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Overcoming the Digital Divide: How Computer Labs Can Reduce Poverty and Boost Online Learning for 1 Billion Impoverished Children

Your Name and Title: Ross Wehner, Executive Director


School or Organization Name: World Leadership School


Co-Presenter Name(s): N/A


Area of the World from Which You Will Present: Denver, Colorado


Language in Which You Will Present: English


Target Audience(s): K-20 Teachers and Students


Short Session Description (one line): This session explores how you can build a school computer lab in the developing world and, most importantly, how to achieve an amazing school-to-school partnership once you succeed!  


Full Session Description (as long as you would like):

Poverty is often thought of in terms of basic needs such as food, water, shelter and clothing. A major demarcator of poverty in the 21st century is, and will increasingly be, the digital divide, e.g., who has internet and who does not. Through the internet, people in impoverished areas of the world can find work, participate in democracy, understand what is going on in their own community/region/country/planet, find answers to health questions, connect with people and, most importantly, educate and empower themselves.


On the face of it, the equipment for computer labs has become remarkably inexpensive – laptop price points of $250 make computer labs far less expensive than, for instance, drilling water wells. But remarkably few attempts to build computer labs in developing areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America have succeeded. The hurdles are immense. Laptops need to be impervious to dust and humidity or be kept in a climate-controlled environment, need a reliable source of electricity, need to consume tiny amounts of electricity, need a connection to the internet, need to be protected from viruses, need to receive tech support, need to be kept in a secure place and need people who know how to use them. Computers, it turns out, are needy.


The puzzle of how to build and sustain a computer lab – from the electricity to the hardware to the technology training – is complicated but answers are emerging from a variety of organizations that will be briefly profiled in the first half hour of this session. Bottom line: if you avoid the pitfalls, school computers labs in the most impoverished regions of the world are more possible than ever, and I’ll explain how.  


There is no question that a school computer lab can revolutionize a school’s ability to train its teachers and educate its students. But nothing will happen unless students and faculty know how to use the computers, or unless a curriculum is in place to take advantage of the computers. In the second half hour, we’ll tackle the bigger question: once the lab is built, what do we do now?


Introducing computers to a school, and training students and teachers to use them for the first time, is a mammoth task – harder even then building the lab in the first place. Learning how to undertake a global partnership with a school that has only recently come online, and is from a completely different culture in a far-away time zone, is also a delicate and challenging task. But these kind of partnerships can also be among the most rewarding. I will explore basic rules of thumb for tackling these daunting issues, one baby step at a time. Discussion is highly encouraged as this is a new field with new ideas appearing every day.


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