Category Archives: education

The Right to Education – Sud Academy’s Case Study. Please Help!

Note: This is a guest post by Kellee Jacobs. Kellee has been working for the past year at the Sud Academy in Nairobi. Her experiences have been enlightening, but now she needs our help. Please contact her at kelleejacobs[at]gmail[dot]com if you would like to help or get involved in any way.

There is in existence a universal document that symbolizes the basic assumptions of what it means to be a human on this planet, interacting with those around us, and functioning as an individual embedded in small collections of other free-willed individuals. From a Hobbesian perspective, the world’s citizens have an intrinsic dog-eat-dog instinct, and as such, it is necessary to have bodies that design and enforce laws, guidelines and limitations on power in order to protect those of us who are unlucky enough to be born without an upper hand. This system of guidelines, and indeed laws, is called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and was enacted in 1948. For more than six decades these laws have existed, and for six decades, every country in the world has been complicit in violating, to varying degrees, their basic tenets. One among these is the right to education. Here is what the Charter says about it:

Article 26 

1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. 

2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. 

Literacy Rates

Even a brief glance at the literacy rates map provided by the UN indicates an extreme inequity in the fulfillment of these laws. Education today is being treated as a privilege rather than a right. It’s a shameful hindrance to the advancement of our modern civilization and there is nowhere in the world where this is more evident than on the continent of Africa.

Plagued by famine, corruption, droughts, civil wars, disease, poverty and genocide, this continent has found it almost impossible to educate its population. I believe that this is the reason Africa has failed to leave tragedy in the past and catch up to the rest of the world. Knowledge truly is power, and it is something that is severely lacking in this corner of the world. 

My experience here in Nairobi with the refugee students at Sud Academy has been an enlightening one. I have seen a thirst for education that is unprecedented anywhere else I have been. From what I can tell, education and knowledge are the most important tools the students wish to possess- this is their ticket out of war and disease, of hunger and idleness. They ask me to come early to teach them, and stay after dark so they can gain access to what little knowledge of the way things work that I have. They request I bring them my books from home, whatever the subject, or that I go buy them textbooks to learn about literature, history and religion to name a few. They demand I find them sponsors from the people at home so that they may continue learning until they become independent of hand outs. They say they must become doctors, lawyers, politicians and priests so that they can lead the way in a New Sudan, so they can guide their brothers and sisters, they say, into a freer world that focuses on the future rather than survival.

So you must imagine what it is like for me when I have to tell them I do not have access to thousands of dollars to help them all. As a self-proclaimed academic (I really like to think so, but it’s a wobbly true identity at best), it frustrates me to tell them I do not have the means to help. It angers me that they even have to ask, in a world where it is actually law for citizens to receive a basic education. And free at that. 

Sud Academy’s funding for this year is less than it was in 2008. It’s no surprise, given the state of international financial markets, and the looming debt and bailouts that governments across the globe now face. Bank accounts shrinking, rising unemployment rates, less credit and more financial insecurity are all very real threats to economic stability, let alone growth. Explaining this complex web of how an interdependent world works falls on deaf ears here. “Do you still have a car? Do you still have a house? Are you able to buy rice? Do you have a toilet? Are you free from disease?” If the answers are yes, even to only some of these questions, most students at Sud Academy cannot possibly imagine being so lucky. Anyone who answers yes to all these questions is wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

The point of my post, and the inspiration behind it, is this: there are five students at Sud who were supposed to have started their last year of high school on January 5, 2009. Without the funds to send them to another school, and without the facilities to educate them sufficiently at the modest (to be polite) school that are Sud, we have had to tell them “Sorry, you can’t continue and complete your high school education unless you find the funding yourself.” Confusion, disappointment and eventually persistent reapplications for sympathy and funding have been the result. I personally do not have the money to send them. I have promised them I would try to find other sources, and so here is my plea. It costs between $300 and $500 to send one student to a boarding school for an entire year. There are 5 Senior students that are eligible to continue this year. That is between $1,500 and $2,500. Providing food, shelter and education to 5 bright and promising students, this figure doesn’t seem impossible. I can attest to the dedication and interest, and also the desperation of these 5 students. Even though they have no textbooks, no teachers and even no classroom at Sud, they have shown up every day at school since January 5, hoping that I will bring good news with me each morning. When I tell them, “No, sorry- still nothing” they nod and smile politely and ask me to please try again. 

If anyone is interested in sponsoring a student, or part of a student’s education at a respectable boarding school in Kenya, please contact me. It is not in my nature to ask people for money- I generally think it’s tacky and lewd. But inquiring minds in Africa deserve the same chance that Canadians receive, and I don’t think that because of their region of birth, the unfortunate result of poor governance or the cruel realities of war, a student should be denied access to the power of learning. For that reason, I hope we can manage to scrounge together and send these boys to school. It’s truly our responsibility as citizens of the world.

Thanks for taking the time to read- I hope I haven’t sounded like I’m begging, but any help would be greatly appreciated. Please contact me directly at kelleejacobs[at]gmail[dot]com if you would like to help in any way.

Here is a photo taken this week of the 5 boys who wish to begin their senior year of high school. (from left: Dennis Muyodi, Lino Madut, Kuot Madut Kuot, Abraham Manyok, Francis Bangoang)





Filed under development, education, human rights

A Response to the Luddite Literati

The article Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind where Mark Bauerlein asks us to “restrain the digitizing of all liberal-arts classrooms” reminds me of one of the oldest jokes in the book.  You know the one – a man walks into a doctor’s office and raises his arm above his head and says “Doctor, Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”  The doctor, of course, says, “Well,don’t do that!” Not exactly helpful.

The problem with Bauerlein and so many like him is that he’s good at identifying a problem and poor at figuring out the solution.  With all due respect to Bauerlein, Nicholas Carr and the growing cadre of people (all much smarter and better educated than me) that claim that the greatest communication platform the world has ever seen is responsible for the dumbing-down of its users (and yes, I know that “dumbing” isn’t a word), I humbly suggest they jump off the bandwagon and look for a more practical solution.  Why?  Because people are not going to stop consuming copious quantities of written information via the internet any time soon. And because I have evidence that they’re wrong.

At Spreed Inc. we continue to believe in the power of the computer.  Rather than taking a step backward as the Luddite literati suggest, we understand that we’ve only just touched the surface, potential-wise, of computing and the internet.  There are issues to be sure. We continue to adhere to a medieval artifact when presenting written text on electronic devises, a mistake that Spreed has wagered would eventually be corrected.  But, in a relatively short period of time we’ve proven that speed and comprehension can be significantly improved (and improved over traditional paper-based, hard-copy reading) when delivering text to the user in the right format. Six young guys in an office over a one-year period accomplished this.  Imagine what some greater minds than us could accomplish here!

Other problems identified by Bauerlein may be worth discussion.  Is the internet leading to a bastardization of the English language and does it matter?  But he doesn’t address this and instead focuses on the absurd claim that the computer “conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning”. Really? Nothing in here about how the internet allows for greater access to diverse ideas and more efficient and effective research?

There’s so much that is wrong with Bauerlein’s article, I’m not exactly sure what to criticize.  For someone blasting the academic capabilities of today’s youth, he sure takes some liberties with logic and fact.  I suggest he re-read Nielsen’s studies and look at the sorts of “reading” Nielsen was referring to (search pages, websites, etc. – not academic prose).  Of course they scan this material!  Furthermore, somehow “screen reading” (which he also cleverly changes to “fast scanning” and “screen scanning”) is responsible for 41% of professors labeling students “not well prepared”? How so? And what of the 48% labeled “somewhat well prepared”? Can we assume them all to be hard-copy reading Amish-folk who managed to make it to university having avoided the computer?  Finally, an academic of Bauerlein’s quality should know better than to cite 10 year old research on web reading when advances in content and the reading devices (flat panel monitors, iPhones, etc.) have rendered that research out of date.  I could go on.

Bauerlein is a Luddite with an apparent agenda to shock and sell books.  The title of his latest book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) says it all.  Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.  Historically, every generation hears these fear-mongering insults from previous generations, and I think history shows that each generation has proven to be better and more innovative than the last. Fortunately, access to quality content on the internet will improve and so will the ways we digest that information.  I’m doing my part to further that end and won’t allow Baurlein or Carr to stand in the way.

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Filed under education, internet, Reading, technology

E-Textbooks May Not Make Economic Sense for Students … or do they???


Filed under digital publishing, education, Reading, technology

The E-Book Revolution

There has been a lot of speculation recently regarding the future of e-books and whether they are going to be the next big thing. What we do know at this point is that Amazon has sold 240, 000 Kindles. Given these numbers, Techcrunch’s  Erick Schonfield suggested that Citi analyst Mark Mahaney update his most recent projections for the future of the Kindle (and to some extent e-books in general). Mahaney’s new numbers suggest that Kindle sales estimates should be around 378,000 for this year, 934,000 next year, and 4.4 million in 2010. These are not numbers to scoff at. If Mahaney’s projections are correct the Kindle will be a $1 billion for Amazon by 2010.

The big question for me is that even though these numbers are high, can e-books really win over the mass-audience. Two recent articles, one from Naomi Alderman and another from Peter Conrad of the UK’s Guardian give light to the different sides of this debate. Naomi on one hand advocates the move toward e-books. She is fed up with the piles of books overwhelming her apartment and finds the Kindle easy to use and convenient. Peter on the other hand stuggles to accept that e-books are the future. He argues that reading ebooks actually left him feeling alienated from books he used to love growing up. These two perspectives highlight the seperate camps very well and it is hard to say whether either one represents the mass public at this point.

I personally do not think that we are going to see a sudden move to e-books in the next couple of years. The cost of an e-book reader is still a large up front investment when compared to the one off price of a paperback. What I will say is that in certain segments, where people have to buy large amounts of books that they must use on a regular basis, the student market for example, we will see a fairly substantial adoption of e-book technology. Students can offset the cost of the reader by only purchasing individual chapters of textbooks as they need them, thus reducng their overall spending on textbooks for years to come. This makes perfect sense and I see the student (as they often do) leading the proliferation . The only hurdle I see holding students back is the inability to easily highlight text. Yes, you are able to click and drag, but nothing will ever replace the relaxing sensation of passing a hightlighter over a line of text.  

This is going to be a very interesting industry to watch over the next 5-10 years and if the new projections are correct, Amazon is very well positioned to ride the wave (as they usually are). See Mark Mahaney’s numbers below:


Filed under digital publishing, education, Reading, technology

Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?

Motoko Rich of the New York Times recently released the first of what will be a series of articles addressing online reading and the movement away from traditional forms of reading (i.e. books, newspapers, journals). I won’t go into a huge rant here as the article is quite lengthy and very detailed. But to summarize the debate; our youth are moving towards reading online much more often than picking up books. Some people believe that this is in fact reducing attention spans, comprehension and is in effect having a negative impact on students grades at school. The other side of the debate states that the internet is actually a healthy source of reading material. Online readers are able to take in much more information from a wide array of sources and can engage in ‘conversations’ about content rather than being an empty vessle that is imparted knowledge. My personal belief is that online reading is actually making us smarter, but the key is to get to the right information and not get off track (which can happen very easily on the internet). What Spreed is trying to do is allow everyone to blast through the large amount of information found on the net, while at the same time increasing comprehension. I would not agree that comprehension necessarily is lower when reading a traditional book, but numerous studies have shown that the traditonal form factor is not conducive to ‘smart’ reading. New technologies, especially those found online can definitely overcome these barriers. I say, don’t be afraid to change the status quo, but always be weiry of where we are heading.

Motoko’s Article can be found here 

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Filed under digital publishing, education, internet, Reading, Spreed

Michael Tipper, Speed Reading Professional on the Topic of Spreed

Below is a link to a fantastic article about Spreed written by Michael Tipper a professional speed reading coach based out of the UK. Michael sums up spreed perfectly and has put together an instructional video on how to read using clusters.

The educational component of Spreed is very important as it is a departure from the way we have all been taught to read. Although you may not get it the first time, the learning curve is very high and in no time you will begin realizing the advantages of reading at high speeds and comprehending/retaining more of the article. Here is an exerpt from his article.

Now when you try this out for yourself you may find it feels a little strange.That is because you are not used to taking in words in this fashion, however with a little perserverence you will get used to it and you will start to reap the benefits immediately.

Here is the instructional video Michael put together:

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Filed under education, Reading, Spreed

Is our reading behaviour changing? Search me…

For a few years now there have been various journal papers and blog articles positing the theory that our reading behaviour, that of the so-called Google Generation, is changing to adapt to the medium of the internet, some say becoming more shallow. McLuhan followers will have been sitting smugly in front of their screens. The medium is the message, right? Well, more recently studies on student reading behaviour and ebooks at University College London and the University of Toronto have given me (more) food for thought.

The work being done by these two great institutions is certainly starting to challenge our assumptions on how we read online. Professor Dave Nicholas’ work at CIBER, UCL (see the JISC national ebooks observatory project and survey here) found that:

‘[…] the length of time of an average e-book session is surprising, but it chimes very well with previous CIBER deep log studies: 34.6 per cent of university teachers say they spend less than ten minutes online, for students the figure is 23.2 per cent. Findings from the UCL SuperBook study suggest that around half the time that users spend on e-book platforms is actually devoted to navigating the information space and finding content, so these figures are even more surprising, even if the hypothesis that users are printing for subsequent reading holds true. Even more remarkably, university teachers are even more likely to dip in and out of e-book content, rather than even reading a single whole chapter. So much for that pejorative phrase, the ‘Google Generation’!’ [my emphasis]

And a similar study by Peter Jones at the University of Toronto (not yet published) found that:

‘A user may typically do a quick scan of an eBook for their immediate needs, and quit.’

One of their respondents, considered to be a ‘lead user’ of online scholarly platforms admitted

‘When it comes to web resources, if it doesn’t give me what I want in 5-10 minutes, I’m gone.’

So exactly what is going on here? Is the volume of information made available to us forcing us to skim and scan, and as a result are we losing the ability to ‘deep read’? And therefore the ability to fully digest and comprehend what we’re reading?

Like the rest of my peers, the volume of information I now have to work through on a daily basis seems to have grown exponentially. There are newspapers, emails, trade journals, conference proceedings, academic studies, meeting minutes, agendas, internal reports, supplier proposals, newsletters, licenses, contracts, industry blogs, white papers, and maybe, just maybe, some time to open my Sony Reader and enjoy some fiction at the end of the day (although thanks to some enterprising plugins I’m now able to convert much of my office reading into the Sony BBeB format too).

But hold on, when I recently read Wuthering Heights on my Sony Reader (for the first time, I’m ashamed to admit!), I poured over every word. Slowly, deliberately. Aren’t we all still doing this too? When I find a blog I connect with, I’ll spend far more time deep reading than with one less pertinent to my life. Even in preparing to write this piece I have spent considerable effort reading and re-reading the papers I’ve quoted.

The fact is, when I need to, I can deep read just as well as 20 years ago before the web was ubiquitous. I certainly haven’t lost that skill. And my children (aged 6 and 3) will also learn how to deep read, as opposed to scan. When I read Harry Potter to them every night at bedtime I certainly don’t skim through the less exciting parts. When we read their school books together we languish over every word, absorbing its meaning and context within the overall story. They wouldn’t want to skim even if they knew how!

Perhaps the way in which we are reportedly forced to read online and offline now is actually more about the search for the relevant. Our more developed skills in skim reading and scanning are formed by ‘the intersection of thee moving targets’ according to the UofT study:

  • Awareness – what resources I know to be out there (which blogs, which newspapers, which wikis etc.).

  • Collection – the range and completeness of the content in those resources.

  • Findability – how easy it is to navigate within those resources.

So, getting back to the findings of these studies, i.e. that we typically spend less than 10 minutes in any given reading session… it strikes me that students are merely searching and navigating the content universe in short bursts, as we all do, trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. They gather together the relevant and pertinent content and, in many cases will print off the bits they need in order to take them back to their digs to digest and analyze at a much more thorough pace later.

The CIBER study describes this as ‘horizontal information seeking’:

A form of skimming activity, where people view just one or two pages from an academic site and then `bounce’ out, perhaps never to return. The figures are instructive: around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return.

And from the same study, ‘squirreling behaviour’:

Academic users have strong consumer instincts and research shows that they will squirrel away content in the form of downloads, especially when there are free offers. [Don’t we all? Who can resist a freebie?]

I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reading behaviour. I don’t believe the Google Generation is synonymous with dumbed-down reading as we disaggregate and re-aggregate books into ever smaller ‘chunks’ or ‘sound bites’ presented online. We’re just trying to find ever more efficient ways of navigating the volume of information presented to us on a daily (even hourly!) basis.

Perhaps we’re not changing our reading behaviour at all. Perhaps we’re merely developing new strategies in searching for what we need in an ever expanding and propagating universe of content. Perhaps what we’re really seeing is more widespread use of ‘horizontal information seeking’ which is entirely appropriate in our situation.

So…are we really changing the way we read?

Search me.

Mark Majurey
Digital Development Director at Taylor and Francis Group, the international academic publisher of journals and books.


Filed under education, internet, Reading