Kenya: Integrating e-books in education

The e-learning train has left the station in Kenya, but content development is key in making it successful.

 The Kenyan government might be finally getting it right with the digital learning programme expected to start by the middle of this year. After years of trial and error, court cases and injunctions, the process seems to be moving in a positive direction.

Late last year, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) digitised standard one content that will be used in the roll out.

The ministry of information, communication and technology then shortlisted two consortiums to conduct a pilot which started at the end of February in 150 schools spread across the country. This will later extend to the targeted 22,000 schools with six more consortiums shortlisted.

The smooth streamlining of this process comes from lessons learned in previous assessments of the mistakes the government made.

The use of e-materials in learning is something that could expedite the provision of education to parts of the continent that have been poorly served.

In a report released last year titled “Where Have All the Textbooks Gone?” [PDF] commissioned by the World Bank, Tony Read who has worked in the education sector, highlighted the use of technology in education in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), as a way to cut costs of real text books.

“In the past 10 years the demand for the provision of ICT to SSA schools has added another very expensive education budget line for government and schools (and parents) and there is a growing recognition that ICT and print-based teaching and learning materials (TLMs) may soon be in direct competition for available funding in the future,” Read said.

He added: “Some policy makers see e-materials as potential replacements for printed textbooks and reading books.”


The content publishers

The government has now launched a digital content page for e-learning. The site, KICD Interactive Content will allow publishers to upload their e-books to be used across the board.

The site provides interactive animations, cartoons, videos, audios, puppets, quizzes and exercises to help students to learn better.

Kenyan publishers are warming up to this new inevitable change in content demand. According to Mary Maina, General Manager of Moran Publishers in Kenya, they are elated over digital publishing for schools.

“The move by the government is a step in the right direction in providing a structure within which digital content can be availed to schools. Publishers are ready to make use of this change and, indeed, have been preparing for it,” Maina told IDG Connect.

“All publishers have their content available in PDF and most have converted some of this content into ePUB format in view of its versatility when viewing on a wide range of mobile devices,” she said.

“Over the years, we have distributed this content for sale on various online and digital platforms like Amazon, World reader, eKitabu, IELM, eLimu and Kytabu,” added Enock Munga Maseru, ICT Head of Moran Publishers. “The growth is slow but steady and we continue to actively seek mutually beneficial partnerships with solution providers in the digital learning sector.”

eKitabu, one of the e-learning platforms that works with many publishers in Kenya, announced that its content is already being used in schools across the country. In its January newsletter, the company announced that a variety of schools have already bought its content.

“Digital content from Kenyan publishers, KICD-approved for use in Kenyan schools, is moving,” Will Clurman CEO of eKitabu told us. 

“Schools with computing devices already—both public and private, primary and secondary, in Nairobi and the mashinani [rural areas]—are buying Kenyan content for teaching and learning.  Schools, and NGOs investing in schools, are also buying new devices, pre-loaded with e-books from eKitabu,”


The concept of eBooks

For the most part, an e-book consists of transforming a physical book into a PDF version or an electronic format that can be accessed by digital devices. For adults having interactivity might not be as important as for children. This means that publishers might have to invest in artist and animation experts to make their digital publications appealing.

“The concept of ‘digital content’ is very wide, ranging from simple e-books and e-books with multimedia content to fully animated interactive content. There is a need for content providers and those providing oversight or approval of content to be clear about these terms,” Maina of Moran Publishers said.

She cautioned that it is easy to be excited about a technology without evaluating the environment which it is used.

“The challenge, therefore, is to agree first on the definition of what passes as ‘digital content’ and then meet the expectations of both learners, instructors and content providers,” she elaborated.

The pricing of the e-books might be dictated by the content. Maina said that the more interactive a book is the higher its price. The current conversion average stands at US$0.5 per page. The cost increases when a variety of content types are required.

Most publishers will also either have to grow an in-house department to convert books into digital content or outsource it to other companies. This might add some budget to publishing companies but only at the beginning.

“The cost of developing digital content greatly depends on the final output or format of the content. For publishers, this cost is not just in terms of money but also time, technology and skills required to develop the e-content,” Maina explained.

In the World Bank report, having e-books and devices from developed nations such as the US would still be a huge burden, cost wise. Using the Kindle as an option, Read said that it would still be expensive to roll-out it out to major parts of Africa.

“Although cheaper than printed books, to download the current commercial content is still developed-world oriented with title costs between one-half and two-thirds (on a random average basis) of the original published prices,” the report said.

On this basis, special pricing would be needed to make content prices affordable for SSA. While special content for primary and secondary schools from African publishers (and perhaps even in local languages) would need to be generated before the Kindle could be considered fully appropriate and affordable as a solution.


What is the bottom line?

Maina hopes that the new publishing format will only open up other revenue, but this might not happen as soon as expected. However, going forward this might positively affect the publishing companies’ bottom line.

“With soft-copy books easily available online, there is potential for an expanded market, both local and global. For instance, at the click of a button, a Kenyan writer’s novel can be bought in America or India or any other part of the world,” Maina said.

Moran Publishers already have 200 titles in digital book formats and hope that the conversion rates into e-books will resonate with the market.

Even though the conversion into e-publications might be expensive, Maina explained digital books do not come with printing, storage, distribution and transportation costs. “The net effect is that we are able to avail more of our content to a wider and diverse market across regional boundaries, and more affordably,” Maina said.

In the World Bank report Tony Read concludes that e-textbooks are the future but the overall e-learning has to be coupled with other developments around infrastructure and internet provision to make it worthwhile.

“It seems obvious that e-textbooks will emerge as standard pedagogic materials, but for developing countries the infrastructural and cost implications of hardware and software procurement, maintenance and replacement, and the associated substantial recurrent operational costs will continue to inhibit the rapid and widespread introduction of e-textbooks as standard learning materials.

“This in turn will tend to increase both the international and the domestic digital divides in teaching and learning approaches.”