Tonight is the first Book Machine live Twitter discussion (21st Sept 18.30 GMT – follow #BMhour) and we are going to be asking, ‘What effect will digital publishing have on access to content in developing countries?’

This is a subject that I have become really interested in since coming to work at eMC Design. Last year I was very fortunate to be able to go and work at the charity I have been raising money for and eMC Design has supported.

Casuarina House is an orphanage for 24 children in Utange, a very large village near Mombassa in Kenya. The children, despite most of them having lost both of their parents and other family members to AIDS, consider themselves to be incredibly lucky. And in many ways they are, in comparison to the many starving children in the village and in huge parts of the world. The children at Casuarina get 3 meals a day, have clothes and a loving new family. And through the massive fund-raising efforts all of them go to school everyday, which means they have a future.

The children attend the local church primary school, which considers itself to be very well equipped and offers a high standard of teaching compared to the government schools. However when I visited the school I was pretty shocked to see the condition of this “well equipped school” and in particular the library. As you can see there were a few shelves with old exam papers and the only text books were those that had been donated from an Australian school and dated back to the 1960’s.

The Head teacher and Secretary had the only two computers which meant that the school children were a very long way away from having access to computers, let alone being given lessons via interactive CD-Roms and having homework set on an i-pad! However the school does have electricity and an enthusiastic Head that would willingly equip every wall with a plasma screen if he could!

The topic up for discussion on today’s #BMhour is going to be an interesting one. Developing countries like Kenya, despite being on track to reach universal primary education by 2015, are still a long way off reaching a standard of education that developed countries have; let alone being able to widely implement the use of technology and electronic resources as a basis for teaching. Whilst developing nations are starting to talk about how every child will be using an i-pad for all of their educational needs, the children at Casuarina house are still in a world where their peers struggle to get one meal a day.

It is this reality that makes me worried about the impact digital publishing may have on developing countries. Will the knowledge gap continue to increase as developed countries educational models shift to being the computer as teacher and the teacher as facilitator? And consequently will less physical second-hand material make its way to these countries?
The impact that this could have on an education system that is yet to have a computer in every classroom (let alone a tablet for every child) is frightening and potentially catastrophic. Most families in developed countries, especially given the current economic climate, see tablet computers as luxury items. So, just think how expensive these items are in countries that tax luxury items to the hilt and for people who struggle to get enough money to feed and medicate their families!

But, should I be this pessimistic? Does the advance of digital publishing offer solutions to a lot of the situations that are prohibitive in offering a first rate education in a developing country? Would electronic resources that combine text, sound and video extracts, interactive tests, questions and answers and links to live content on the internet provide a more sustainable means for schools to access this rich variety of content with only having to invest in one piece of technology? And would new methods of deployment, through mobile technologies, mean that there wouldn’t be such a dependency on developments in infrastructure that politically unstable governments are unable to provide?

I hope, for the sake of the many children like those at Casuarina House, that publishers who are starting to develop digital content, do so with a sensitivity and an aim to get this content as widely available as possible. The financial situation so many thousands of people find themselves in throughout the developing world would mean individuals personally being unable to fund the technology that comes with digitally published materials. And knowing how expensive it is for publishers to produce this type of content it is unlikely they will be able to get this material into developing countries for free.

So the question of what effect will digital publishing have on developing countries is clearly a very complex matter, with many factors. And it is never going to be an easy one to answer, if at all. So tonight’s first #BMhour is one that I am eagerly awaiting to participate in and I hope some thought-provoking comments come out of it.