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Insights and Analysis

A Village of E-books

September 9, 2015

By Kyle Barker

The village of Tanou lies in a quiet corner of Cambodia, about 13 kilometers down a dusty road off National Highway 1 as you head towards the Mekong Delta from Phnom Penh. Trees provide a canopy of shade for most of the way to the village, beating back the blazing sun and screening the vast, partially flooded rice paddies that stretch to the horizon on either side.

Photo/Wendy Rockett

This week, Books for Asia and its Cambodian partners announced a first-of-its-kind, digital library pilot project called Let’s Read! Photo/Wendy Rockett

A single electrical line is strung along the edge of the road. The poles that carry it are built of concrete, protecting it from the flooded landscape of the next monsoon season. This solitary line is the village’s one source of electricity, and it only works part of the time.

But it is the villagers of Tanou that make this a special place.

Tanou Primary School was recently offered donated tablet computers to help the teachers teach and help the students learn. Despite the obvious hurdles – a lack of electricity, and new, modern methods of teaching that can be a challenge in small villages like this – Tanou Primary School pooled its resources and added solar panels to the school so they could take full advantage of the new tablets.

This story is not a common one in developing Asia, where spending per pupil is often significantly lower than in many other parts of the world, and local communities rarely have the means to supplement these small sums, making opportunities for new books, tools, and resources relatively unheard of.

The organization where I work, The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program, and others have tried to fill this resource gap by donating books and educational materials. These programs can produce remarkable results: Books for Asia, for example, estimates that its donations to 21 countries reach nine million readers each year. But while these donations of books and printed materials are highly valued by the readers and institutions that receive them, they are difficult to carry out because of the significant costs of printing and of transportation to remote areas.

E-books, on the other hand, require no transportation and no printing. Although the initial cost of hardware such as tablets and e-readers can be high, the cost of delivering additional e-books is nearly zero. Providing schools with e-books can dramatically increase the number of books children have access to.

This week, Books for Asia and its Cambodian partners announced a first-of-its-kind, digital library pilot project called Let’s Read! Let’s Read! works with five schools and two mobile libraries to put an entire digital library into the hands of children. The library lives on an Android-based app, created by the nonprofit Library for All, that has been adapted for Khmer, the local language.

The challenge for this project and others like it is to match this vision of a digital future with the reality on the ground today. Getting the community enthusiastic enough to support the program and having local expertise on the ground are critical. This is what makes the village of Tanou such a special case, and this is why Books for Asia is working closely with local partners Kampuchean Action for Primary Education, Sipar, and the Cambodia chapter of the International Board on Books for Young People to find schools and communities that are looking for innovative solutions, and to make sure that the technology is not overly burdensome and that the content of the library is appropriate and useful.

In working closely with local partners and responding to the needs of local communities, Books for Asia hopes that the Let’s Read! pilot project will provide a model for future digital library projects throughout Cambodia and across developing Asia.

You can be part of Let’s Read! Asia – A Digital Library and join us to deliver an entire library to the hands of underserved children and communities. Please help get the word out and contribute to Books for Asia’s first ever crowdfunding campaign, on Indiegogo, September 8 – October 9.

Kyle Barker is assistant director of Books for Asia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Cambodia
Related programs: Books for Asia
Related topics: Education, Literacy


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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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