Saturday, January 14, 2006

Computers In the Bush

The first year social work students at the Social Development Institute, a school that offers college-level classes in my village, have been running amok in the community, gathering information for an assignment that’s due on Monday. Each student was assigned a different topic and is expected to tap local resources to conduct their research and compile it into a visual presentation.

We had various groups of students trickling into the VCT asking for information on contraceptives, abortion, and nutrition for special populations (people living with AIDS, the elderly, etc.) One student’s topic was “the role of social policy in Kenya.” Her friend’s topic was “stress and how to manage it.” Social Policy lady was sitting slumped in her chair looking defeated while Stress lady was looking decidedly unstressed out. I asked Social Policy how her teacher expected her to find information on such a complex topic. She said she had flipped through the newspaper and visited the school library.

“Our library is empty,” she sighed. “There are a few books but they’re really old and outdated. I don’t know where to turn now.”

We suggested that she visit the District Office of Social Services in Nandi Hills, about an hour away. “Oh,” she scoffed. “It’s too far. I don’t have time.”

I did not scream, “This is your education we’re talking about!” Instead I asked if she had tried searching on the internet.

“I don’t know how to operate computers,” she said.

“Isn’t Computer Proficiency a required course?” Hillary asked. He is a graduate of the Institute himself.

“Only the students pursuing a computer science diploma are allowed to use the school’s computers,” she said. “Social work students aren’t allowed in the computer lab unless you pay an extra 15,000 Ksh each term.”

So let’s review. College students here don’t have basic computer skills. The college they’re attending won’t let them go near a computer unless they can cough up 15,000 Ksh, or about $200, a fortune in a village where half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. There is no internet connection in my village except at the post office, so even if students know how to use a word processor and a spreadsheet, they’re graduating with no knowledge of how to access the single most valuable source of information in the world. How can anyone navigate in a society increasingly connected and powered by the internet with no exposure to the internet? How can a country develop and compete in a high-tech world when its educated populace doesn’t have skills to access the relevant technology?

For the last few months Hillary and I have had an ongoing discussion about how to start a small computer lab that offers classes on basic software packages, resume writing and other computer skills. I’ve also talked to locals who have tried to set up an internet connection here, but it was a cost-prohibitive logistical nightmare. I was also worried that we might be duplicating the resources at the Social Institute because I’d heard that they have a computer lab and classes. Instead it sounds like there’s a huge need for something like that. Stay tuned to this space as the idea percolates.


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