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The need to improve computer literacy

[Ruah's New York Diary] ROUTINE: Access to the Internet is an essential part of my daily existence. I have a morning routine that includes meditating, doing yoga and then the best part drinking tea while getting online to read the Daily News, The New York Times and The Lanka Academic, then listen to online radio updates. this is the privilege of having access to the Internet.

It was not until my last year in the late 1990s, in high school that I became familiar with using the Internet.

I even travelled to Senegal as a second year university student and had to write to my family and friends mostly hand-written letters as the Internet and email were only commencing and not very reliable in 1998.

Yet, as the years went by in university, communicating and doing research for school or job-searching, I became increasingly reliant on the worldwide web and began my journey towards computer literacy.

During my nine months in Sri Lanka, I used the Internet on a daily basis for my research and communicating with my family and friends either across the globe in New York or across the streets in Colombo.

I had the privilege of having access to Internet in Colombo and even when I lived with my host family whose home was walking distance (a long walk) to Wadduwa where there was an Internet caf, on Galle road.

My life was certainly made easier by using the Internet to contact people, stay in touch, find out information for my research and even email articles to this newspaper's editor from my village.

Especially when I returned to New York, I trusted the Internet to stay in touch with friends around the world, neighbours down the street, or the trusted readers of this column. I rely on it to communicate with a significant network of amazing people I have met in my travels to Sri Lanka, West Africa and Europe.

My dependency on or even addiction to this fountain of knowledge and communication was not always the case.

In fact, even at my young age of late 20s, I do recall the days of life before the Internet and checking email. Growing up in New York City, we had access to computer classes in school, and my mother who is a university lecturer, always had one at home.

My classmates and my early exposure to computers were limited to learning how to type and write documents for school. I do recall even feeling shocked at the ability of children younger than I to use the computer or create a website based on what they had learned in school.

This was not available to all children in America by any means during my time of going through school. Education Statistics Quarterly indicate that in 1993, 36% of classrooms in America had computers. However, that percentage has increased significantly in just over a decade.

In 2000, it nearly doubled to 65%, and finally to 93% in 2003. While the condition of these resources is questionable, the significance of this presence must be accounted for.

In America today, only 50 % of adults use the Internet according to Pew Internet and American Life Project in comparison to a large percentage of young generations with lifelong exposure to computers.

In America, nearly all sectors of business rely on computers and the Internet in some way. This gap of those with or without computer literacy has harsh impacts on those seeking to adapt to the technology based modern world.

There is certainly a "digital divide" between generations, and particularly between class, ethnicity and rural versus urban America according to the Economics and Statistics Administration.

For example, they cite a lower percentage of African American and Hispanic households having Internet access in their homes than compared to the national average.

In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau in 2004 reported 36 million people living in poverty, and of those, 12.9 million are children. These families living below the poverty line likely have to focus on survival rather than ensuring that their computer literacy.

However, with the sudden increased use of computers in classrooms, will this gap in computer literacy eventually close? Will the presence of computers in schools of America really prevail and change the population as we know it?

Sri Lanka clearly faces a greater challenge with overwhelming gaps in percentages to face. When leaving Sri Lanka, I realized that I would be able to stay in touch through the Internet with only a few of my Sri Lankan friends I had become so close to.

While several of my friends are among only the 9% of the country computer literate (according to the Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics), many of them fall into the 81% that are not.

While I acknowledge that some information online can be useless, incorrect and often misused (such as messages that spread hatred, misinformation etc.), I believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages enough to advocate the widespread use of the Internet and computer literacy on a global scale.

The technology is surprisingly already present to address this issue with a wind-up powered 10,000 Rupee Laptop.

The question is whether the funding for such a drastic change will ever arise and will the infrastructure of countries such as Sri Lanka be ready to equip its nations with the capacity to distribute and educate entire populations in a fair and efficient way?

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