Only 11 percent of people in Zambia use the Internet. In North America, 76 percent use it. That disparity has prompted tech giants like Facebook and Google to try to solve that problem. Last week, Facebook launched its Internet.org app in Zambia. Internet.org will be offered to cellphone users in the country with no charge for the data. Through the app, Zambians will be able to search for information such as job openings, health and weather (and, of course, use Facebook).
The company claims that providing technology will lift millions out of poverty. But some scholars are wary about the idea. And there's research to back them up.
1. A program gave a laptop to every student in rural Peru, but it didn't improve math and language scores.
A program gave a laptop to every student in 319 elementary schools in rural Peru. Although computer access increased substantially, there was no improvement in test scores in math and language, a study found. However, some positive effects were found in cognitive skills and verbal fluency, the study said.
2. A free texting service in Uganda allowed people to ask questions about family planning and sexual health — but sexual health in the area didn't improve.
Because misconceptions about sexual health are widespread in Uganda, Google teamed up with the Grameen Technology Center in 2013 to offer free text messaging services through which people could ask about sexual health, family planning and local health services. Users asked questions like "What does HIV reinfection mean?" and "Does urinating after sex kill sperm?" and received answers to their questions via text, all for free.
Researchers examined results from the free texting service to see if better access to the information would improve people's knowledge of safe and unsafe sexual behaviors. The study, published in Information Technologies and International Development, found that the service "led to an increase in promiscuity and no shift in perception of norms," meaning that even though people who used the service knew how to protect themselves from diseases like AIDS and syphilis, there was not an increase in condom use or a change in attitudes.
3. When you give free away free Internet, inequality grows.
Even though some claim a technology intervention can even the playing field, studies have found that introducing technology in a low-income school amplifies inequality among students. Kentaro Toyama, a former Microsoft researcher in rural villages in India and a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in the Boston Review that technology’s value lies in the user's capacity to utilize it. He invited readers to imagine this scenario:
“You and a poor farmer from a remote village are each given 24 hours to raise as much money as you can for the charity of your choice. You are both provided unfettered access to an Internet-connected PC, and nothing else, with which to fulfill the task. Who would be able to raise more money? You would, because of your education, social ties, self-confidence, and organizational capacities. The technology is exactly the same in both cases, so the difference is due to qualities associated with the person.”
4. In the U.S., giving low-income families a computer at home didn't help kids do better in school.
One study published in the American Economic Journal wanted to see if kids in the United States who don't have computers at home would do better in school if they had one, so the researchers randomly gave free computers to homes that didn't have them before. The results? Not impressive.
"Although computer ownership and use increased substantially, we find no effects on any educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance, and disciplinary actions," the study said. In other words, having a computer didn't really help kids from low-income families do better in school.
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