Critics are wary of Britain′s move to close digital gap | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 19.02.2010
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Critics are wary of Britain's move to close digital gap

Britain is taking drastic action to help close the digital divide between rich and poor in the country, giving free laptops and internet access to people who qualify. But the scheme has also come under fire.

Schoolchildren in Germany sitting at a computer

Increasingly, computers are part of school life across Europe

Britain has decided to take drastic action to help close the digital divide between rich and poor in the country, providing free laptops and internet access to people who qualify. But the new scheme has come under fire from some quarters.

Under its plan to position itself as a "digital single market," the European Union has set a goal of universal broadband Internet access by 2013. Some member states, like Sweden and the Netherlands, have all but reached that goal.

Aimed at families with children

In the UK, however, fear of a widening gap between those who can afford home computing and those who can't, led the country to develop its Home Access Programme, which offers free laptops, broadband access, as well as support and advice from a variety of partner organizations, to low-income families with children between the ages of seven and 14 years old.

Indian slum children play at a computer provided by the Hole In the Wall project.

Other nations, like India, are also moving to give the poor access to computers

Britain's top agency for information and communication technology in education (Becta) sponsors the plan, which was rolled out in mid-January after a year-long pilot test program in the town of Oldham and the county of Suffolk.

Since then, Becta has reported a flood of telephone inquiries from people looking to see if they are eligible.

Like elsewhere in Britain, the schools in Oldham increasingly use the Internet to communicate with homes. And that makes initiatives like the Home Access Programme so important, said Dave Barter, the manager of the City Learning Center educational initiative in Oldham.

"For the last 15 years or so, there's been a new divide developing on top of all the other disadvantages we know that people from low-income families have in education," Barter told DW. "So if governments aren't doing something about that, what they're allowing is a double disadvantage to reduce the life chances of young people from low-income families."

Tackling the 'double disadvantage'

Nine-year-old Rehaan Khokar and his mother took part in the year-long initial pilot program. Both of them say it has changed their lives.

Rehaan uses the laptop at home to practice math and spelling with various online educational games: "I need to improve my spelling, and because I've got quite good in my maths, I'm doing spelling now," he said.

Part of the program also involves educating parents who might not be up-to-speed on the latest internet technology. Andy Stobbie, who was responsible for the pilot program in Manchester, explained that many of the families never had a computer prior to the project.

"With our adult education site we're hoping to improve the education of the parents so they can help the children and try to get them involved in their education from that point of view, and improve their own ability and their own prospects," he said.

'Now I can help myself'

Rehaan Khokar's mother, Kanwal, says having internet access has made her much more independent.

"Before, I used to go everywhere to find out, asking people to tell me where to go, and what to do," Kanwal said. "And now it is so easy...any knowledge I want, any courses I want to do, any phone number I need - I don't need the help of anyone, I can help myself."

But not all the reports on the Home Access Programme - which is backed by 300 million pounds (350 million euros) in government funds - have been so positive. One parliamentarian has warned that the plan is open to abuse since there is no way to keep recipients from selling the free computers for cash.

Fencing the vouchers?

Conservative MP Mark Pritchard has asked Schools Secretary Ed Balls for more safeguards to prevent misuse of the vouchers, worth up to 528 pounds.

Children sitting at a computer

To be eligible, families must have kids between seven and 14 years of age

Organizers with Becta acknowledged they couldn't guarantee parents wouldn't sell the laptops, but a spokesman for the program told BBC News Service: "There are a number of robust anti-fraud measures in place."

The group said it was monitoring E-Bay and pawn shops. Also, before their children can take part, parents have to sign a form saying they will use the laptops for the correct purpose.

However, Pritchard told BBC news service: "There is very little policing of the scheme and there is nothing to stop a minority of recipients from selling their laptops in exchange for cash. I haven't seen anybody down the market selling them, but I have been informed by my constituents that there are people who have sold them."

Key supplier backs out

Furthermore, key computer supplier RM Education recently backed out of the group of businesses and organizations that are meant to provide goods and services to the Home Access Programme.

On Wednesday, February 17, RM told online news source IT PRO that the business model for involvement in the project wasn't sound.

"It was not viable for a long-term roll-out," RM was reported as saying. The commercial returns were "quite poor."

Author: Lars Bevanger (jen)
Editor: Mark Mattox

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