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A Tale of Tackling the Digital Divide

Doug Dawson

A new book came out in November that tells about one of the first attempts to solve the digital divide on a large scale. The book is The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child published by MIT Press and available on Amazon and other places online. In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT Media Lab, created a program that he hoped would solve the digital divide in the third world. The program was called One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and delivered inexpensive laptops to children between the ages of 6 and 12 in third world countries.

The program was nearly a complete bust. The stripped-down computers were produced for a price of about $100. A third world country had to come up with the money to buy the computers, and many did, and over 3 million computers were sold. But the realities of using computers in the third world became quickly apparent. Many students didn't have access to electricity — the laptop came with a hand crank that could be used to charge it, but it didn't work very well. Computers also broke, and there was no process in place to repair computers with problems.

The biggest failure came due to a lack of adult supervision and training for using the computers. For example, in Paraguay, the most successful trial of OLPC, teachers make half the minimum wage in the country and very few of them understood the computers well enough to teach children how to use them. In Africa, the teaching role often is done by mothers who had no training on how to use a computer.

There was also very little Internet access in these third world countries in 2005 (and many places are still without access). Only a small percentage of children had access to the Internet, and without that, there wasn't a lot of things to do on the computers other than play some simple games or attempt to write code — something most kids had no idea how to do.

Proponents of solving the digital divide now understand that there are three components in a fully successful digital divide program. Just as with OLPC, many schools in the US now have programs that give laptops or tablets to all students — many who don't have a computer in their homes. Teachers supply the training and context for using computers, and teachers get intensive training on using computers as part of the overall curriculum of the schools. These programs also have ways to deal with broken or lost computers.

Most school systems still haven't found a solution for the third leg of solving the digital divide — getting broadband access into the homes of children with computers. We now call this lack of home broadband the homework divide since children without home broadband access lag behind other students, even when all have access to the same computers and computer curriculum.

There are places that are tackling the homework divide, but in most communities, that's the hardest and most expensive part of solving the digital divide. I wrote a blog earlier this year talking about the program in Buffalo New York to bring WiFi into the homes of thousands of students without access to broadband. Many communities are looking at similar solutions. Some of the cities that have built fiber-to-the-home have a low-income product to promote getting broadband to school children.

The folks behind OLPC had good intentions. Today there are a host of people with experience in solving the digital divide who could have told the program it would fail. Solving the digital divide is not easy, and it is not cheap. A successful digital divide effort needs to provide a lot more than just computers to be successful. There is a tiny fraction of kids who can run with computers without much help. But the vast majority of students need help to learn how to use a computer — and the training must be done in a way to motivate kids to stick with it.

This is not a cheap book, priced at over $20 for kindle and $33 in paperback. However, it's an interesting read and worth it to anybody thinking of tackling the digital divide. The OLPC program made almost every mistake possible, and the book is a primer of what not to do to solve the digital divide. I kept wanting to leap into the screen, yelling, "No, no, no," to the mistakes made by the program.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting
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