Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Digital Divide: Web 2.0 just for rich kids?

I've blogged here before about my doubts about just how relevant digital technology really is when compared with some of the immense problems in the world, such as hunger, child labour and extreme poverty. My thoughts have been heading in this direction once more recently, especially as I have been planning a Social Studies unit on child labour. 

I've found huge amounts of material and ideas that I could use with my class, with this World Vision site 'Born to be Free', and this child labour webquest being most helpful. Yet the content of these and other sites has been almost overwhelming. Seeing such hopelessness and despair forces me to consider what my response needs to be. And there needs to be a response.

To be honest, it really made me wonder if I was doing my masters degree in the right area. I had to ask myself, "Is this just a degree in cool gadgets for rich kids?"

So I had a hunt around over the last week on the internet to see what was out there in terms of the role of ICTs in development contexts, where perhaps these equity issues are at their most extreme and I was surprised to find a whole field that I didn't know existed. It is known as ICT4D, or ICT for development, and is focused exactly on bridging the digital divide that exists between the haves and the have-nots.

The wikipedia entry gives a good overview of the field and provides some links for those who want to explore further. This ICT4D wiki has a huge number of links to resources, journals, blogs, people, and institutions, all devoted to ICT4D.

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is a good example of an organisation, which, with corporate sponsorship from the likes of Google, Apple and others, is trying "To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning."

 (Image credit: Kicukiro2 by OLPC, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

At first I was a little cynical about this. After all, these people need food, not web 2.0, right? Well, yes, obviously in the most dire cases. Yet access to education and information is fundamental to escaping poverty. I highly recommend this short video, Zimi's Story, about the effect having one of these laptops has had.

Of course the digital divide exists not only on an international scale, but locally as well. One only has to look at the amazing work done by Dorothy Burt and the crew at Pt England School to see the impact that effective use of digital technology can have on motivation and learning in a low socioeconomic context.

My current paper is called 'Change with Digital Technologies in Education', and I think there will be scope to really explore some of these issues in much greater depth. In fact, I'd like to gear the remainder of my course in this direction, if at all possible (and I think it will be).

Digital technologies are not just for 'rich kids'. They are a tool with the potential to really change lives around and provide a way out of poverty.


  1. Great video Craig...wonderful to see these children getting a chance with digital learning.
    Opening up the world to them, can only inspire them & help them & their people out of poverty...good blog.

  2. Thanks for the comment - I totally agree. I think there's huge potential here with e-books as well. Where perhaps they had very few books available, now they could potentially have the libraries of the world in their laptops. Cheers.

  3. This is always great to see people entering this field of ICT4D. You got a number of really interesting links collected here and I think you ask the right questions about the attention technology should get compared to other developmental issues. I think in this field it is very difficult to maintain a clear division between being a researcher or even a thoughtful activist and being a preacher about technology being the cure of most/all evils of this world. For example, the story of Zimi that you share, as touching as it is, is a commercial and should be viewed as such. While OLPC is a fascinating project, it is important to view it with a grain of salt as well as numerous other initiatives of this kind. Not to discourage you from looking into the field, but instead to encourage you to continue asking those difficult questions with which you started your post. Just my musings on the subject :)

  4. Thanks Dima. When it comes to ICTs in education there seem to be so many factors and influences at play, from the governmental to commercial enterprises, to NGOs (some with commercial sponsorship) to the individual teacher and learner. I think that what actually happens on the ground for those learners is the key issue. When development resources are so contested, I imagine that ICTs really have to prove their worth. Done badly, they may just end up contributing to the growing mounds of e-waste. Done well, it seems (as a non-expert and someone new to the issues) that there is real possibility for meaningful change for the individual and communities. It is this possibility that I'm excited about exploring.

    Cheers for the thought stretching comment, and by the way, nice blog - just subscribed!

  5. Well said Craig. You stick with this topic and we will be very interested to read your research! Thanks for the very kind words above too. Our experience of spending the last 18 years living and working in a decile 1a community has been one of learning how the tools can be effectively used to leap frog some of the barriers to accessing not only the curriculum but all aspects of daily life.
    We have concluded that without an effective framework in place for using them (pedagogy) and support in many forms, the impact may be minimal.
    We also spent 5 years in PNG and would love to see OLPC rolled out there, but we know that just dropping 1000 laptops there is not the answer. Just 'connecting' with the rest of the world isn't the answer. Television, which brought predominantly american culture into PNG, did not provide the leap-frog effect. It just brought a raft of problems.
    This is a VERY big topic you have chosen to research :)

  6. Thanks Dorothy. This field seems to get bigger and more daunting everyday! I like the leapfrog concept, but also note the unintended consequences that can arise when this technology is introduced without the framework you mentioned. I suppose that's really what I want to look at. If I was working with OLPC (or something like that) and the laptops were all in boxes ready to go, what exactly would that framework look like, that would need to be in place for the project to succeed? I'm sure there's a lot of research out there, which I'm looking forward to exploring.

    In my last paper there was the question of whether the use of connected technology in education automatically lends itself to more constructivist styles of teaching. Considering that the education systems in many developing countries are still very traditional, how should changes like this be managed so that local teachers feel empowered rather than threatened by the new technology? I think I'm at the tip of a rather large iceberg here!