Internet and electricity are also basic needs for South African schools

Basic infrastructure for every school.
Basic infrastructure for every school.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and these inequalities are particularly apparent in educational infrastructure. While some children don’t have toilets, brick classrooms or electricity, others go to schools with broadband, computer labs, laptops or tablets, which they start using before they even go to school. Such technologies are often flaunted as markers of superior education, and used to differentiate expensive private or semi-private schools from the cheap or free government schools.

According to our constitution, everyone has the right to equality, and to a ‘basic’ education. In addition, the state needs to take reasonable measures to progressively make it possible for more citizens to access further education. Should internet access and electrical infrastructure be considered part of this ‘basic’ package that must be made available to all South African children? If schools introduce children to internet use, isn’t that a  ‘reasonable’ way to facilitate their access to further education later in their lives?  I would argue that it is.

Much of my own research focuses on the problems of technological solutionism. In other words, it’s a serious and often expensive mistake to believe that you can ‘solve’ difficult social problems such as education with technology. Technology projects are often poorly conceived forms of conspicuous consumption. Actual educational adoption is slow and tends to amplify existing pedagogic practices – what teachers already do. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that,  if infrastructure is not in place in some places, and is made accessible elsewhere, (particularly a highly enabling infrastructure such as the internet) you are effectively guaranteeing that the system perpetuates and magnifies existing inequalities.

Equal education have shown us how desperately some South African schools need sanitation and classrooms – children don’t have a hygienic toilet to use and principals struggle to access and maintain simple educational technologies such as desks and textbooks.  So it seems very Marie Antoinette to say ‘give them internet’. At the same time equal education increasingly does require connectivity, electricity, and creative, well-trained teachers and support staff who can make the most of available infrastructure. This means understanding local circumstances and practices in order to help teachers and young people to access and create online resources and networks via appropriate technologies and in local languages.  See for example, what the Shuttleworth Foundation managed to achieve a couple of years ago with basic feature phones and publishing mobile novels in isiXhosa on MXit, and more recently there’s this popular user-generated digital library which records local knowledge in isiZulu. For resilient local connectivity, there’s  this promising looking Kenyan-designed BRCK or ‘backup generator to the Internet’, which could work well with mobile devices.

South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Minister Angie Motshekga  has invited the public to comment on the Draft Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure.My colleagues and I prepared some comments in response to the invitation and in support of the campaign by local NGO Equal Education for basic norms and standards:

We are a group of researchers from the University of Cape Town. Our projects focus specifically on digital and mobile communication in young people’s access to education and participation in youth culture. This work makes us painfully aware of the challenges faced by educators and learners in the South African education system, the barriers to young people’s participation in higher education, and the ongoing role of infrastructural inequalities originating in apartheid education. For example, in 2006, 17 percent of schools had no electricity, 12 percent had no reliable water source on site, 68 percent had no computers, 80 percent had no libraries, and 24 percent had grossly overcrowded classrooms, housing 45 learners or more (South Africa, 2008). Inequalities in adoption of computers and the Internet in this context has been documented relatively extensively in the academic literature, including our own research (see for example, Haupt, 2008; Kreutzer, 2009; Deumert, 2009; Walton, 2010; Pallitt, 2008; Prinsloo & Rowsell, 2012; Prinsloo & Walton, 2008; Schoon, 2012; Venter, 2012; Walton & and Kreutzer, 2009; Walton & Donner, 2012; Walton, Marsden, Hassreiter, & Allen, 2012; Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010). Given the findings of this research we support Equal Education’s call for equalisation of the available infrastructure in South African schools, and their campaign for Minimum Norms and Standards for school infrastructure. In particular our comments on the draft norms and standards highlight areas within our expertise, notably the need to make electricity, Internet access and crucial educational spaces such as libraries, computer labs and media centres available to all learners in South Africa.

 Here is the document with our comments: Comments on norms and standards (pdf).

In my case, the comment was informed by recent research that I conducted with Jonathan Donner on a study of young people and internet use in public libraries and cybercafes in Cape Town. As a result of the study I became even more aware of the extent to which public library infrastructure for young people is grossly inadequate and overextended in Cape Town. To a large extent this can be attributed to the way people turn to public access facilities such as libraries and cybercafes to compensate for the inadequacies of school infrastructure and availability, and the excessively expensive cost of airtime and out-of-bundle mobile data in South Africa.

‘The doors of learning and culture shall be opened’ – realizing this goal of the Freedom Charter involves more than providing a desk and a toilet or plugging a device into an electrical socket and connecting it to the internet. But I fear that if we don’t provide these basic infrastructures, the dream of equal education will continue receding  further and further out of our reach.

Race/gender/games

Cultural borrowing in World of Warcraft
Everything they say in this article about the fake Jamaican accents of the WoW trolls is true.I spent some time playing a troll and have usually joined troll guilds on a role-playing server. It is interesting that most players with troll characters mimic the Jamaican accents of the non-player characters.
The article mentions the borrowings from Native American culture, but they don’t mention that the pseudo-savannah landscapes of the Barrens were clearly modelled on an African theme. I played when I lived in London, and I spent a lot of time hanging out in the Barrens because I missed South Africa and could get some virtual sunshine out in the savannah while waiting for the fun PvP Alliance raids on Crossroads. The Barrens was like the Kruger Park, with lions, gazelle, zebra, giraffes and ostrichy things all over the place. (Except of course that you were supposed to slaughter the animals. And except of course for the orcs, elves, undead, centaurs and purple raptors charging around all over the place.) The high rate of “gankings” was also appropriate.
A collection of academic readings about race in games This topic is really neglected and begs for some South African research.
Bow Nigger A brilliant piece, often cited as one of the original examples of “New Games Journalism”.
Gamasutra’s report on the Girls ‘n Games conference Note to self: This conference sounds like a good one to bookmark.
And, to continue the theme I started with my post about spam p0rn, here’s an article about sex in vdeogames apparently a rapidly growing area of the industry.

Digital divide and social networking

I’d not paid much attention to the MySpace debates until recently. I get very bored with the American paranoia about children online, since US parents are so good at being afraid for all the wrong reasons. Their reasons predictably involve teen sex, pedophiles, and (when they need some variety) computer games. Remember that these same terrified people happily drive SUVs and vote for G.W. Bush. What’s a greater threat to the future of their children? Some steamy text chat or their current level of carbon emissions?
Nonetheless, here’s a more sensible response: a very interesting interview with danah boyd and Henry Jenkins about MySpace. Jenkins and boyd discuss some of the implications of the moral panics about paedophiles and predators, notably the calls to restrict access to certain sites from schools and libraries.
Henry Jenkins argues that children who have to rely on public facilities for internet access might be disadvantaged by their limited experience of the online social networks which are becoming such a powerful social force.

“Now, the problem shifts from concerns about technical access to concerns about participation in the key social and cultural experiences which are defining the emerging generation’s relationship to these technologies. What a kid can do at home with unlimited access is very different from what a kid can do in a public library with ten or fifteen minutes of access at a time and with no capacity to store and upload information to the web. We further handicap these children by placing filters on the Internet which restrict their access to information which is readily available to their more affluent classmates. And now this legislation would restrict their ability to participate in social networks or to belong to online communities. The result will be to further isolate children from poorer economic backgrounds, to cut kids at risk from support systems which exist within their peer culture, and to limit the social and cultural experiences of kids who are already behind in acquiring important networking skills that will shape their professional futures. All of this will compound what we are now calling the participation gap. The early discussion of the digital divide assumed that the most important concern was insuring access to information as if the web were simply a data bank. Its power comes through participation within its social networks. The authors of the law are reading MySpace and other social software exclusively in terms of their risks; they are not focusing on the opportunities they offer for education and personal growth. In protecting children from those risks, they would cut them off from those educational benefits.”

When studying the elaborate international networking practiced by online gamers, I’ve often wondered about whether South African children are missing out on something significant by not participating. Are South African children really missing out on new forms of online cultural capital? To what extent will a lack of knowledge of social networking practices hinder their social mobility? What happens when we replace the idea of a “digital divide” with the idea of a “participation gap”? By talking about participation, the discussion is less technologically determinist than we usually see in comments about the “digital divide”. Still, it replaces this with the idea that normative elite practices must be copied by all. And that all children would benefit from participating in this network.
Here’s the full paper

Broadening access – US project

A project to provide free wireless broadband – if this becomes a reality it should make broadband accessible to Americans of all income brackets.
Can’t see anyone who’d be prepared to foot the bill for doing this here in South Africa, given the reluctance to provide other basics. Knysna, Tshwane and Joburg municipalities have smaller scale projects in the pipeline, or just getting off the ground, including wifi in Knysna and bpl in Tshwane (broadband over power lines).
Thanks to Adele for this one.

Long tails and fat cats: Social networks and inequality

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the “long tail” and online media for about a year now. The long tail is a distribution graph. For example, you might graph the number of blog readers for each blog, and arrange them in descending order of popularity – you’d find that a small number of blogs would have a large number of readers, and an incredibly large number of blogs (or the long tail) have a small number of readers. The long tail is used to explain how the diversity of online audiences and content on the web have fuelled the growth of new media aggregators and filterers such as Google.
How the long tail works – for some
Here’s a wry comment on the the failure of the Excite search engine>. Although the most popular searches on Excite were for predictable terms such as “sex”, “Britney Spears” and “mp3”, 97% of their traffic came from the “long tail” – a hugely diverse range of pretty unique queries. While Excite failed to figure out what to do with their long tail, Google (which copied Overture) put it to work. They are still systematically “optimising” their techniques of making money from this diverse audience — by using targeted keyword advertising. This is a huge shift from traditional marketing, which sees audiences as segments or categories. For example, the games industry produces loads of games tailored for “18-35 year old males” (naked women on the box, big weapons, lots of blood and gore), and a much smaller number intended for “tweenie girls” (hot pink box, Barbie etc).
How tagging works
The long-tail approach to marketing doesn’t categorise an audience, but rather plays a game of “tag”. Newspapers traditionally categorise a story as “news”, “sport”, “entertainment” etc. Tags, or “folksonomies” work by breaking away from fixed categories, and allow an organic and evolving vocabulary for labelling or annotation of content. Bloggers tag their posts, and social sites such as delicious allow users to tag content. In keyword advertising, an advertiser “tags” their product or service with a set of keywords, and bids for these keywords on a search engine such as Google or Yahoo, and then waits for a user to match the tag with a search query.
These new patterns of media use have been seen to herald the death of the blockbuster. It’s argued that, as people are free to choose from more diverse sources of entertainment, they are less likely to all flock en masse to see the same films and listen to the same music.
The long tail has also been heralded as good news for small, specialised content producers, who now use the web and search engines to target smaller groups of people with very specific interests. From the perspective of developing countries, then, this surely sounds more democratic, and a move away from homogenised “one-size-fits-all” mass produced “McMedia”. Sadly, it also suggests all sorts of new recipes for inequality – the long tail is indeed a “power law” in more senses than one.
First, here’s a sober explanation of who in fact profits from the long tail model of media distribution. The long tail allows fat cat profits – in many cases by producing content for the fat cats for free: In this article, Where’s the money in the long tail, Ventureblog argues that the long tail model only turns a significant profit for media aggregators (e.g. Yahoo’s flickr) and filterers(e.g. search engines, who get to make money from directing the traffic. So there’s a strong centralising tendency emerging as people attempt to make sense of the diversity.
Second, as social networks settle, it’s getting harder and harder to get the kind of attention needed to make any kind of a splash — without a major marketing campaign, that is.
The “long tails” seen in graphs of blog audiences do mean that the vast majority of blogs will be read by only a handful of people. Increasingly, well-capitalised media organisations have huge advantages here, since they have the resources to create content, and more importantly, are able to market the content to audiences via other forms of media.
Blogs to riches – the haves and have nots of the blogging boom.
Most residents of the blogoburbs who talk about social networking and social software don’t feel the need to extend their theories to account for the position of whole groups of people who are not connected, or who occupy a marginal position within global social networks – these people are not in the Rolodex.
Here are two ways that developing countries are probably being systematically marginalised in the social networks that rule the web.
* The search engines favour older, more established content through the time bias in ranking systems – this is a particular problem for those in developing countries who arrived at the Internet party unfashionably late. It remains to be seen whether new localised and community-based versions of search will be able to undo this bias.
* It’s who you know – online networking is about making connections with powerful celebrity players, whose viral marketing will get you attention. Alternatively, you need to be promoted in the media consumed by your target audience.
Systems such as Google or wikipedia are too immense to comprehend easily, and their social effects are similarly complex. Nicholas Carr challenges the technorati and their implicit trust in these statistically “optimised” systems. As he points out, just because something (like the Google algorithm) is technically elegant, doesn’t mean we should accept it and all its social consequences.

Where I have a problem is in [the] implicit trust that the optimization of the system, the achievement of the mathematical perfection of the macroscale, is something to be desired. To people, “optimization” is a neutral term. The optimization of a complex mathematical, or economic, system may make things better for us, or it may make things worse. It may improve society, or degrade it. We may not be able to apprehend the ends, but that doesn’t mean the ends are going to be good.

Read Carr’s whole entryhere .

Blogging Beyond the Men’s Club

Since anyone can write a Weblog, why is the blogosphere dominated by white males?
By Steven Levy
Newsweek
March 21 issue – At a recent Harvard conference on bloggers and the media, the most pungent statement came from cyberspace. Rebecca MacKinnon, writing about the conference as it happened, got a response on the “comments” space of her blog from someone concerned that if the voices of bloggers overwhelm those of traditional media, “we will throw out some of the best … journalism of the 21st century.” The comment was from Keith Jenkins, an African-American blogger who is also an editor at The Washington Post Magazine [a sister publication of NEWSWEEK]. “It has taken ‘mainstream media’ a very long time to get to [the] point of inclusion,” Jenkins wrote. “My fear is that the overwhelmingly white and male American blogosphere … will return us to a day where the dialogue about issues was a predominantly white-only one.”
Read more