Countries. One man’s simple plan to expand worldwide literacy, thousands of libraries at a time. [web blog] Eduptopia. George Lucas Foundation: 2015.  Retrieved from

Imtinan, U., Chang, V., & Issa, T. (2012). Characteristics of Mobile Learning Environments in Developing Countries. International Journal Of Learning, 18(5), 163-173.

Kim, P., Miranda, T., and Olaciregui, C. (2008). Pocket School: Exploring mobile technology as a sustainable literacy education option for underserved indigenous children in Latin America. International Journal Of Educational Development, 28(4), 435-445. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2007.11.002

Lenz, B. (December 4, 2009). A World Summit on Education Innovation-Who Knew? [web blog]. Edutopia. Retrieved from

McCarthy, M. (October 7, 2015). Nooaitch Library opening a great success. [web blog]. Write to Read Project. org  Retrieved from

Room to Read Van Twitter October 2, 2015 “Looking for a fun way to celebrate October?”  Retrieved from


5 thoughts on “Champions Needed to Build Literacy and Technology Skills in Developing Countries

  1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience in South Africa. I believe seeing things firsthand has such a powerful impact on our lives. Reading about it and experiencing it are two completely different things. What are your thoughts about the books that they had? Is it better to have books like that versus no books?


  2. I am so glad you brought up your personal experience in south africa. No books is better than old, western cast-offs that do nothing but take up space. They are in a different language, their content is old and out-dated. If we don’t want /need them, why should students in under-developed countries want them? We need to provide culturally appropriate, local language books that are proven to support and encourage new literacy skills. A good exposure to some of the interesting projects out there and lots of good discussion. Good embedding, tagging and linking too!


  3. I absolutely loved your title when you included “Champions Needed…” as it is so true. That is exactly what is needed. I was pleasantly surprised when I found such organizations as Librarians Without Boarders, Electronic Information Libraries, Librii, World Reader Program, and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They are not all created equal, however it is a start and they are championing for better in areas with the greatest need.


  4. Wouldn’t it be great to volunteer with such organizations in retirement? I love how many retired librarians have gotten involved with the Write to Read program in BC. I was inspired to read about so many different organizations in which ordinary people took on extra-ordinary problems and worked towards solutions. True champions!


  5. Yes, it would be great to volunteer with organizations in developing countries. I appreciate that you shared the “Write to Read Projects”. It is true that we also need to support rural areas in our own province. My husband, a secondary French Immersion Math and Science teacher, initiated a reading innovation project in our school district. This project has been implemented in one school in particular. Each kindergarten pre-registered student receives a package of free books at home prior to the beginning of the school-year. I hope to initiate a support program for literacy within my school community either for children in rural areas in BC or in developing countries.


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