Wednesday, July 11, 2012

NetHui Part 2 - The Digital Divide

This was probably the most interesting session of the day. They started out with 2 people speaking as an introduction to the subject. The first one was a heart breaking tale of where she'd come from and what the "Computers in Homes" programme meant to her and how it had changed her life and, probably more importantly, her outlook on life. I'm not going to relate her story but at the end of it, while she had had a few moments where it sounded like her voice was going to crack and she had to suppress a couple of sniffles, the crowd got on their feet for a standing ovation and there were more than a couple of people with tears in their eyes. I wasn't the only one feeling a little choked up by it all.

The second person was a blind man who spoke about how the Internet had changed the way he interacted with the world. He spoke about "The Cornflakes Problem". Basically, prior to being able to use the Internet to go shopping, he'd have to pick his time to go to the Supermarket (not too busy) and try and get someone to help him get things off the shelf. If we're annoyed at the movements of products on a supermarket shelf, it's 10 times worse for a blind person.

But why are cornflakes so significant? They'd pick the first pack off the shelves - never mind the options. The Internet made him realise that there are dozens of different options - different brands and sizes. Boxes or bags, prices etc. He'd supposed there were only 1/2 a dozen different options or so.

The difficulties in getting around, not knowing if a venue would have facilities etc. would lead to avoiding events and thus social isolation. Now, with the Internet, all of this can be looked up online and planned for well before the actual event. And if you really couldn't attend, you could still interact in some way with the event online.

There was a great big appeal at the end of it. When building a website, please adhere to W3C standards so that the website can be rendered for use with accessibility in mind.

But the digital divide. What happens when you get a panel of people up on stage to talk about it?

The facilitator for the presentation seemed to think that the digital divide was shrinking but that we've still got some way to go despite some of the comments made around how New Zealand governmental services are moving online at the expense of physical presence and thus being online has to be considered a basic human right in the same way that electricity is seen in much the same way (though I would argue that if electricity truly were a basic human right in New Zealand, there would have to be regulation around pricing).

3 of the people on stage were politicians. The one who mentioned the Manaiakalani project did the project a bit of a disservice (so I felt). He said that the project gave the kids devices. I was the first to jump up to a microphone and issue a correction - that the project empowers families to invest in their children's futures via a device paid for over 3 years. That it creates, not only the ownership of, but the sense of ownership, for the device. I hold little hope for this politician (a National politician) though as I'll explain. He didn't seem to understand the point about the sense of ownership - I'll get back to this point.

Given that we were talking about the digital divide, the analogy of bridge building came up. "If we build a bridge from this side, how do we know they're going to use it on that side of the divide?". An interesting question but ultimately the wrong approach. That politician mentioned above (but not named - really, if you wanted to find out who it was, you could look it up, but, it's not important. I've come across the same sort of thinking before from politicians and they don't seem to have the context to understand. So not unique to this person) said something about engaging with the community at the beginning. Another guy, not a politician, made the point that bringing all of the stakeholders, and being conscious of those absent, is a challenge in itself.

My reaction to all of this? The question isn't about what we can build. The question is more about how we can enable them to build. So to carry on the analogy, the solution is to find some way to the other side of the divide and work with them, all the way through the process - and be humble enough to be a servant - i.e. working with others at their direction only suggesting (and not forcing) methods based upon your own experience - to help them find a way across the divide.

This all reminds me of another conversation I had about a month ago. I was talking about how I would love to introduce the sort of things I've seen applied within the schools I work within in other places (regions, countries etc.). The comment came up that often "do-gooders" come along, do something and then abandon it (install a water well with no instructions on what to do when the seals have given out), or, have difficulty getting any traction due to suspicion around their motives. Actually I'm merging two different conversations into one here. I'm hoping I've now got something of framework, in terms of approach, where I could actually be successful in approaching a community and help out while mitigating these issues. It's a stretch, but I think I've got the attitude... It's what I'm aiming for at least.

The Green candidate picked up on the comment about ownership. In fact, there were a couple of turns of phrase I had said that she seemed to pick up on immediately. I don't know if I've said just how important, not only ownership, but the sense of ownership really is.

The National candidate though looked blank after I'd said my piece.

One of the big findings of the One Laptop Per Child programme was that communities had to have a sense of ownership of the devices. They should go through some effort to fund raise for the machines - even if it is ultimately useless (a drop in the ocean). Why? How much value do you give to free anti-virus software or .... something else you don't really know the price of that has just been given to you? For the most part, the kids in the Manaiakalani programme know that their parents are paying for the netbooks and that there's a financial burden to it. They own the devices. They know they own the devices. This leads to more care being taken of the devices (though this isn't the only piece to this particular puzzle). Simple things like locking them away when not in use. Carrying them and making sure siblings aren't pulling off the keys etc. They're not the government's computers. They aren't owned by the school. They're the family's/child's.

So the problem isn't around money. Because, let's face it, if we wanted to give kids computers, we could raise the funds, and what business wouldn't wanted to be associated to such a programme?, and buy all the machines needed to do so. The maintenance would be an absolute nightmare. And you've just removed a whole bunch of benefits. By owning the device, they're then learning about warranties, insurance and excess payments, automatic payments and contracts etc. They're empowered.

I know I said it to a politician last year, and I hope there are other politicians (and hopefully the same one I said this to last year - they didn't seem to understand it) reading this, hopefully understanding the implications - The solution is never "We'll give them all computers".

I'm going to crowbar in the Home in Schools conversation I had. These are people I can actually relate to in some part as they're also working within the poverty cycle. They know it's not as simple as "giving people jobs".

However, for 10 hours of training, people are given computers and a discounted?/free? (I'm not clear on this point) Internet connection for a year. Apart from the fact that they're giving them machines with Windows 7 installed (there's a conversation in here to be had about sustainable computing - yes I'll get around to that post eventually), I don't believe they've got it quite right. Where is the sense of ownership? Where is empowerment? Do the machines have a positive impact on their lives or do most of them become horribly slow and obsolete within a couple of years without any real use?

I'm going to sound a little cocky here but.... the computers aren't learning devices. If their use isn't integrated into the school, then you can safely beat on the fact that they're going to be used as toys. I'm sure they've a lot of success stories. I think they'd get even more success if they took ownership, and a more integrated approach, into account. Working with the families AND the school to come up with a programme that integrates the machines into their learning.

They can't all be Manaiakalani.

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