Divided We Stand
While sitting in my home office, I looked outside the window at the serenity of the trees laden with winter snow. It reminded me of the quietness one often experiences in a bucolic setting. It also reminded me of the privileges I have such as access to high speed internet. I have the power to access information from anywhere in the world at the click of a button. I and many like me are the lucky ones. More importantly, we are the responsible ones who have to help the unlucky ones in accessing and assessing the information on the Internet. This responsibility might be viewed as one of the essential components of global citizenship in this information age. Here it is important to understand that there are millions without the same educational facilities in less privileged parts of the world.
People in the other parts of the world are separated from us at a digital level and maybe at other levels such as economic, social, linguistic, and cultural. The Digital divide often referred to as the North-South divide is a reality that we may often not be cognizant of. This imbalance of access to technological resources as well as the skills needed to become a digital citizen is a cause of concern. If we truly believe that technology has transformed the way we work, learn, and enjoy, and that it is unimaginable to live without, than we must know that technology may not play a great role at all in the lives of millions on the other side of the divide.
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) statistics in 2004, there were around one billion people worldwide that had no connection of any kind to information and communication technology (ICT). Looking at the map depicting the digital divide, one is left thinking of the sharp disparities in the world. What is alarming is that the lack of ICTs especially in the developing world can easily translate into a lack of knowledge and information and thus a knowledge divide.
The World Wide Web is truly amazing because of the inclusion of individuals from across the globe as they contribute to its growth and enrichment in the form of diverse ideas and information. We surely are missing out on the millions of possible ideas from those not part of the Web.
The world is changing at a fast pace. Areas of the world earlier left out of the digital race have caught up at a miraculous rate due to the advancement of technology such as wireless. Requiring considerably lesser investment, wireless growth soared in many regions of the world thus causing many deprived regions to take a major leap forward. A right mix of government policies which encouraged the private sector found a natural match with the communication needs of the people. The potential of wireless communication to reach and benefit a small school in rural Africa, Asia or South America is immense. Mobile phone can be used to deliver educational content especially where no other ICT facilities exist. SMS can serve as an important tool to deliver content in areas where a dearth of quality teaching and learning resources hinder educational development. Such mobile learning ventures are already being successful here and in many other places.
To bridge the digital divide, it would not be wise to rely solely on the government initiatives or likewise wait for the people to respond in order to kick start the change process that could lead to fruitful educational outcomes. What we need is a balance in which there is no one-sided approach to development. Over the years, several initiatives were taken to deal with the digital divide. Some useful while most did not yield optimal desired results that would lead to positive change in the lives of the people. One such example of an enthusiastic venture not showing the desired results is that of the “One laptop per child”. The initiative of providing a laptop to the poor in the developing world seemed noble but in my opinion lacked a realization of the needs of the individuals. Often, policies made in the developed world face a problem of not aligning well with the needs of the people, besides not fully understanding the issues facing individuals living in the developing world. This supply driven focus where the governments or other organizations push initiatives sometimes lacks in achieving tangible results. Nevertheless there are success stories such as the use of mobile phones in Uganda to track banana disease besides educating farmers about protecting their plantations. On the other hand, people driven focus from the Grameen Phone empowering the poor in rural Bangladesh to the use of mobile phones in rural Africa in the form of a one person owned and operated business venture where one mobile phone in a village serving the purpose of a public phone.
So what role can we play in bridging the digital divide to have an all inclusive cyberspace? What role can design play in ensuring that those who are not included but have some sort of basic facility to connect can be part of this revolution? At an individual level, there are various ways of supporting those at the other end of the divide. For instance, for those who are already connected but have limited bandwidth and resources, we can demonstrate how to evaluate the quality of information obtained through the Internet. There is abundant information – correct vs. incorrect, relevant vs. irrelevant, less relevant or more relevant, that can create value and meet specialized needs. No doubt we observe an uncontrollable information flow (mostly from the developed to the developing world). If we are able to succeed in saving the most precious resource – time, we may actually succeed in empowering individuals to take benefit of the digital revolution.
Briding the digital divide or most rightly the knowledge divide would require a concerted effort, but most importantly an understanding of the issues being faced globally. Issues related to sustainability, scalability and evaluation need special attention and may easily be ignored in any positive initiative. Often projects faced failure because they were not able to meet the needs of increasing number of individuals or lacked a mechanism for improvement and evaluation.
Technology has the power to transform learning and empower people in ways that would bring meaningful changes in their lives on either side of the bridge that divides us. So here we are, 6 billion strong, yet divided we stand in a digital sense!
Also posted on ideaplay.org.