Building online skills in off-line realities
The SolarSPELL Initiative (Solar Powered Educational Learning Library)
The growth rate of new Internet users has declined over the past few years, despite billions of dollars being spent on attempting to provide access and get people connected. Yet, the focus on simply getting more people connected is — and always will be — insufficient, because lack of access is not the central problem. Skills to navigate, identify, evaluate, effectively use, and create information are what’s truly missing. Information literacy and digital proficiency must accompany connectivity, or else inequalities — digital and otherwise — continue to worsen. This article draws from the literature on digital inclusion and information literacy to make the case that empowering, Internet-ready skills will only be developed if a concerted effort is made to build these skills. We argue that Internet-ready skills, such as how to carry out research, and how to distinguish whether information is trustworthy or not, can be — and indeed, may best be — taught in an off-line environment, before the Internet reaches the as-yet-unconnected. We draw from the in-field experience of the SolarSPELL (Solar Powered Educational Learning Library) initiative. SolarSPELL is an ultra-portable, rugged, solar-powered, digital library that generates an off-line WiFi hotspot to which any WiFi-capable device can connect and freely surf the library’s expansive, localized content. The innovative, solar-powered technology means that the library can reach those in off-grid, unconnected locations. Yet, what distinguishes the SolarSPELL initiative’s approach to introducing digital technology to schools is that the libraries are matched with locally based trainers who can support the necessary development of Internet-ready skills.
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