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Bridging the Digital Divide

September 24, 2012 — 1 Comment

Chelsea Clinton wrote a piece today in The Daily Beast articulating the negative impacts resulting from US children’s lack of access to computers and the Internet. Indeed, the country must work continuously to close the digital divide and support broader learning opportunities for every child — and adult — in America.

Yet our problems of technological equity pale in comparison to South Africa. I am continually stunned by the systemic lack of access to computers in my experiences with Mtuseni. Six weeks after buying him a laptop, we still cannot locate free public-access WiFi in the wealthy suburb where he attends school. The library provides only two public computers and no WiFi. The luxe mega-mall nearby seems to offer only limited access at cafes, with a purchase — difficult for someone counting every penny. And ironically it appears that even his college doesn’t provide WiFi. Mtuseni’s been trying to learn the login key, but “nobody knows it.” If the college offered WiFi, wouldn’t the access protocol be up on posters throughout the school?

Despite having limited financial resources, many of Mtuseni’s fellow students have laptops. They recognize the necessity of having a computer in college. Yet without easy and affordable access to the Internet, they have nothing more than an updated typewriter. In many US cities, you can sit on a park bench and access free WiFi — often provided through public-private partnerships. It’s frustrating to me that South African communities, lawmakers and businesses do not pursue strategies that can open the gates to Internet knowledge for all.

Mtuseni also tells me that his former public K-12 school has no computers. He himself had only very limited exposure to computers through the nonprofit that first matched us, and his lack of familiarity with the operations of a computer is already causing hurdles with his owning a laptop.

Mtuseni’s sister Bongeka attends fourth grade in the same school now. My niece is also in fourth grade. Like most US kids, she is intuitively comfortable with computers. She also writes complex stories, and this summer read half of the Harry Potter books. (Admittedly, that’s a bit over-the-top for a nine-year-old.) By comparison, Bongeka has never used a computer, and Mtuseni tells me she can barely read. (This is likely a bit of an overstatement, but she’s certainly not reading about the gang at Hogwarts.)

There are many reasons for Bongeka’s low academic performance relative to my niece. However, access to computers — Internet-enabled or not — would clearly advance her learning capabilities and those of the hundreds of children attending the school. Mtuseni so desperately wants his sister and brother to rise out of poverty, and recently told me about the distressing obstacles and risks faced by girls in the settlements. Computer technology alone won’t solve the problem, but it can keep children engaged and provide a more educated workforce that will benefit the entire country.

For now, my mental energies are focused on navigating the (surprisingly) choppy waters of Mtuseni’s journey though college and getting him to a safe harbor of professional employment. But with Bongeka and so many children and adults in South Africa hungry for knowledge and a better life, I hope to work in the future on bridging the nation’s technology-access gap.

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