Connectivity for All

NEW YORK – It is not every day that one gets to join two global powerhouses to promote a planetary breakthrough, but that is the reality with Connect to Learn (www.connecttolearn.org), a new worldwide initiative to ensure that all children on the planet can attain at least a secondary education. The telecommunications giant Ericsson and the pop singer Madonna are teaming up to get kids into school and connected worldwide through wireless broadband. My colleagues and I at the Earth Institute and the Millennium Promise Alliance are joining the effort. The stakes could not be higher – or the prospects more exciting.

The information-and-communications-technology (ICT) revolution is surely the most powerful single force for economic development in the world today. It is not just in New York, Shanghai, or Paris that one finds a mobile telephone in the hands of each passerby. These days, one finds mobile phones in Nairobi taxis and among camel-herders in Northern Kenya. There are now 4.6 billion mobile subscribers, and the numbers are soaring. An estimated 250 million subscribers live in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.

The spread of 3G (and soon 4G) offers the prospect of a technological breakthrough in education. Suddenly, even remote schools can connect to the Internet and to other schools through a solar panel, low-cost computers, and wireless access. A school that lacked even rudimentary supplies suddenly can have access to the same global store of information as any other place in the world.

When it happens, the results are galvanizing. Within minutes of going online in a pastoralist community in northeast Kenya, kids were reading about their own community as part of the Africa-wide Millennium Villages Project. Communities that had little school attendance have seen kids stream in as low-cost interventions, starting with Internet connectivity, in-school meals, and a safe water supply, lead to a surge in schools’ quality, performance, and attractiveness to students and parents.