Sunday, March 20, 2005

Digitial divide success in rural Louisiana

Today's Advertiser carries a great Associated Press story, "Internet program hooks up needy La. households," on page 8C under a small grey banner "Digital Divide." I hope that banner indicates that we'll start seeing more such stories. Unfortunately, you can't find the story through the Advertister's website. But a little googling leads to locating the same story under the name "Grambling's Internet Program Wins Award for Hooking Up Households"—just scroll down.

It is a basically a success story about a project out of Grambling that aims to crack the toughest nut in the digital divide: the low levels of participation among the rural poor and especially the rural poor who are also black. Sensibly, the program works by tapping into the community structures, in this case local churches, to help develop internet skills.

It's a good story; I'll excerpt a big chunk in case the linked-to text goes away:
In the last year, Erica Sawyer, a single mother of two living on a teacher's salary, has grown closer to her children and seen them blossom in their schoolwork.

What difference does a year make? Sawyer, a Farmerville resident, was one of 50 low-income, Black households selected to participate in a Grambling State University Internet program studying the “digital divide” that residents like Sawyer must fight to bridge in rural areas.

“The program is a great blessing to my family. I've never been able to afford a home computer on my own with kids,” she said. “On Saturday mornings, instead of my kids just watching cartoons, we're all on the Internet together learning...”

“The prevailing philosophy is there's no point in putting broadband (Internet) in rural areas because no one will use it. But our preliminary data shows we're about to blow the doors off that,” he said...

At New Hope Baptist Church in Homer, one 13-year-old student who was on the verge of dropping out of school, started regularly attending the lab. He is now an honors student, said lab moderator Gussie Young, the pastor's wife...

“The prevailing philosophy is there's no point in putting broadband (Internet) in rural areas because no one will use it. But our preliminary data shows we're about to blow the doors off that,” he said...

The Southern Growth Policies Board, a public policy think tank in North Carolina, recently granted the program its 2005 Regional Innovator Award for Louisiana.

A lot of the participants in the Louisiana Rural Internet Connection started out with no computer knowledge at all and were “afraid of the technology,” said Margaret Lowery, GSU CareerNET director, and some could not even use a mouse.

But they have all come a long way. The children's grades have improved and they are using e-mail and banking online. One woman even put her small flower shop online, she said.

Essentially, the Internet usage data collected has come to mirror the middle class, Bennie Lowery said.
While lack of accesss to a wide range of modern technologies is worst in rural areas (this program had to use satellite technology), it's an issue everywhere. In urban areas poorer districts are always the "least and last" to be served by commercial providers. The lessons that programs like this teach about lowering barriers to usage, working through the community, and providing good training are well worth learning from. But what is really invaluable is that such studies should dispel that idea that some people don't want or need and somehow wouldn't benefit from access to the same advanced technology that the rest of us find increasingly necessary.

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