In March 2011, to mark International Women's Day, I wrote a blog post asking, "Can Technology Close the Gap for Girls and Women?" The ConnectEd program has been working to find out the answer as we work across the globe, and now, three years later, it is time to revisit this question.
This digital-inclusion and education program has so far reached 17,866 youth across eight countries, almost two thirds of whom are girls. Funded by the Alcatel-Lucent Foundation as their global signature program, and designed and managed by World Education, Inc., ConnectEd has been utilizing technology to address the gender gaps in education and work outcomes.
We use a number of approaches to ensure that vulnerable girls can benefit from the potential of technology to improve their learning, be better prepared for work and be more civically engaged. These are approaches that we have found to be successful in our program:
1. Ensure access for girls:
Many factors come into play in order to provide what is needed to overcome the barriers preventing equitable access. In India, our teachers are visiting the homes of girls who are not allowed to attend school with tablets loaded with educational programs. Across ConnectEd, scholarships address cost barriers for girls in need and program staff are advocating in communities for parents to send their girls to school. ConnectEd has set up computer labs to ensure digital access, and in China, where labs are not feasible, we have taken the digital world to migrant schools in the back of a mobile learning van.
2. Train more female ICT teachers:
"Computers are not just for boys!" This was a realization by one of our ConnectEd students, as well as countless other youth in the program, especially when their instructor is female.
3. Use technology to improve everyday learning:
ConnectEd has developed an eLearning course for teachers to integrate technology into their regular classes, and has provided ongoing support to teachers to change the way they teach.
4. Provide female role models online:
By connecting students to adult female role models, girls can get a new sense of what is possible, which is what happened when ConnectEd Australia students used Skype to engage Alcatel-Lucent Head of Brand and Corporate Sustainability, Christine Diamente, on her experience in this area.
5. Prepare girls for the world of work:
Girls in every ConnectEd country -- from Australia, to China, to Brazil -- are using computers to learn how to write cover letters and resumes and how to search the Internet to find new opportunities and broaden their networks. Girls are learning digital skills needed for work, multimedia, data entry and even stenography.
6. Bring girls in from the periphery of civic life:
From increasing access to class videos through YouTube, to learning to take photos, blogging, or posting to Facebook, girls have learned how to use technology and social media tools to lead advocacy campaigns and to raise awareness about pressing issues in their communities.
In our report,How Technology Supports ConnectEd's Work with Disadvantaged Youth, we highlight the specific ways in which we are integrating technologies into education to further the advancement of girls. As of 2013, ConnectEd has provided access to ICT for over 6,500 girls and trained more than 300 teachers, focusing on communities where access to computers and Internet is limited.
Across ConnectEd we have seen girls develop the ability and confidence to use their new technology skills to solve problems and communicate to others, and we have seen teachers use technology in new ways in the classroom. We have seen the critical role of technology as a tool to interest disengaged girls in learning. And, across all countries, ConnectEd girls have become active participants in their communities, using technology to become more visible, to voice their ideas and concerns.
ConnectEd data and case studies over the last three years have revealed young women who had dropped out from school (or nearly done so) and lost hope and direction, who have now gained qualifications, found jobs, or gone back to school. ConnectEd Brazil graduate Isis is a good example: After delaying her secondary school completion to mother her two children, 23-year-old Isis found ConnectEd, which helped her complete school and provided her with skills to attain and succeed at a job that will support her family. The resounding theme coming out from these individual narratives is not about new technology skills, but about increased self-confidence.
At the Clinton Global Initiative 2013, Hillary Clinton said, "When we think about what the world is going to look like in the coming 20 years, we have to do more to make sure that women as well as men, girls as well as boys are empowered to use new technology to further their own aspirations." What Secretary Clinton was saying is that technology is not the solution. It is a means to empower girls who may otherwise be marginalized in their communities. ConnectEd has been doing just that -- using technology to provide girls with the skills and confidence that will raise them from poverty and become independent and to access opportunities beyond those that traditional society may have expected from them.
There is still a long way to go, but foundations like the Alcatel-Lucent Foundation are stepping up to take the initial steps to begin bridging the digital divide so that many girls and women around the globe have an equal chance at a quality education and a better future. As ConnectEd carries on, we will continue to see how technology does indeed close the education gap and help girls and women find the confidence and skills to pursue their aspirations.