This feature first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
In the United States, we have the good fortune of referring to all members of the current generation of students as digital natives. We can be fairly confident that at some point in elementary school every student turned on a computer. That every student has written a paragraph using a word processing program, or at least created a slide presentation on a home or school computer. That the majority of homes have a computer, and that most students have a cell phone.
We have many debates in the United States over the digital divide. For some, the issue is the level of technology access in the home, at work, or in the classroom. (Note that we're only arguing about the degree of access; we take for granted that everyone uses technology on some level.) Others may concern themselves with the availability of reliable internet access.
We have a strong vision of a digital future shaped by 21st-century skills and artificial intelligence. While there will be jobs specific to AI, such as engineering and programming, most of the future jobs will be like the ones we have today, including infrastructure support such as hardware, networking, and security. Either way, we don't worry about having access to training for those jobs.
For most of us, the more relevant digital divide is between those who understand the technology and those who use it. Everyone has used a computer at school or work, everyone knows how to create a document or draw up a spreadsheet. We have the freedom to think in the abstract about technology: How much do we understand the technologies we use? How do we relate to them?
I come from a land of plenty
As an instructor in the information technology field here in the United States, I have been fortunate even by the elevated standards of IT access in America. I teach information technology in the Grayson Technical Education Program at Grayson High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia.
All of my students have desktops with dual monitors. Our lab has a rack full of servers and workstations with graphic cards for development. The students spend their days in a curriculum- and resource-rich environment learning through web-based tools like TestOut's LabSim. They have the opportunity to earn multiple certifications each year from Microsoft, Adobe, and TestOut — most students earn four or more certifications before the end of the year.
All of this wealth of opportunity is due to our program's being in the United States, as part of the largest school system in Georgia. Gwinnett County Public Schools is dedicated to providing a world-class education and it shows. As an educator, it is a veritable land of milk and honey and information technology instruction.
There is another place, however, 24 hours away by plane flight, where the resources are not so plentiful. Where a pilgrim's cornucopia of educational resources does not exist. That place is in east Africa. Last year, as part of my Ph.D. program at the University of Georgia, I participated in a Fulbright Group Projects Abroad program that took me to Mwenge Catholic University (MWECAU) in Moshi, Tanzania.
Our group spent 40 days living and teaching in the Kilimanjaro region, experiencing the life, land, people, students, and culture of the Swahili people in Tanzania. We worked with students and teachers at the university and in the elementary school and tried in some small way to bridge the digital divide.
Because, in Tanzania, elementary schools have no computers, all of the work needs to be done at the university. We brought robots with us that the elementary students could assemble and then block-program using desktop computers. We first spent time with the teachers, training them on using the software and assembling the robots, and then we worked with the students.
In Africa, the digital divide — defined as being the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not — is wider than the Grand Canyon. In Tanzania, students arrive at the university with zero digital literacy skills. They have never word-processed a document. They have never done a calculation in a spreadsheet. They have never processed an image.
Most have never even had the opportunity to turn a computer on, let alone use it for individual, personal learning or study. Mwenge Catholic University has one lab, with 40 computers, to serve the needs of 4,000 university students.
A gap too wide to bridge?
The average citizen of Tanzania makes about the equivalent of just $120 (U.S.) per month. What teachers, students, and individuals have had to deal with in Tanzania is the legacy of European colonialism in Africa. Before World War I, Tanzania was a German colonial territory; after the war it became colony of the British Empire until 1964.
Leaps in the standard of living for many in Tanzania are measured by moving from a mud-brick home to a house with stone walls, perhaps followed by connecting that home to the electrical grid. Despite their impoverished circumstances, however, Tanzanians are a generous people. Their culture emphasizes respect for others and most want little more than a better future for their children.
The overall lack of monetary means, however, has created a desert of educational and technological resources. The gap is unmistakable and, at first glance, insurmountable. What I saw there was the true size of the digital divide between those of us in first-world nations and those who happened to be born elsewhere.
As first-world economies advance, third-world nations will be left further and further behind. By the end of my stay in Tanzania, I had developed a deep desire to undertake some sort of effort, however modest, to make a difference. Because if everyone does nothing, then the wealth and opportunity gaps between first-world nations and their third-world counterparts will only get wider.
There are two glaring needs if we hope to address the digital divide in Tanzania and elsewhere. One is hardware resources. There is a long history of individuals trying to address this in Africa. What happens if you provide computers to a society, but do not provide the knowledge to use them? They do not get used. This is all too often the story all over Africa.
I sat down and outlined what I believed the requirements would be in Moshi. Hardware is one big problem, but just as important is providing curriculum. There are many ways to get computer systems and many free online resources for programming, but what about all of the other aspects of information technology, such as support, networking, and security?
On my notepad, I wrote TestOut? beside both hardware and curriculum and circled it. TestOut was going to be key considering the need for hardware resources beyond a few desktop systems. The project I now had in mind would require the participation of Mwenge Catholic University, the University of Georgia for support and research, and TestOut to cover the gaps in hardware and curriculum.
My goal was to start small in my desire to begin to bridge the digital divide in east Africa. The first step would be to help bring changes and opportunity Mwenge Catholic University. Spreading out from MWECAU and Moshi, we could begin to lay the foundation for a digital economy.
Partners in providing opportunity
My first opportunity to change the dynamic came at the TestOut Experience Conference in July 2019 in Salt Lake City. The conference was not only a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the curriculum that TestOut is developing for the future, but a chance to meet and network with TestOut personnel, as well as other IT educators from across the United States.
I received a lot of feedback, picked up many tips, cherry-picked some good ideas, and talked shop. While I certainly was able to interact with other instructors at the conference, I had the TestOut staff in mind. I felt I already knew TestOut as a company, but I knew that what I planned to ask was no small request. It was not like individuals in Tanzania and the university had the sums of money to purchase LabSim licenses.
What I wanted was the university to have access to everything that TestOut and LabSim could offer. I planned to put TestOut's mission statement, Making a difference in a person's lives, through education using breakthrough technology, to the test.
I first listened very carefully to everything at the conference and particularly to Noel Vallejo, founder and CEO of TestOut. I reached out to various executives and briefly spoke with Mr. Vallejo, and everyone was very encouraging.
After the conference, I went over the details with Travis Wilde, the K-12 Executive Account Manager for the eastern United States on TestOut's providing the LabSim access and TestOut curriculum to the university. This led to talks about conducting a drive for hardware for Tanzania so there would be sufficient systems to use LabSim.
This, in turn, required meetings between those in the project, which spread across 10 time zones. After many Zoom meetings between Travis in Utah, University of Georgia staff, and Mwenge Catholic University staff, a joint TestOut-University of Georgia-MWECAU project was born with the hope of changing the IT education dynamic in Moshi — and building from there.
Our plan now is to deploy additional computers and the curriculum by the start of the semester in Tanzania. It won't solve the problem, but it will make the world a better digital place. I am most grateful to the University of Georgia, and to everyone at TestOut, for not letting this opportunity pass by to make a difference in Africa.
Help Is On the Way: TestOut Corporation and Anthony Edwards are working together to send computers and educational software to Tanzania.