STANFORD, CALIFORNIA - When people think of Silicon Valley, they imagine a place where people are well-educated, well-to-do technologists. Palo Alto has some of the most expensive real estate in the world — and innovation thrives there.
But if you go on the other side of town to East Palo Alto you see poverty and despair. High school dropout rates are 65 percent and only 10 percent of its children go to college. Most don’t have access to basic computer technology.
It is no different in nearby towns such as Oakland and San Jose — and other parts of the United States.
This is particularly unconscionable given the tech industry is so desperate for talent that it has to scour the world. Bridging America’s digital divide would not only uplift disadvantaged communities, it could help solve Silicon Valley’s skills shortage.
Why don’t all children have laptops and tablets — which are as necessary today as are textbooks?
Because these are too expensive. Laptops typically cost more than $500. The low-end iPhone 5C costs well over $500 without a carrier subsidy. The cheapest iPad, the mini, costs $300. Every product upgrade by Apple, Samsung, and Dell just includes a faster processor and new features, but the prices don’t go down to the point that they are affordable by everyone.
The Indian government realized a few years ago that the technology industry had no motivation to cater to the needs of the poor. With low-cost devices, the volume of shipments would surely increase, but margins would erode to the point that it wasn’t worthwhile for the big players.
So, India decided to design its own low-cost computer. In July 2010, the government unveiled the prototype of a $35 handheld touch-screen tablet and offered to buy 100,000 units from any vendor that would manufacture them at this price. It promised to have these to market within a year and then purchase millions more for students.
Three years later the Indian government delivered a 7-inch Android-powered tablet called “Aakash.” This had a processor as powerful as the first iPad, twice as much RAM memory, a LCD touchscreen which displays full-screen video, browses the web, displays eBooks, and plays video games. The manufacturer was a Canadian company, Datawind. The tablet is expected to be sold in the United States in early 2014.
I asked one of Palo Alto high school teacher Esther Wojcicki, to evaluate these tablets — to see if they were fit for American children. Esther gave six $40 Aakash tablets to her students at Palo Alto High — where the children of Silicon Valley’s elite study. The results were surprisingly positive. Although the children found the tablets to be slower than their iPads, they were usable — and fun.
I asked another friend, philanthropist Chris Evans, to try these with the children that he was helping. Evans donated 100 Aakash tablets to Communities in Schools of Wake County of Raleigh, North Carolina, for its “Smart Summer” program — a summer camp for disadvantaged African-American children. This helps 4 to 14-year-olds prepare for their next year’s studies. They loaded the tablets with science and math apps donated by Mango Learning and textbooks by Bookboard.
Evans tells the story of when he visited one of the sites where the tablets were being used by 30 children. “They were all running different learning programs — some teaching math, others reading. After a few minutes, one 5-year-old proudly announced he had achieved “level four” in a game involving addition (I was told he’d started the day at level one).
The administrators told me that the kids in the room were already becoming proficient in the skills they would be learning in school the coming fall. They were excited that kids who often find themselves at a disadvantage in class will start school actually better prepared than many who they’ll go to school with.”
The next step is teaching children to write computer code. Two pilots are planned, in Virginia and Silicon Valley.
The Virginia project is organized by former U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra and led by education nonprofit, Virginia Advanced Study Strategies (VASS). There, six school districts including Prince William County — have enrolled 85 students in either of two free online coding courses — Team Treehouse, and Codecademy, with the offer of an Aakash tablet as an incentive for kids completing the course and developing an app.
According to Chopra, VASS sees this as a step on its path for improving rural STEM employment, and will build on the project through its Department of Education i3 (invest in innovation) grant focused on building a shared responsibility among students, parents and school districts in better preparing workers for today’s jobs.
In Silicon Valley, Level Playing Field Institute, which was founded by Lotus Development Corporation founder Mitch Kapor along with his wife and business partner Freada Kapor Klein, is coming together with Silicon Valley Bank and AT&T to hold two hackathons to teach 250 low income kids of color to write code.
The students, grades 6-12, will be given a new version of the Aakash tablet which has a cellphone built in as well as 3G access. They will be taught to write code, and asked to compete to develop the best tablet applications.
Says Klein, “Let’s help them imagine themselves as creators of tech, not just consumers. We know from 10 years of running programs that there are tens of thousands of high school girls and boys from low-income communities of color that have the talent to compete in STEM fields at the highest levels — all we need to do is to unleash the waves of hidden talent.” The project is also being supported by the Kapor Center for Social Impact of Oakland.
“This is a policy problem,” said Silicon Valley Bank CEO Greg Becker of the digital divide. “This is an education problem. Most importantly in Silicon Valley and in tech hubs around the country, this is everyone’s problem.
“We need to create a tech-savvy, highly skilled workforce to put people to work, stay competitive globally and to keep developing the technologies, medicines, devices and innovations that are solving human problems.”
The least we can do is give all children access to technology — the tablets, connectivity, mentors and support. We will not only lift millions out of poverty, but also expand our economy. As the experiments with the Indian tablets show, we already have the ability to do this.
Vivek Wadhwa is vice president of innovation and research at Singularity University and the Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University.