Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Challenges with technological equality

I was recently having a in depth discussion about the 'digital divide' with a foundation start-up in Asia when they complained that,'We all read that we will never achieve some economic Independence unless we have open source apps, Blogs, electronic demonstrations and protests, Internet centers, $100 laptops, broadband and whatever. Which is it? Which is the most important? Where do we focus?'

It's true that we in the west are always directing which is which but what about the concerns of underdeveloped nations? What's the key?

A participant chocked up an obvious answer - social media and e-protests.

But there are catches, aren't there? As the so-called 'blogging', social media and e-protest movements grow broader and noisier, its focus will surely become less sharp. After all, everyone can agree that governments should 'do more' but when it comes to choosing between specific responses, it may be harder to teach the world to click in perfect harmony.

And there is no reason to assume that global e-campaigns will always be mounted in 'progressive' causes: what about e-movements for the death penalty or for more curbs on immigration?

I think that the voters' faith in old-fashioned parties is at a low ebb in many democracies. E-protest may or may not disrupt the sleep patterns of world leaders; but it has already made life more interesting for hundreds of thousands of jaded citizens.

But so what?

Another standard - identifying the problem exclusively as an economic deficiency - also rings inappropriate: the digital divide expresses itself also in the impossibility to use digital technologies within a considerable percentage of the industrialized countries population. This means that even when people can afford buying a computer or a mobile phone, they are not automatically capable of using it.

The Development Gateway has some great resources about education and training. This is an excellent starting points for anyone willing to train or self-train on topics such as Open Publishing, Internet security and anonymous usage, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) implementation for local needs and since recently production of audio and video content over the Internet.

But again - so what? You still need a platform and access to the Internet. That cuts out a large path for rural communities.

Recently, I moderated a Digital Divide panel at LIFT07 with Dr. Sugata Mitra of the 'Hole in the Wall' project. Here is an excellent example of self-organizing education (read the results) but it still involves an amount of technology that is unsustainable and unaffordable to the average rural community.

So where do we go from here?

The famed One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project isn't the answer. The basic idea has not changed: create a rugged, efficient, powerful but intuitive laptop and get education ministries around the world to buy it for their young people in large numbers.

True: No order below one million laptops will be accepted but Negroponte insists that this is 'an education project, not a laptop project,' but in reality, the value of the project is as a Trojan horse: You think you’re getting an e-book reader or a math helper when the real value is that kids with laptops, connected to each other and to the world will talk to each other - organize - learn - communicate - tolerate.

So what’s not to love?

First of all, much more attention is being paid to the technology than the software and more to software than support and more to support than the impact. Secondly, while $100 alone doesn’t sound like much, it sure adds up: buying one laptop for each Nigerian child would use up 73% of the country’s total budget!

So, where does this fall on the love-hate spectrum?

Lets face it - no one wants to be left behind. Everyone wants to be India; everyone wants to be a cyber-nation going forward, whether you’re Rwanda or Ghana. But once a government is actually think about putting this device in the hands of every student, you have real questions about what the classroom is going to look like. There is really interesting pedagogical theories to be discussed. What about the teachers and the classrooms in schools?

Clearly, the combination of open technologies and a redesigned education curriculum is the key but if you think about it - so, again, this is a very linear solution that isn't very well thought out.

To be effective, there are three issues that must be considered:

Economy:

The lack of opportunities for business and the low level of economic progress that characterizes most of the developing countries is certainly the primary reason for slow technology uptake. The governments of poor countries must challenge themselves with more pressing concerns, such as food, health care and security, rather than technological improvements.

As a result, the population of these countries will not reach higher levels of education and is not provided with the knowledge that is necessary to create any lasting impact or value.

Usability:

Proprietary or open source, digital technologies are still far from being simple and 'easy to use'. This issue is valid both for educated and uneducated people and is transverse to any geographical locations. Many people would still be unable to use a computer even if they got it for free.

Right now, the level of literacy skills among computer owners is very low: only 40%.

Additionally, only a few websites follow the guidelines for writing for low-literacy users and many institutional sites aimed at poorer citizens usually adopt a very complicated language.

Lower literacy, however, is different than illiteracy.

People with lower literacy can read, but they encounter difficulties doing so. The most remarkable difference between lower- and higher-literacy users is that lower-literacy users can't understand a text by glancing at it. They must read word for word and often spend considerable time trying to understand multi-syllabic words.

Senior users, a growing and very under-utilized population, face accessibility problems but again, there is little interest in the guidelines for making websites easier for older users.

Empowerment:

Most of the people who use digital technologies are still trapped to a limited use of their capabilities and are not yet ready to make a step forward. The so called digital divide has as much to do with equitable property rights, basic human rights and legal equality as it does with access to technology.

The integration of enhancing technologies MUST be added to broad projects that focus on poverty reduction and rights equality instead of the other way around.

The challenge won't be resolved with 'open' this or 'open' that - they'll only be resolved with an open mind.

Now THAT'S real challenge.


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1 Comments:

Anonymous Henriette Weber Andersen said...

you're right - the open mind is the biggest problem - and what can we do to help that ?

I think the biggest difference to create open minds is through education of the people allready living in the less open minded areas - making them peers..

ohh and the blogosphere is getting more diverse and crappy *s*

5:27 PM, March 13, 2007  

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