Do you remember when you first touched a computer? What did you use it for? Was it to find information?
When I first started using a computer, when I was about 12, it wasn’t really a information seeking device, at least not the way I used it. We had Word Perfect, and I used it to write stories about trolls. I also played Oregon Trail. In high school, my best friend figured out how to create an online identity for us on a local area network, and we chatted with other people on an early version of IM.
That was all just before the Internet had permeated every aspect of our lives. Now, I can’t even remember how I found information before computers. Can you?
Before the start of the Watoto kwa Watoto project, in which kids are taught to use tablet computers through play, we ask our group of 13-15 year olds a series of questions about their relationship to technology and finding information.
Two of the 15 children reported having a used a computer at some time in their lives. Three of the 15 reported having used a tablet computer, although they may have been referring to the tablet that the librarian brought to their school as part of this program. Three students reported having an email address, but when asked to write down their email address, two of them wrote down a PO Box address and the third did not know his email address.
When tested on their ability to use the technology, 4/5 of the students were able to turn on the iPad, although sometimes it took them a minute or more. Conversely, only 1/5 of them were able to turn the computer on.
Once the computer was on, only one student was able to open a Word document, and none of the students were able to open the Internet. When the students were asked a question that they didn’t know the answer to (Who is the president of Mongolia?), none of them were able to use the Internet to answer the question. However, all of them reported that if given time, they would be able to find the answer. All cited an atlas as the source they would use, although eleven also said the information could be found on the computer.
Going through these surveys has made me think of all the things that we rely on computers for, and how amazing it is that for a large part of the globe, computers have a sort of mythical quality—they’re out there, somewhere, but not here.
In some ways, the process has also made me realize how limited computers actually are in some ways. Here’s a fun activity for you reading this—imagine a place that doesn’t rely on the internet. Try and think of a list a questions that they might be interested in that they could find on a computer. What questions would you ask? This is true with communication as well. Who would you recommend they communicate with? Here’s the trick– if they are going to email someone they know, it won’t work if they are the only ones they know with an email account. The truth is, the Internet is relevant to our lives because it’s relevant to the lives of the people and institutions that we interact with. If we want to go to the movies or the store, we look it up times and directions on-line. If we want to purchase something to be shipped, or send a document, we send information online to an organization or person who is also online. But in places where there is low online presence, you can’t do any of those things. How do we make the Internet relevant to these kids?
Well, our idea was that the kids would play around with the computers and figure out what they could use them for on their own. In a couple of weeks, we’ll conduct the same survey again. In addition to testing their skills, we’ll check out what they like about computers, and whether their expectations about computers have been fulfilled. I’m really curious to see what they’re using them for.