Broadband Literacy Goes Global

In the poverty-ridden province of Ningxia, the personal computing revolution - forget the Internet - has yet to arrive.

"All politics is local."
—Former U.S. House Speaker Tip ONeill

"All development is local."
— World Bank Vice President Mohamed Muhsin

In the poverty-ridden province of Ningxia, the personal computing revolution — forget the Internet — has yet to arrive. While American children in rich metropolitan areas beam each other contact information on their Handspring Visors and know enough to debate the merits of cable modems versus DSL, their Chinese counterparts are making do without running water. At a primary school in this largely Muslim region, hundreds of Chinese children share one computer.

Given a chance, though, theyre not likely to lag behind for long. When the students get to actually see and use the one machine they share, theyre "completely absorbed," says Mohamed Muhsin, chief information officer and a vice president at the World Bank, of what he saw on his latest visit to Ningxia two weeks ago. "Theyre like sponges, soaking up water."

Even though the gross domestic product of China is rising 8 percent per year, itll be a long time before these children get their own PCs. But it doesnt mean they cant join this cultural revolution. It just has to be put in perspective and pursued creatively.

For, in Ningxia, the biggest need is education. The computer is not an end in itself; its a means to an end.

In poor, backward areas of China and of other countries playing catch-up, building schools and buying computers can be meaningless. The most pressing need is for teachers. Otherwise a school is just a building and a multimedia center is just a bunch of electronics. And the problem with finding teachers is, theyre often bright enough to resist moving to poor, backward regions.

Instead of investing in hydropower, the World Bank is now investing in brainpower. In the past five years, the global poverty-fighting financier has become a leading implementer of long-distance interactive education systems. You might say that President James D. Wolfensohns outfit wants to be known as the Knowledge Bank.

In Nairobi, Kenya, for instance, a distance-learning center backed by the bank offers a course on economic journalism. Even though the class is held on Saturdays, the lessons play to a standing-room crowd. And the lessons are beamed to students at centers in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and four other African nations.

In Mexico, the bank works with the Monterey Institute to offer courses for mayors to help them use limited financial resources to run working cities.

But the path to ending poverty is economic growth, and the key to generating long-term economic growth is education. Without enough engineers, business managers and the like, there can be no growth.

So the answer to Ningxias problem is not to bring teachers to the schools, but to bring the schools to the teachers. That is a job for networking.

China just happens to be building a nationwide broadband network, even though the combination of fiber and satellite transmission likely will cost tens of billions of dollars over the next few years.

Theres still the matter of creating a learning network. The Hope Foundation in China has built a multimedia education room for $20,000. But Muhsin figures, even with low building costs, it still will take $1 million or $2 million to build two-room learning centers replete with large screens for teaching large groups, two-way audio and video connections to communicate with remote educators, computers and Internet connections.

Which means China could spend a couple of billion dollars per year and only begin to scratch the surface of the number of school districts it could aid.

But if China intends on keeping up its growth rate — so that someday Ningxia can pipe in water along with digital information — it must invest in information technology.

The working theorem: If you improve the education of the people, the economy will take care of itself.

Tom Steinert-Threlkeld is Vice President of Ziff Davis Medias Business Media Group and a former Editor-in-Chief at Interactive Week. He can be reached at [email protected]