(Note: So, I wrote this post in response to a discussion board question for one of my classes but wanted to share it with a broader audience. The topic was on mobile technologies and the institutions investing in wired and/or wireless technologies.)
I cannot stress enough the value of an infrastructure for wired and wireless technologies in developing countries.
While everyone does point to India and China and many other developing countries as examples of mobile technology use as a leapfrogging mechanism, I’m wary of being too enthusiastic. Largely because there is a very big difference in the kind of quality of technology and information access that is gained through cellphone use than from tablet or laptop use and Internet access. And honestly, the vast majority of cellphone users in the developing world are not using smartphones. While yes, it’s fantastic that cellphones are being used to convey information in ways that weren’t before, I don’t think that’s enough. I don’t think it’s enough that we hold middle and upper-class urban students (whether in developing or developed countries) accountable for creating content on the web from their computers while we hope that mobile device use will continue to soar and further connect the rural poor in Thailand. Having the physical infrastructure is just a MUST and I fear that all the media attention surrounding mobile use expansion will give many governments in developing countries an excuse not to invest in universal broadband access.
The other aspect that I find worrisome is that even when people are using smartphones to access the Internet, because it’s inevitably a phone and not a computer, there is virtually no scaffolding or guidance for their online information searching, consumption, or production. Digital literacy instruction in the developing world is scattered and typically takes on a piece-meal approach and is fragmented across the board, but when you throw mobile devices into the mix, we realize that we don’t have standards, assessment, curriculum, or honestly much precedent for mobile technology education. On the most basic level, seeing as mobile technology use is going to continue to rise over the next decade, students should learn digital literacy and citizenship skills in context of their mobile devices.
As a final note, I was reading an article about mobile device usage in Indonesia and came across two fascinating statistics. First, in 2010, the total number of Internet users was 45 million (or 18% of their population). Second, in 2010, the total number of actual Internet subscriptions was 9 million. That’s only 25% of all their Internet users! Instead, 75% of Internet users in Indonesia are accessing the web through Internet cafes and cellphones that come Facebook enabled (not with any data plan, but just Facebook enabled). If only 25% of the Internet using population have personal Internet subscriptions, that seriously changes how we look at the issue of digital literacy development–having your own Internet access at home and checking your email at an Internet cafe are two *very* different kinds of quality of access.
Finally, coming back to the issue of infrastructure–this example is exactly why I think we cannot discount the value of investing in physical wired (and wireless) infrastructure in developing countries.