Is “Let Them Have Pentiums” More Practical than “Let Them Eat Cake”?

Last week in another course, we had the privilege of hosting a young guest speaker, Rastraraj Bhandari, who described his experiences as a teacher among the rural villages he visited in his home country of Nepal. The stories he shared made me think about Paul Attewell’s article, “The First and Second Digital Divides.” More than fourteen years after Attewell’s article was written, many of the digital divides he discussed still exist. Rastraraj explained, for example, that many villages still lack fast and stable internet connectively. Even in places with computer equipment, the ratio between computer and student was close to 1-to-20.

Adding to this dilemma, much of the equipment was out of date or in disrepair. In one of the villages Rastraraj visited, all the computers were broken. When he opened up a computer to see what was wrong, he found quite a few broken pencils lodged inside, probably inserted through the CD drive, severing wires and damaging the motherboard. Most of these rural villages had no one properly trained to fix the computers or even to serve as knowledgeable instructors to show the children how to use properly use them. And available teachers were often not the best; sometimes, because of the existing caste system, they could not even interact with some of their students!

Rastraraj shared his views about how the government has blindly accepted the western educational tradition. This same government would rely heavily on the use of standardized testing to determine who would have the opportunity to continue their education in different tracks, mainly focused on STEM education. This method basically creates additional disadvantages for the poor as compared with their more affluent peers. The strong focus and singular drive necessary to pass these tests, a potential ticket out of poverty, are so critical that privileged groups just have more resource to utilize.

Having access to computer equipment is important, but as Attewell points out, how the equipment is used and the available resource support are just as important. The children from poorer villages do not have enough teachers or educated parents available to provide the guidance and engagement to ensure that their students use the resources properly. Rastraraj explained how in one village, students would take three physical breaks during the school day just to go into the fields to chase away monkeys who would eat or otherwise destroy the local crops. This story is a bit extreme, but such life realities do exist! Providing access to technology, therefore, does not fully address “cyber segregation,” especially for the most disadvantaged.