Computers Alone Can't Bridge Digital Gap
BUENOS AIRES, Oct 17 (IPS) - "With these three computers and Internet
access, it's as if we could reach up and touch the sky," exclaimed
Analía Bonesso, the principal and teacher of all eight grades in a rural
primary school in Argentina with no telephone, no radio, and only 14
Tomás Espora primary school is in Campo Durango in the province of Santa
Fe, some 400 km northwest of Buenos Aires. This former dairy farming
region has now been taken over by soybean plantations, and the school's
students are the children of migrant farmers who travel from one source
of work to another, Bonesso explained to IPS.
Since 2002, the school has formed part of a network of 17 rural schools
located throughout Argentina that have been provided with computer
equipment and a broadband or satellite Internet hook-up though the
Ministry of Education's Educ.ar Programme.
The programme is also meant to encompass training and technical support,
although certain shortcomings come to light during the interview with
She said that she had learned to use the computers "partly on my own and
partly with the help of friends." And while everyone at the school uses
the equipment "to read the news and search for information," e-mail is
used only by the staff, not the students, because "they don't have any
relatives to write to," said Bonesso.
"Don't they connect with children in other schools?" asked IPS. "Yes,
sometimes, and I try to get them to write e-mails to the relatives that
some of them have in other parts of the country," she responded.
The unbridged distance between the provision of equipment and genuine
assimilation of these new technologies on the part of the programme's
beneficiaries is regularly stressed by non-governmental organisations
(NGOs) working to close the digital gap by familiarising the poor,
excluded sectors of society with the latest information and
The problem is not limited to isolated rural schools. In the city of
Buenos Aires, there are primary schools that are well equipped with
computers, but the teachers do not know how to use them.
"The parents decided to put up the money to hire a computer teacher who
goes to the school twice a week," Silvina Márquez, the mother of a
student at one of these schools, told IPS.
This is what happens when the equipment "comes as manna", without the
needed preliminary groundwork.
"The state and private sector work hard to provide computers and
Internet access, but the challenge that remains unfulfilled is for the
community to feel a sense of 'ownership' of the equipment and to use it
to meet their needs," Angélica Abdallah, director of the Argentine
Telework Association, commented to IPS.
A survey conducted by the software giant Microsoft found that almost
eight million people in Argentina, a country of 37 million, regularly
surf the Internet and use e-mail, a higher proportion than the majority
of Latin American countries.
However, the use of this technology is overwhelmingly concentrated in
the country's cities. In Buenos Aires and its outskirts alone there are
roughly 9,000 cybercafes with more than 52,000 computers connected to
the Internet, according to the same survey, carried out in 2004.
While some are privately owned and others are run by telephone
companies, the affordable rates they charge have made Internet use a
widespread phenomenon in urban areas.
Another survey, conducted this year by the Argentine newspaper Clarín
and the market research firm D'Alessio IROL, revealed that 60 percent of
Internet users go online in cybercafes, 41 percent in their own homes,
14 percent at work, and a mere three percent in educational facilities
at every level, including public and private universities.
It is this last category that is key to expanding access in impoverished
sectors of society.
As part of the process leading up to the second phase of the World
Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), taking place Nov. 16-18 in
Tunisia, the governments of Latin America have pledged to double the
current number of schools, libraries and community centres hooked up to
the Internet by the year 2007.
The Argentine government of centre-left President Néstor Kirchner, who
took office in May 2003, has placed heavy emphasis on the provision of
the needed equipment.
In addition to ensuring that schools in slum neighbourhoods are
connected to the Internet, the Ministry of Education launched a National
Digital Literacy Campaign this year, which will distribute 100,000
computers to 12,000 schools.
Laura Serra, director of projects for the Educ.ar programme, admitted to
IPS that difficulties have been detected in the schools that make up the
network, and that efforts are being made to resolve them.
The main focus now, she added, is on the digital literacy campaign,
which will include curriculum content and training for the teachers
"What is needed to reduce the digital gap is to work on all aspects at
the same time," stressed Serra. "It's not enough to simply hand out
computers and Internet connection, without training or course content."
So far, half of the computers to be provided through the programme have
arrived in the schools, while the remainder will be distributed by the
end of next year.
To ensure the necessary training, the ministry has signed an agreement
with the country's public universities, which will offer courses on
classroom use of new information technologies to some 15,000 primary and
secondary school teachers.
The Kirchner administration also continues to sponsor another project
that was enthusiastically launched in the late 1990s but has only
partially survived, namely the Community Technological Centres (CTCs),
which are funded by the Communications Secretariat of the Ministry of
Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services.
There are 1,350 CTCs throughout the country, which the state has
supplied with both computer equipment and training for technical and
teaching staff. The host institutions include schools, churches,
libraries, fire halls, municipal authorities and NGOs.
In the case of the CTCs, the state pays for Internet access with a
monthly limit on connection time. But once again, the success or failure
of this initiative does not depend solely on the technology implemented
or the bandwidth used.
"In order for the CTCs to have an impact on the community, people have
to be trained to properly manage them, to ensure that they remain
sustainable in the long term," said Abdallah.
Serra, for her part, commented, "What is a centre good for if it can no
longer acquire paper or printer cartridges?"
Similar concerns are voiced by Nodo Tau, an NGO founded to train social
organisations, including trade unions and schools, in the use of new
information technologies like the Internet.
"In order for this technology to be used, it is essential to provide
training, create networks among organisations, and promote access for
the most marginalised sectors as well," Nodo Tau training coordinator
Carolina Fernández commented to IPS.
Nodo Tau and other civil society groups have promoted the establishment
of community computer facilities or "telecentres" in social
organisations, and some of these have joined with the UNESCO (United
Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation) network of free
telecentres, which promote the recycling of computer equipment and work
with free or open-source software.
"We reach out to entrepreneurs and professionals to try to get them to
use the telecentre as a tool for marketing their products and services,"
"We also want to generate demand in the private sector for the services
that could be offered by the telecentre, in order to make it
sustainable," she added.
But in order for this to be viable, there is a need to "train people to
manage." Abdallah stressed that instead of waiting for technology to
"come from above," work should be done at the grassroots level,
listening to the needs of the community and providing training for the
appropriate use of technology.
Nodo Tau has supported the creation of seven telecentres that offer
services at an extremely low cost in social organisations. "There are
users of all ages, but mainly adults who are uncomfortable with the
modern aesthetics of cybercafes," said Fernández.
Fernández believes that the digital gap is not isolated from the other
social, cultural and economic gaps typical of a developing country.
"In order to bridge this gap, the solution does not lie in the
acquisition of equipment, but rather in the assimilation of this tool by
the members of the community, since this is the way to ensure that its
use will contribute to transforming reality," she said. (END/2005)