Even before COVID-19 changed our lives, many under-resourced populations experienced difficulties in obtaining, or even accessing, computers that would allow them to better communicate, learn, advance and earn a living. Nowadays, when millions are home-bound or constrained, and must communicate, work and learn using digital means, the existence of a digital divide is even more substantial, impairing the most basic needs — from education and healthcare to employment and communication.
As it is, companies and employees are being forced to embrace remote working arrangements facilitated by various video conferencing tools, while similar solutions help everyone else (especially the elderly who are at high risk for infection) to utilize digital technology to communicate with family members and friends, and basically stay in touch with the outside world.
But while many find it extremely hard to cope without access to information and communication technology, the digital divide has especially far-reaching consequences when it comes to education. For children from low-income families, inadequate access to technology and lack of computers halts their ability to study, and isolates them from their schools and fellow pupils. This is no longer an option now that school closures have moved classes online and quarantine restrictions have intensified the need for computers.
With the help of sharing-economy methodologies, a project in Israel is set to reduce this digital divide. Starting with a pilot at three schools, a plan is being set so that communities throughout the country may help themselves without requiring substantial funds to buy new computers. The three schools are situated in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and the Bedouin town of Kuseife in the Southern District of Israel. They encompass hundreds of children, many of them without computers or digital access.
“Of 371 students in our school, only 49 have a computer at home, and only 46 have internet,” says the Kuseife school headmaster, attesting to the challenges ahead. Such a substantial gap is harmful and disruptive in both a pre- as well as a post- COVID-19 educational system, and it is clear that digital infrastructure is needed to allow a shift to virtual classrooms. Such infrastructure may include stable electricity supply, functional computers and internet connectivity, which are currently lacking.
The project is headed by WEconomize, an Israeli sharing-economy and complementary-currencies powerhouse, which works with municipalities, governmental bodies and large organizations. WEconomize and numerous additional organizations, NGOs and companies — such as Migdal Group, TOP3, and the Fund for Innovative Education — have been recruited to bridge this digital divide by Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin’s desire is to promote remote and online education in these complicated times. While the rest of the partnering organizations, NGOs and companies are mostly focused on finding funds and one-time donations, WEconomize is utilizing self-devised practices to design a sustainable solution that will harness the sharing economy to solve this issue.
When fighting the digital divide, each school is faced with an enormous challenge which may require substantial funding, as computers and internet are expensive. In contrast, the sharing-economy model seeks out under-utilized resources and capabilities so that the school communities (pupils, teachers, parents, their families, and the organizations where they work) find they often have more than enough under-used and older computers that may be refurbished and supplied to those children in need.
The community also has the knowledge required for refurbishing — or could be easily instructed how to do so, and then to pass along that knowledge to others.
After locating the required computers in the community, refurbishing and reallocating them, the pupils who receive the computers are then directed on proper usage, and may use a website and online assistance when in need (again, via community members). A proper network design also includes a short mentoring process by which a school with a successfully executed project will then mentor another school, and so on.
Using time as social currency
Everyone in the school community has capabilities they can contribute, even if they lack other assets or resources. The project purveyors harness those capabilities, and thereby avoid having those who receive the computers see it as charity, which may potentially make them feel guilty, sad or indebted.
Instead, the project does not end with a pupil getting a computer. Every such pupil (alongside their family) is paying back the community with a predetermined number of hours — some invested back in the process (by collecting computers, assisting other pupils with their newly refurbished computers), and some invested in the community in various other productive ways. This builds a mechanism that preserves the project as well as allowing the pupils and their families to interact and build meaningful relationships.
The endgame result
According to education officials, it is estimated that at least 200,000 under-resourced children in Israel (almost ten percent of students in the country) require computers. And while this method may assist many of them, the digital divide challenge worldwide is staggering, with estimations that around 3.6 billion people are without digital access.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to close in over 130 countries which has influenced over 90 percent of the world’s student population. Utilizing a network solution and sharing-economy processes to mitigate the digital divide will enable a swifter and cheaper response, and — in parallel — may also strengthen the vulnerable and disadvantaged communities by providing them with a strong sense of achievement and self-sufficiency.