Earlier this year, American photographer John Stanmeyer won the World Press photo contest with his submission “Signal,” which depicted a group of migrants on the outskirts of Djibouti City. With luminescent mobile phone screens raised in the air like lighters, the photo captured these people attempting to pick up stronger wireless signals from neighboring Somalia.
Beyond winning Stanmeyer first place in the contemporary issues category, this photo illustrates a much bigger idea. Although technological conveniences and innovation lag in the developing world compared to many western nations, these societies are receptive, even eager for wireless information.
Mobile phone technology in developing countries now accounts for four out of every five connections worldwide. In a recent report by the GSMA’s mLearning program, more than half of all young people surveyed in Ghana, India, Uganda and Morocco who accessed the Internet did so via a mobile device.
Beyond their general convenience, phones and tablets offer a unique opportunity to bridge the technology gap in education. A number of governmental, non-profit and private-sector organizations have seen the promise in mobilizing students in the developing world using mobile technology and have launched initiatives to fulfill it.
Dell’s Youth Learning is a private-sector program aimed at helping connect an estimated 72 million children who lack access to education. Dell provides funding and technology to local teams throughout the world that implement and manage a connected classroom. These teams also address infrastructure problems that plague many developing nations, such as security and food access.
But why send phones to places where basic needs like food and shelter are not being met?
Because digital literacy is a need, and access is a right, according to John Davies, vice president of Intel’s World Ahead, commissioner of the Broadband Commission and board member of Connected Nation.
“Widespread use of technology is one of the most basic things we can do to improve clean water, food availability and, for that matter, all of the eight Millennium Development Goals,” he said.
Davies is referring to the UN-sanctioned milestones designed to address the most pressing global issues, including eradicating poverty and hunger, as well as health care and the empowerment of women and girls.
“UNESCO studies have shown that the use of a SMS phone can help them [children in developing countries] onto the first rung of Digital Literacy by learning to read and write their first words, and subsequently creating the desire to attend school.”
Additionally, World Ahead works with the Grameen Foundation to serve communities surrounding the schools, helping with seed selection and soil testing. They also help low-income farmers find places and ways to sell their products.
“One farmer or entrepreneur has a tablet loaded with the Grameen and Intel software and local farmers bring their soils to test which fertilizers are needed,” Davies explains. “Tests over several crop cycles in India and Bangladesh have shown improved yields and lower fertilizer costs.”
The same mobile technology also opens the door to build robust educational infrastructure for children. Working with various government ministries of IT and telecommunications, initiatives like World Ahead help bring low-cost prepaid Broadband to classrooms, and lobby governments to use local universal service funds to connect schools.
After establishing successful and steady connectivity in a new technology-driven classroom, programs provide ruggedized tablets with built-in anti-theft devices that switch the device off after leaving a school’s network. The tablets are also loaded with interactive content and analytic and assessment tools.
According to Davies, well-managed deployments of technology demonstrate an increase in academic performance, help prevent disciplinary issues and reduce dropout rates.
The most recent PISA scores, the metric that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) uses to measure international academic performance, have revealed a noticeable improvement when children use laptops in Portugal (one of the earliest adopters of such programs), Macedonia and Argentina, all countries where mobile technology has been integrated in classrooms.
These efforts are leveling the playing field and empower children with digital literacy skills for the 21st century.
Closer to home, Connected Nation uses learnings from global programs to address connectivity and digital literacy in rural stretches of the United States. Davies says that Connected Nation maps broadband access, distributes low-cost laptops to underserved schools and encourages governments to help connect classrooms with other schools and public institutions.
Increasing performance, portability and affordability of powerful technology are combining to help organizations bridge the gap in digital literacy in many parts of the world.
According to Davies, our increasingly connected world is helping children succeed, no matter where they live.