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Unveiling the educational side of Internet cafes – Jeremy Gittins

Unveiling the educational side of Internet cafes – Jeremy Gittins

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When someone mentions Internet cafés to me, I immediately think of backpackers sitting at banks of tables hammering out emails to their friends and families about their latest trip, catching up with the world and sports news, or more often than not destroying The Covenant in Halo 3, or building vast nations in Age of Empires. What I don’t think of is business people meeting to work collaboratively on projects, or students editing diploma papers, or job seekers doing online training to develop their computer literacy skills. But that is exactly what is going on in Moscow’s Cafemax iCafes, where Microsoft recently launched an initiative to start transforming iCafes from places where you just go to game, check email and media, into places where you can also get education resources and products and receive IT training too.

TatianaMoscow resident Tatiana is typical of a Cafemax customer. She says that she finds it difficult to carve out time to look for jobs at home, preferring to spend time in these stylish and futuristic-looking cafes to combine looking for work with checking email and reading up on her favourite media.  But what if Tatiana was able to combine her job searches with being able to download and train on the skill sets she would need for a particular job? Wouldn’t that make her employment prospects better and offer her prospective employers a more rounded, business-ready employee? There isn’t any technological reason for why she shouldn’t be able to do just that. And as more curricula and training tools are available online, I think iCafes can play a bigger part in educating people, both old and young.

In Central and Eastern Europe, as in many developing markets throughout the world, many people find it difficult to get access to technology – it costs too much for them, or the areas they live in simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to support it. According to Microsoft economic studies, out of the 419 million people in Central and Eastern Europe, 373 million people, or roughly 89% of the entire population, are categorized as being in the middle or bottom of the economic pyramid – which is a World Bank and World Resources Institute method for measuring wealth and opportunity. This being the case, you might think that people and governments have more pressing matters to think about than being able to access a PC, right?

Wrong. Studies from Educating for an Open Society (EOS Romania), an NGO dedicated to adult learning, found that ICT skills were one of two key things employers from across all industries looked for in today’s knowledge based society – the other was language skills. Increasingly every sector of society needs access to technology to underpin its processes, communications, and research. For example, farmers in Bangladesh are now accessing Thomson Reuters agricultural updates through mobile devices so they can act immediately on global pricing and weather warnings. Haulage drivers are regularly using GPS and RFID technologies. Everyone should have access to technology.

Which is why turning iCafes into educational centres is such a great idea. They are everywhere, and people are already using them. They are a piece of technology infrastructure that is already interwoven into the fabric of our global society and most people can access them. In Russia, according to the Regional Public Center of Internet Technologies (ROCIT), 2 million Russians (7% of the population) visited iCafes in the autumn of 2007 alone. But are they being used to their full potential?  ROCIT finds that usually iCafes are used when there is no other alternative to get Internet access and visitors use them to check e-mail, search for news and information, create and edit documents and communicate with friends. 

 

iCafeYulia and Elena seem to want to buck this trend. Elena is working on her diploma and uses Moscow iCafes to edit her work and research topics for her thesis. Yulia even has a PC at home with internet connectivity, but prefers to meet her colleagues at an iCafe to work collaboratively because it’s convenient. And you can see why. Cafemax is gearing up for this increasing mixture of work and play by creating separate zones in each Cafemax centre:  it has spacious working halls, gaming zones, conference rooms, a copy centre and even a smoking zone if you can’t get by without a quick cigarette.

Konstantin Shapovalenko, a director at Cafemax sums it up for me: “For many years we had been providing high-speed Internet access along with…. software products that were less adapted to these tasks. We believe that our partnership with Microsoft will widen our clients’ opportunities for education and communication…”

Oleg Sutin, head of economic development and technologies at Microsoft Russia, agreed, and summed up why access to technology is so important for markets like Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe:  “Shared access points are a very important component of our future life. Russia’s national aim is to occupy fifth place in the world economic rating. To achieve this we need to create an economy that should differ structurally from the current one. Shared access points are one of the tools to help people adjust to new economic conditions”.

This statement bears out if you talk to some of the Russians you meet in iCafes and other technology centres, like at the IDEA (Information Dissemination and Equal Access) centres, run by NGO Project Harmony. One story stands out for me - Yulia Zadorozhnaya graduated from Russia’s Novosibirsk State University with a teaching qualification in informatics.  She paused her career to raise a family, but by the time she was ready to re-enter the job market, several years had passed and, having no computer at home, she found that she had lost touch with developments in IT, and that the prospects of finding the kind of employment she wanted were poor. But the local IDEA centre threw her a lifeline by offering her a training course focused on IT skills to enhance job prospects.

“I realized that I needed to be an advanced computer user to get a good job. Our family could not afford commercial courses, which is why the course at the local IDEA centre was so important to me.” Happily, Yulia went back to the Novosibirsk State University, working in the information science department.

What impresses me most when I speak to people in Central and Eastern Europe is the desire to get involved in any project that will advance their prospects. This is a region of tremendously ambitious people and if all that is standing in their way is something we in the West take for granted – access to a computer – then we’ve all got to start thinking more creatively about how we can help. Whether it’s through shared access at Cafemax, or at a specific IDEA training centre, we’re starting to see some real creativity that can really make a difference to people’s lives. 

-  Jeremy Gittins, General Manager Central Eastern Europe, Microsoft Unlimited Potential Group

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