Archives For digital divide

Distance

December 4, 2013 — 3 Comments

Things have been a bit rocky with Mtuseni since he finished classes a couple weeks ago. While he’s always done well when tasks are mapped out for him, as in a school situation, the process of getting an internship — which is all on him — has been marked by epic stumbles and inaction. He’s having difficulty with the transition from 15 years of school and familiar routine to the “lion’s den” of the real world, where he needs to begin charting his own course and sailing the ship. I can only do so much from this side of the world, and even if I could do more it is critical that he become focused, proactive, and self-reliant.

So we butted heads last week and — as happens with us now and then — went off to neutral corners to take a breather from each other. This transition process, this letting go, is also difficult for me. Mtuseni said last week that it feels like I’m pushing him off a cliff. No… I’m pushing him out of the nest, and I expect him to begin flapping his wings and taking flight. And of course I’ll be on the ground to catch him if he falls. But damn it, stop whining and start flapping!

Days ticked by with no communication between us. While my head appreciated having a little more space to focus on my own life, radio silence from him is always a bit unsettling. There are just so many risks he faces on a regular basis — from health issues and violence to unsafe minibus taxis and house fires — that having a daily check-in helps alleviate my worries.

mtuseni nov 2013So early yesterday morning Mtuseni sent me a text asking for my Skype number, because he was online. We had talked before about Skyping via his little USB laptop modem, but with a pay-as-you-go data plan and no money, he really didn’t have the bandwidth. Maybe enough for a voice call, but certainly not a video call. So after some back and forth getting set up, I heard the familiar Skype ring tone and answered his call. He said, “I can’t see you.” I was surprised he was doing a video call, so I clicked the camera button and suddenly there he was.

As always, there’s that brief sense of “wow” when you do a video call with people far away. It’s still not Jetsons quality, but actually our connection was pretty crisp. Mtuseni said he was in a community center a short walk from home, using their new wifi. This is a promising development, not only for him but for people — especially kids — in the settlement to have Internet access. The digital divide there is a serious impediment. I want to know more about who is sponsoring the center’s technology.

Unfortunately the center was closing for the day and Mtuseni had to sign-off. That’s one drawback of South Africa now being seven hours ahead of US time. Our call lasted only three minutes, so there was no real substance. Just that sense of closeness and connection you get from face-to-face contact, much more than can be achieved through text, emails or phone calls.

I realized after we hung up that it was the first time I had seen Mtuseni “live” since we said goodbye at the airport in New York, when he went back home after his trip here in July. Those three minutes on Skype reminded me how much I miss that kid. And that no matter how many bumps we hit on this journey together, the “distance” factor of being a long-distance dad is sometimes the hardest part.


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vintage+Chevy+BelAirEven though he returned almost three weeks ago, I’m still parsing the experience of Mtuseni’s visit. There is a lot to digest and try to understand — along with continuing fallout that currently has us at loggerheads like never before. I do believe my 20-year-old is finally turning 15, emotionally if not chronologically. Am I ready for the battles and pushback ahead? I don’t know. I’m not looking forward to it, that’s for sure. But if this is the necessary psycho-dynamic that must play out for him to become a man — and which he missed having no father around for most of his teenage years — then I guess I’ll strap on my whitewater gear and ride these churning rapids. As I’ve said before, I hate carnival rides!

In the meantime, the New York Times posted an interesting Room for Debate feature this weekend offering different perspectives on the future of South Africa and its economy. I found it surprising that none of the primary contributors addressed the issues of poor education and lack of Internet access — two issues I have described frequently here myself. I added my comments to the discussion. Check out the feature for some perspective on the challenges facing the country.

Source: New York Times

Click to access discussion. — Source: New York Times

I saw this CNN Heroes story recently about a retired school guidance counselor who is using her retirement savings to run a mobile computer learning lab in Florida. She understands the long-term risks kids face from being on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, so she outfitted Estella’s Brilliant Bus with computers connected via satellite to the Internet.

On the bus, kids of all ages get instruction in core academics, SAT and GED prep and Internet skills. Even adults benefit from software training and job search preparation. Running this program… at age 76? Estella truly is a hero.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

One thing that struck me was her comment that the kids she serves don’t have access to computers at home, which leads them to fall behind more affluent peers in terms of computer experience. Her program builds upon the limited computer time these kids receive at school.

By comparison, Mtuseni’s little brother and sister have no access to computers at home or at school. The St. Ansgars K-12 public school they attend — which Mtuseni calls a farm school — has no computers, no library, and no heat. Mtuseni graduated from St. A’s, and his lack of computer savvy or familiarity with software and the Web has shocked me. He’s gotten better over the last few years, but an American fourth grader can probably run circles around him on a computer.

I hope that mobile computer lab programs like this exist in South Africa. I will have to look into it more… and am considering helping to bridge the digital divide in South Africa as a potential new career path for myself — once Mtuseni is finished with college and settled into a job.

I’ve been known to rail against the saturation of technology in the US these days — with TV commercials showing family members in separate rooms blissfully staring into their devices and having no direct interaction. Society will pay over time for this growing personal disconnect, if it isn’t already. But on the flip side, Musa and Bongeka and all the kids in Mtuseni’s settlement — and so many others — are missing out on knowledge and skills that can help them to rise out of poverty. As always, the key is balance — and access to digital technology across the world is way out of whack.

I think of how Rosa Parks and a bus opened doors for African Americans decades ago. Now Estella and her Brilliant Bus are helping new generations forge pathways to opportunity. I only hope that I can make a similar impact for South African kids someday.


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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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