The growth rate of new Internet users has declined over the past few years, despite billions of dollars being spent on attempting to provide access and get people connected. Yet, the focus on simply getting more people connected is — and always will be — insufficient, because lack of access is not the central problem. Skills to navigate, identify, evaluate, effectively use, and create information are what’s truly missing. Information literacy and digital proficiency must accompany connectivity, or else inequalities — digital and otherwise — continue to worsen. This article draws from the literature on digital inclusion and information literacy to make the case that empowering, Internet-ready skills will only be developed if a concerted effort is made to build these skills. We argue that Internet-ready skills, such as how to carry out research, and how to distinguish whether information is trustworthy or not, can be — and indeed, may best be — taught in an off-line environment, before the Internet reaches the as-yet-unconnected. We draw from the in-field experience of the SolarSPELL (Solar Powered Educational Learning Library) initiative. SolarSPELL is an ultra-portable, rugged, solar-powered, digital library that generates an off-line WiFi hotspot to which any WiFi-capable device can connect and freely surf the library’s expansive, localized content. The innovative, solar-powered technology means that the library can reach those in off-grid, unconnected locations. Yet, what distinguishes the SolarSPELL initiative’s approach to introducing digital technology to schools is that the libraries are matched with locally based trainers who can support the necessary development of Internet-ready skills.
Toward digital inclusion
What is SolarSPELL?
Methodology and data
Results and discussion
Governments, multilateral organizations, and private firms alike have focused efforts on “connecting the unconnected” for years, leading up to the highly anticipated announcement that, by the end of 2018, over half the world’s population would be using the Internet (International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2018). Yet, statistics can be misleading: in this case, “online” refers merely to access and reveals nothing about how the Internet is being used. To wit: the United Nations/International Telecommunications Union’s definition of being “online” means having connected to the Internet once in the last three months. So, being online could range from being hyper-connected to almost never connected.
However, connectivity and access are merely the first steps within a much longer and more involved process. Skills associated with information literacy and digital proficiency — researching, identifying, evaluating, using, and creating information — must be learned, (Robinson, 2014) for they do not spontaneously emerge. Even so, particularly in low-resource and newly connected locations, these skills are not being developed. This lack of skills-development may help account for why, over the past few years, despite billions of dollars being spent on creative methods for providing access and getting people connected, the growth rate of Internet users has declined dramatically (Sample, 2018, citing ITU data).
Yet, skills do matter (Hargittai, 2002), and introducing connectivity without critical skills-development means that inequalities — digital and otherwise — only continue to worsen. The mere provision of Internet access without skills-development, or without direction and guidance on use, will not automatically lead to Internet adoption, use, or uptake. Nor will the use that eventually does take place necessarily lead to beneficial outcomes. On the contrary: Internet access without skills-development can and does, in fact, lead to detrimental, wide-ranging, damaging effects (e.g., see Burrell, 2008). What is more, the risk of not prioritizing Internet-readiness is highest for the least experienced: in an era of fake news and cyber-crime, building information literacy skills is crucial for people to make effective, meaningful, empowering use of the Internet.
In this article, we argue that online-ready skills can be built in off-line environments — presenting the SolarSPELL initiative as an empirical example and case study. SolarSPELL is an off-line digital library initiative leveraging innovative technology to provide locally-relevant educational libraries to unconnected locations, and pairing this technology with trained teachers and/or facilitators who can build critical digital and information literacies locally. SolarSPELL’s technology and implementation model are both directly informed by the realities of low-resource contexts. By design, SolarSPELL launched its efforts in some of the most remote, hardest-to-reach locations, to learn from in-field users about their challenges and preferences. In the attempt to meet these (novice) users’ needs, SolarSPELL has become an iteratively improved initiative that aims to focus its efforts equally on providing appropriate technology and content, as on building local skill-sets. But before introducing SolarSPELL’s model and approach, we will situate the initiative’s development within the larger historical context and related attempts at intervention.
Toward digital inclusion
Though global Internet usage estimates remain imprecise at best, we do know that billions of people remain off-line and/or lack the skills to take advantage of the potential benefits of using modern information and communications technologies (ICTs). Most remain off-line due to economic, infrastructural, governance, or capabilities constraints. The disparity between those who have access to ICTs and the Internet, and those who don’t, is traditionally known as the “digital divide.” The notion of a digital divide, originally coined by Larry Irving in the late 1990s to refer to a gap in access to and usage of ICT, has been widened and reframed since the early 2000s (Attewell, 2001; Warschauer, 2003; Gurstein, 2011). In fact, already in 2002, Warschauer was proposing a reconceptualization of the digital divide, recognizing the need for the concept to move far beyond mere access to tools, to one that focuses instead on the effective use of ICTs. The following year, Gurstein (2003) elaborated on the concept of effective use, which he defined as “the capacity and opportunity to successfully integrate ICTs into the accomplishment of self or collaboratively identified goals.” Scholarly discourse on the digital divide continued over the ensuing decades (e.g., Scheerder, et al., 2017), as authors examined the multifaceted aspects of this complex phenomenon.
Nonetheless, the simplistic, binary assumptions associated with Irving’s digital divide (“connected” vs. “unconnected;” those with access and those without) have profoundly affected the collective imagination as well as the real-world implementation of ICT projects. Well-known initiatives such as Mitra’s “Hole-in-the-Wall” and Negroponte’s “One Laptop per Child” subscribed to this overly-simplistic view of the digital divide: give children access to ICTs and they will teach themselves everything they need to know. Both of these projects have been widely criticized (see e.g., Warschauer, 2002; Kraemer, et al., 2009), yet the twin concepts these projects espoused, of technology-as-a-shortcut and access-alone-is-sufficient, have remained.
Of course, technological fixes are nothing new, and Rosner (2004) reminds us of the seeming paradox that even though human beings generally seem to be aware that technological fixes do not solve complex social problems, the search for them continues unabated both over time and across fields of human endeavor. In the realm of education, computer-related technology has come to be seen as a quick fix around the world, because such technology represents progress, modernity, and a bright future (Pal, 2012), but also because it can be easily quantified (in terms of cost) and serves as a bright, shiny object of distraction from the myriad complex and and more abstract reasons that education systems may be underperforming (Oppenheimer, 2003).
Yet new technologies are, at all times, introduced to and being used within, dynamic and complex human social systems. Initiatives focused on simplistic divides aren’t able to describe or address this. Put differently, technology-focused initiatives will not address complex human and social challenges. The digital divide is not just about physical and digital resources, but also about cognitive and social capabilities. Contrary to popular belief, a digital divide, in terms of a gradation of skills, also exists between experienced Internet users and novices. There is, after all, a significant difference between being able to identify useful information and being able to learn or employ critical thinking skills, from that information (Pandita, 2017). And yet, since countless people have neither the connectivity nor the skills necessary to obtain potentially beneficial outcomes from being connected, different approaches are needed.
One attempt at reframing the term “digital divide”, and thus the conceptualization, was the widespread adoption of the phrase “digital inclusion,” particularly among development agencies and NGOs, beginning in the early 2010s. This notion, taking direct aim at the divisiveness and simplicity of the digital divide, instead comprises multiple complexities associated with ensuring that all individuals would have access to, and have the skills to use ICTs, and thus be able to participate in the ever-growing information society and knowledge economy.
Even so, changing terminology is one thing: changing practice is another thing entirely. Only in 2019 did the International Telecommunications Union — the agency that reports statistics on Internet access — begin addressing the concept of “meaningful” use of the Internet, claiming that meaningful use:
... has emerged as the focus of efforts to promote the benefits of online participation while mitigating the potential downsides of digital connectivity. It encompasses broadband adoption that is not just available, accessible, relevant and affordable, but that is also safe, trusted, empowering users and leading to positive impact. 
Still, countries around the world have struggled with ensuring their populations are, indeed, “included,” perhaps rather notably because Internet access is one of the only “human rights,” or “public goods,” being left nearly entirely up to the private market, and to for-profit companies, to provide (Parsons and Hick, 2008). By definition then, the emphasis for the companies offering Internet access must be increasing revenues and maximizing profits, not on providing socially inclusive public goods. If inclusivity is to be fostered, action must be taken — but by whom? Adopting policies that proactively work to connect the unconnected while simultaneously safeguarding privacies, developing skills, and protecting the vulnerable seems an unimaginably tall order either for marginally functional (or underperforming) governments or for profit-focused technology firms — for entirely different reasons.
Despite the ongoing discussion about who is using the Internet and how, the bottom line is that the unconnected remain at a distinct disadvantage in relation to the information society and global knowledge economy. Around the world, it is increasingly expected that national educational systems should produce students that can perform and adapt adequately to the future demands of and transformations to a digital reality. And yet, many schools, educational organizations, and ministries of education globally struggle to do so, given their existing resources.
In this article, using the SolarSPELL initiative as an exemplar, we assert that ICT-related literacies can be developed in off-line environments to achieve what Warschauer (2002) defines as “effective use” even before exposure to online environments. We showcase the value of making digital educational content available in an off-line environment with the aim of developing online-ready skills. In the following sections, we present the use-case of the SolarSPELL off-line digital library within schools and communities in resource-constrained, off-line locations across Africa and Oceania. The following sections include a detailed explanation of SolarSPELL’s history and model, a description of our methods for impact evaluation, a discussion of our evaluation findings, and finally, our insights for off-line development of meaningful Internet-ready skills.
What is SolarSPELL?
SolarSPELL (Solar Powered Educational Learning Library) is an education- and information-focused initiative designed to overcome existing barriers to accessing high-quality, relevant educational content in resource-constrained regions lacking consistent, affordable access to the Internet and electricity, and to build Internet-ready skills, such as information literacy (Linzy and Hosman, 2018). It operates as a university initiative within Arizona State University, where faculty, staff, and students collaborate on all different aspects of the initiative, including design, implementation, evaluation, maintenance, and continual improvement.
The SolarSPELL library is ultra-portable, ruggedized, and solar-powered: a plug-and-play kit, so that it can be brought anywhere and will function even under environmentally and infrastructurally challenging conditions. The library’s content appears as a Web page that is broadcast over an off-line WiFi hotspot that SolarSPELL itself generates, and to which any device with WiFi and a browser can connect, and surf the library’s content freely — no passwords required, and no data fees for using. All of the library’s content is educational, localized to the region of implementation, and open access (or permission has been given to share it).
In this section, we describe the many different aspects of the SolarSPELL initiative, including its history, hardware, software, library curation, training, and implementation. We subsequently present data regarding SolarSPELL’s use in-field, from interviews with SolarSPELL library users.
Figure 1: The SolarSPELL library.
Although the SolarSPELL off-line digital library was first created in 2015, its conceptual history stretches back further. The SolarSPELL is the product of action-oriented academic research, lessons learned from iteratively returning to the field and working with on-the-ground partners, and multidisciplinary teamwork.
In the late 2000s, SolarSPELL’s co-founder (one of the authors on this paper — Hosman) had been researching and writing about information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) initiatives, particularly those focused on education in the developing world. More specifically, she had been studying the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative and had serious concerns with its underpinning pedagogical beliefs that children would teach themselves — and each other — everything they needed to know, once handed a laptop, and that teachers would no longer be necessary (Warschauer and Ames, 2010). These concerns grew after Hosman visited schools across multiple countries (in the Pacific Islands and West Africa) where OLPC laptops had been introduced. In all of these locations, the teachers and parents with whom Hosman spoke expressed frustration with the OLPC program, including over the lack of teacher training, high breakage rate of the laptops, and inability of the schools to charge the laptops or use them properly. And yet, all of these teachers and parents still wanted technology-in-the-schools.
Hosman returned from these travels with the desire to do more than write about her findings, but to take an active, hands-on approach to working with teachers, schools, ministries of education, administrators, and practitioners. She also quickly realized that this work required skill-sets she did not possess, and set about involving additional experts, as well as her students, in multidisciplinary project-based classes that focused on this real-world challenge: how to increase technology use and usefulness in schools where it is being introduced for the first time.
Further description of these project-based courses appears elsewhere (Hosman and Jacobs, 2018) but generally speaking, at the conclusion of the semester, the faculty member(s) and students travel to the fieldwork site to see their on-campus work through to fruition, working alongside in-field partners. This work allows both faculty and students a far richer learning experience, and enables in-field partners greater agency to express their challenges, frustrations, or areas of satisfaction with the initiative. Hosman began leading these hands-on, project-based courses in 2010. Over time, because of both lessons learned and changing circumstances, the focus of projects in these class shifted from 1) providing an innovative solar powering system to primary schools that had been donated (OLPC) laptops, to 2) providing long-distance solar-powered Internet connectivity to schools, to 3) creating a portable solar-powered computer lab in-a-box, and finally to 4) developing a portable, solar-powered off-line digital library — the SolarSPELL. With each new endeavor, faculty and students took time to reflect upon and incorporate the lessons learned from the field, before pivoting to work on a new project.
Although many insights were gained from the above-mentioned in-field initiatives that ultimately led to the decision to develop an off-line solar digital library, some of the more salient and germane to this discussion have been: 1) building and maintaining infrastructure is not sustainable when the team does not live at the field-site, 2) technology skill-levels are low, so technology must work every time and be simple-to-use. Even so, 3) training must be provided accompanying any new technology, and it cannot be a one-time training. 4) Ongoing training and support are necessary if long-term behavior change is the goal.
In other words, it is one thing for someone to learn how to use a new technology; it is another thing entirely for a person to change their approach to how they work (or teach, in this case) to incorporate new technology, as well as new access to information. This type of long-term behavior change takes years, not weeks. When teachers are not provided this kind of support, it sets up technology-in-schools implementations for failure (Hosman and Cvetanoska, 2013). Yet, this lack-of-training-or-ongoing-support was the reality for nearly all teachers, schools, and ministries of education that Hosman had both studied and seen in-the-field. Ministries of education that lack funding for basics like textbooks (which is the case in every country where SolarSPELL operates) also lack funding for ongoing teacher training and support.
Knowing this, Hosman struggled to identify an effective path forward for ICT-in-education initiatives that do not have a budget for long-term teacher training and support, both generally and within her own initiatives. Then, in 2014, shortly after Hosman and her students had set up a Solar-Computer-Lab-in-a-Box on a remote island in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV), Melody, contacted Hosman about the possibility of working together to introduce ICT into the school where Melody was teaching. It so happened that Melody’s school was located about a five-minute boat-ride away from where Hosman’s team had set up the Solar Computer Lab, within this extremely remote archipelago.
Since PCVs are American citizens, they most frequently possess ICT skills, and are often stationed in very remote villages for two years, with a mission of helping develop local capacities and professionalization skills. A large proportion of PCVs serve as teachers in primary or secondary schools. Moreover, since volunteers are most often stationed in such rural locations, frequently without Internet connectivity, this often becomes the first time in their lives that they are not able to “Google” for information whenever they want or need it, yet they may also find themselves without even basic teaching resources at poorly resourced schools.
After working with a few PCVs in Chuuk State in FSM, Hosman realized that these volunteers could potentially serve as long-term technology support staff for other teachers within these remote, rural schools. Moreover, by introducing educational technology in the form of a solar-powered, off-line digital library with content localized for each country, this could simultaneously meet the information needs of tech-savvy volunteers who found themselves suddenly unable to search for content online, and of teachers and students who had never before been online.
Hosman introduced this as the challenge for her project-based course in spring 2015: “Let’s build an off-line, solar-powered, ultra-portable digital library with content localized for the Pacific Islands.” She then pitched the idea to Peace Corps country posts in FSM and Vanuatu, and both were interested and invited her to give trainings on this library to their respective PCVs in the summer of 2015. Hosman’s students went on to develop multiple prototypes, including both hardware and software, and ultimately delivered the first 50 libraries, as well as two trainings, in FSM and in Vanuatu, in summer 2015.
Since 2015, all of Hosman’s project-based courses have focused on the SolarSPELL initiative, yet each semester’s challenge or area of focus changes, in all cases attempting to incorporate feedback from users in the field. Some examples of a given semester’s focus area may be curating and creating a new version of the library for a new location (East Africa, Latin America), engineering an improved “Build Day” for building the SolarSPELL libraries, or designing a new user interface for the library’s Web site.
Figure 2: SolarSPELL Build Day.
The library and technology
The SolarSPELL’s technology, or hardware, incorporates very few elements, all of which could be obtained easily online (at least, in the United States), which was by design: the creators have been inspired by and attempt to adhere to an “open” mindset: open source software running the library, open access content on the library, and open hardware comprising the library. As such, a Web page (https://www.ifixit.com/Guide/How+to+make+SolarSPELL/56443) was launched early on in the life of the SolarSPELL, instructing the public on how to build one of their own, should they want to.
The library’s hardware comprises a solar panel, waterproof plastic case, lithium-ion battery, voltage regulator, Micro USB to USB cords, Raspberry Pi microcomputer (functioning as a server), and an SD memory card that houses the library’s content and Web site, as well as the Raspberry Pi’s operating system. The libraries are assembled twice per year by a team of (student-led) volunteers at Arizona State University, where an assembly line is formed, and approximately 100 library kits are assembled in a day. The library allows approximately 25 users to connect simultaneously, after which additional users connecting may notice a slowdown in the speed of documents loading or videos playing.
The library server is the main digital component of the SolarSPELL. As an open access library, it has a curated database of locally relevant resources. The format of the library resources have been standardized on PDF files, MP4 video/audio files, and HTML5 interactive educational modules, in the attempt to ensure that any device, anywhere, can open any file on the library, without needing to download any software — because we anticipate zero connectivity.
The process of curating a localized library is extremely time-intensive, because these resources are selected considering local interest, national curriculum, tradition, and language, and is done in partnership with local organizations, schools, and institutions. Furthermore, a user-friendly and simple-to-navigate Web site interface allows the library users (teachers, students, and community members) to familiarize themselves with the digital environment, with which many of them have never interacted. The library intends to be similar to a traditional library: curated to meet the needs of its users, organized by relevant categories, and ready for patrons to explore in a safe space. Because they are open access, the library’s resources can be downloaded by any library user, and shared freely. In most cases, a new version of the library is distributed once per year, when the team returns for a new round of Train-The-Trainer training and impact evaluation. Updating the library means swapping out the existing SD card for a new SD card with the most up-to-date version of the library loaded on it: updating takes place entirely off-line, because, again, we presume a situation of non-connectivity.
The library mimics an online experience so that even in the absence of Internet connectivity, Internet-ready skills can be taught. To enable this skills-development to happen, SolarSPELL both partners with local organizations and employs a Train-The-Trainer model, to ensure that the technology is never “dropped from the sky” with users left on their own to figure things out.
Implementation and training
SolarSPELL’s mission combines the bringing of relevant, digital resources to the most resource-constrained places on earth with an implementation model that relies on partnerships on-the-ground in those places to achieve sustainability beyond annual training sessions. Since 2015, the vast majority of SolarSPELL implementations have been in collaboration with the U.S. Peace Corps and Peace Corps volunteers. As mentioned in the history section above, Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) serve for two years in the exact type of remote communities that SolarSPELL strives to serve. For the first three months that the volunteers are in-country, their efforts focus on intensive language and culture training. After this, they disperse to the rural communities they will serve. Although the sectors in which the volunteers serve are determined by the host governments, the greatest number of volunteers serve in the education sector as teachers in local (rural) schools, as previously described.
An integral part of the Peace Corps volunteer’s mission is to build professional skills and capacities in the communities where they serve, striving to ensure long-term and sustained development in these communities for many years after they complete their service years. The only way sustainability can be a realistic venture in the development arena is by working within a ground-up approach, building skills locally. Thus, when a PCV serves in the education sector, and as a teacher in a local school, one focus of their efforts would be helping build the professional skills of the other teachers in this school (to the extent there is interest on the part of these teachers), and in particular, a volunteer will be paired with a counterpart-teacher with whom they work most closely.
Organizations like SolarSPELL most often lack resources to have their own staff or representatives on-the-ground for long periods of time, yet skill-building like developing information literacy necessarily takes time. Through working with the Peace Corps and their volunteers, SolarSPELL is able to utilize the PCVs’ ability to develop meaningful relationships with local citizens as they live and work alongside them. PCVs have the unique capacity in the world of development to approach their work in a way that gives them enough time to become part of the community, thus strengthening the trust between them, local partners, and ultimately SolarSPELL. When a community sees one of their own buying into something (which is how most PCVs become viewed at some point in their service), they are more inclined to buy into it themselves. The PCVs create and maintain the bridge necessary for SolarSPELL, as a small social enterprise, to do its work most effectively.
SolarSPELL uses a “Train-The-Trainers” (TTT) model to introduce and implement the library. In both library-focused and education-focused interventions, TTT has been shown to be an important, effective approach to address (information and digital) skill-building and behavior modification necessary for ICT adoption and uptake (Kurbanoglu, 2009; Hartman, et al., 2015). Typically, a SolarSPELL team (composed mainly, though not exclusively, of ASU students, faculty, and staff), travels to the field to carry out a two-to-three day Train-The-Trainer workshop. Participants in these trainings have mainly been local teachers and PCVs serving in local schools. These participants are the ones who will return to their communities with the SolarSPELL libraries and introduce them to the schools in which they teach (and sometimes, to the communities in which they live).
A SolarSPELL training is adapted to local conditions and culture, but typically includes: 1) a history and overview of the SolarSPELL initiative (including how the ideas informing the library were developed over time, the current status of the project, etc.); 2) a hardware practicum, where the participants familiarize themselves with the technology and ensure they know how it works; 3) a content review, in which trainees are introduced to the main categories of content, resources, and applications in the collection; 4) a scavenger hunt (race to find resources), to promote familiarity with library resources; 5) lesson plan creation using the SolarSPELL as a repository of resources enabling hands-on, interactive learning; 6) Train-The-Trainer school training plans, focusing on the participants’ new role as trainers and champions of SolarSPELL in their schools and communities and reflecting on both opportunities and challenges by sharing multiple real-world examples from other SolarSPELL Train-The-Trainers implementations; 7) a planning session, helping the participants to design their first introduction to or training on SolarSPELL within their schools and communities; and, 8) a monitoring and evaluation discussion, encouraging trainees to connect with the SolarSPELL team to give feedback. The Train-The-Trainer model also emphasizes not just access to new information that the library provides, but also the development of a new skillset, which takes time for the participants (mainly teachers) to build into their pedagogy.
Over the past five years, more than 365 SolarSPELL libraries have been deployed in eight countries, mainly in the Pacific Islands (Fiji, Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Tonga, and Vanuatu), and East Africa (Comoros, Rwanda, and South Sudan). SolarSPELL’s approach prioritizes traditionally underserved and hard-to-reach communities in locations that lack electricity, Internet connectivity, libraries, and other infrastructure. To date, the libraries target primary and secondary school users, although some have been introduced into other settings, including clinics and health care centers.
Figure 3: Post-training photo with Comorian teachers and Peace Corps volunteers.
Methodology and data
Given the nature of SolarSPELL’s work in regions with limited Internet connectivity, it is crucial to conduct in-field research to obtain reliable data. Other methods of data collection, such as online surveys, have yielded lower response rates and, we feel, have not produced an accurate contextual understanding of the environments in which SolarSPELL libraries are being used. Thus, while interviews, surveys, and usage data are all methods currently being used to assess SolarSPELL library usage, this article will report exclusively on results from in-person interviews, as these in-depth accounts uniquely portray the scope and depth of SolarSPELL’s use in the field.
Interview participants were selected using a mix of purposive and convenience sampling techniques. The sampling was purposive in that interviewees were local teachers and Peace Corps volunteers who had attended a SolarSPELL training and subsequently had brought the SolarSPELL library back to their schools and communities. Convenience sampling was also employed, since travel to remote locations (and particularly to islands) is time-intensive and expensive and has often determined both how many and where these interviews could take place.
The in-field interviews generally take place during a trip to the field when the SolarSPELL team also carries out a Train-The-Trainer workshop with a new cohort of teachers. Thus, generally speaking, the SolarSPELL team travels to (or returns to) the capital or a major city to carry out a Train-The-Trainer training with local teachers and Peace Corps volunteers. During this same overseas trip, the team subsequently travels to more remote locations (frequently to a different island) to visit schools (or communities) where the SolarSPELLs have been introduced during a previous training, attempting to visit as many sites as possible, given time, financial, and geographical constraints. At each site or school, the research team interviews both the local teacher and Peace Corps volunteer who attended a previous training workshop about SolarSPELL use at their school since the training.
To give an example that illustrates how interview subjects are chosen: in Fiji in February 2020, a member of the SolarSPELL research team traveled to the island of Vanua Levu and visited all six schools on that island that had a SolarSPELL digital library, and where a teacher and Peace Corps volunteer had participated in a SolarSPELL training six months prior. Thus, 12 interviews were conducted. These six schools and 12 interviews were out of a possible 15 schools and 30 teachers and PCVs who had received training on the SolarSPELL in the capital city, six months prior.
The interviews informing this study were conducted between December 2017 and February 2020 and took place on-site when the SolarSPELL team visited schools that had received SolarSPELL libraries. A total of 46 interviews are included in the sample informing this article — including nine from Comoros, five from the Federated States of Micronesia, 14 from Fiji, 10 from Samoa, and eight from Vanuatu.
Participants were explained the purpose of the study and asked if they consented to participate in the interview. The interviews ranged in duration from roughly thirty minutes to just over an hour and varied based on the level of detail participants reported and the degree of uptake by their school and/or community. Interview questions were separated into categories, including demographics (population served, site location); resources (accessibility of Internet and electricity); SolarSPELL content, usage, implementation (how SolarSPELLs were being used); and, technology (local prevalence and perception of technology). Audio recordings were collected of the interviews and subsequently transcribed into written documents.
For the analysis, the written transcriptions were manually entered into a database. Initially, responses were organized according to the sections of the interview protocol. Following completion of inputting all feedback into the database, the researchers continued to analyze the data and to identify consistent themes or categories that emerged from the responses, as content analysis. The data was then further coded to reflect these categories. Key concepts were subsequently validated through independent triangulation of coding by four members of the research team.
Results and discussion
In this section, we introduce empirical evidence from in-field interviews with SolarSPELL users, divided into four analytical categories: 1) existing (ICT-related) conditions in implementation sites; 2) access to localized, educational content; 3) skill-building opportunities via exposure to both the SolarSPELL library as a tool and a teacher-trainer trained on the tool’s use; and, 4) emerging impact of SolarSPELL use.
The first category uses the interview data to describe the context and conditions of communities where SolarSPELL has been implemented. The second category supports SolarSPELL’s relevance as a library via the provision of localized, relevant educational resources in an off-line, digital format. The third category illustrates the opportunities the SolarSPELL initiative provides — combining the delivery of a technology tool and Train-the-Trainer (TTT) Training — to build both information and digital skills. Finally, the fourth analytical category indicates the emerging impact of using SolarSPELL in relation to Internet readiness and improved test scores.
Existing (ICT-related) conditions at implementation sites
Numerous initiatives aimed at bringing ICT to remote places have overlooked the lack of reliable, dependable electricity or connectivity, frequently due to an unfamiliarity with the true circumstances remote, rural communities face (Brewer, et al., 2005; Hillier, 2018). Moreover, even when local ministries of education or other entities fund infrastructural development at schools, budgets that are limited in the first place tend to lack funds for ongoing teacher training or information technology support staff and treat ICT as a one-time expense. All of these oversights contribute to project failure (Heeks, 2010; Hosman and Armey, 2017; Hillier, 2018).
Additionally, the significant investment necessary to connect rural, remote villages (providing electricity, telecom infrastructure, roads, etc.) proves to be too great an investment for many governments and for-profit companies alike (Armey and Hosman, 2016; Hillier, 2018). This is even more pronounced in the case of remote island territories. For these reasons, portable and affordable designs of digital resources — as the ruggedized SolarSPELL exemplifies — are more appropriate in such conditions.
SolarSPELL does not depend on an external supply of electricity for its use: it produces its own. This allows schools and communities to have access to a library — most often for the first time — no matter the community’s geographic location or infrastructural circumstance. Because it is introduced to schools and does not generate revenue nor income (fulfilling the role of libraries as a public good), the implementation of SolarSPELL does not compete with the other economic resources or activities of communities. The interviewees reported on many and varied experiences in their communities, and in particular, responses highlighted the limited resources they experience in schools related to access to electricity, Internet, and libraries.
Table 1: Select excerpts regarding ICT-related conditions in schools Resource category In-field interview excerpt Electricity When asked about the frequency of access to electricity their school had, an [FSM] RPCV responded: “Averaged out over the 2 years, maybe 5–10 percent. It was on a lot more towards the end of my second year, but it was very rarely on during my first year. So, it was probably closer to 5 percent. In the village, maybe once a week if the generator was turned on at my house, but that wasn’t every weekend. No solar in the village either.” Internet When asked about the frequency that their school has access to the Internet, a [Fiji] PCV responded: “It’s very spotty. It’s on and off. The Internet providers are not what we are accustomed to in America. We’ve only had Internet here since 2016 and before that, there was no Internet.” Libraries When asked if there was a library at their school, a [Comoros] PCV responded: “No. There’s not even a library in my community, which is a community of 12,000 people.”
To give an idea of the existing ICT-related infrastructural conditions in the communities where there are SolarSPELL libraries, the interview transcripts were reviewed to quantify mentions of availability and affordability of electricity and Internet connectivity. Table 2 illustrates the limited number of interviewees who reported having Internet access in their communities: just two respondents (six percent) report having access to the Internet 100 percent of the time, while nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of respondents reported having no access to the Internet. A similar percentage (59 percent) identified Internet access as being cost-prohibitive.
Notably, less than one third (29 percent) of the participants reported having reliable access to electricity. The lack of access to and affordability of both electricity and Internet connectivity are major impediments to developing skills associated with utilizing ICT.
Table 2: Reported access to ICT-related infrastructure Country (# of interviewees) Has Internet 100% of time Has Internet sometimes No Internet Internet is cost-prohibitive Has electricity 100% of time Has electricity sometimes No electricity Electricity is cost-prohibitive FSM (5) 1 4 1 3 1 1 2 Fiji (14) 14 7 5 9 2 Samoa (10) 6 4 7 4 6 2 Vanuatu (8) 1 7 2 2 3 3 4 Comoros (9) 1 2 6 8 1 7 1 3 Totals (46) 2 23 21 25 15 26 5 13
Although the table above illustrates that access to the Internet is limited among the communities targeted by the SolarSPELL initiative, there is, of course, some Internet use. Our survey contained one question that, remarkably, yielded a unanimous response: What do people in your community use the Internet for? One hundred percent of our respondents answered: “Facebook.” “Facebook is the Internet in my community.” “Oh, it’s Facebook, which is great for finding out about babies being born and weddings and such, but it’s also rife with misinformation, which is not such a great thing,” or, some variation on those three themes, but without hesitation, all 46 of our respondents let us know that Facebook was the number one use of the Internet in their community. Respondents sometimes added that other forms of social media were used, or, less frequently, mentioned Google.
Access to localized, educational content
Many schools the SolarSPELL team has visited lack textbooks. If schools do have textbooks, they frequently lack other supplementary learning materials. Whatever the information situation facing the schools, teachers using the SolarSPELL can supplement what they are expected to teach, with multimedia resources, colorful images of concepts, and interactive activities for the students. The diversity of media on the SolarSPELL library includes emerging formats, such as an immersive, virtual reality-like experience, and interactive science-focused learning modules. These resources supplement the videos, text, and HTML pages, allowing users to interact with richer and more engaging resources. A specific example is a virtual field trip to an Australian area with prehistoric fossils. Within this field trip, users can explore the surroundings in a 360-degree setting with their devices, and also simulate a time when dinosaurs lived there. This multilayered experience is included in the collection of SolarSPELL to grant access to a new, rich media experience and innovative, immersive learning resources. For isolated communities, the possibility to travel outside of their islands or locales is highly constrained. For this reason, it is arguably even more important to provide these multimedia opportunities for off-line audiences.
Moreover, the library also provides teachers with resources that are learner-centered, action-oriented, team-based, or promote critical thinking, and analytical skills-development — should this not be a bridge too far for teachers who have mainly been exposed only to rote learning their entire lives. When used, these more innovative methods of teaching can lead to greater student engagement and improved learning outcomes (Brom, et al., 2017).
SolarSPELL library users also engage with the variety of learning and reference resources in many ways. As an example, Voice of America’s “Let’s Learn English” video collection, which appears within the SolarSPELL library, introduces learners to the English language (and American culture), with a focus on learning the everyday language necessary for moving to a new city. These multimedia resources facilitate English language learning for non-native speakers (Jurmo, 2017), by greatly diversifying the learning materials available for teachers, students, and community members. Our interviewees reported that parents and families of schoolchildren, as well as other community members, were actively making use of this video series, often downloading videos from the SolarSPELL library to their phones, and replaying them as often as needed, to learn new phrases or concepts. As our respondents indicate, this activity increases community engagement in the educational process. The library can thus be extended beyond the school, to provide new learning and engagement opportunities to the community and beyond, as teachers and students leverage the resources available on the SolarSPELL.
Furthermore, SolarSPELL takes very seriously the importance of having localized information in the library’s collection. All resources in the SolarSPELL library collection are curated (the majority of which is done by ASU students, staff, and librarians) to provide age-appropriate and culturally appropriate information. The team curating library content strives to cover all topics relevant to a primary school, as well as topics relevant to the greater community, including health, safety, and sustainability- and climate change resilience-related topics. The collections are continually improved by working with local organizations (like ministries of education) and from direct feedback from local users, making the library’s content relevant on a local level. For example, in many cases, our users have never been exposed to local language content in digital format. Moreover, because these communities are remote and unconnected, nearly by definition it is difficult to find digital content in local languages. Nonetheless, by working with local partners, we are able to identify and facilitate the incorporation of these resources when they are available and include them in the libraries.
Some may see a curated collection of resources as a limitation, because it does not provide the vast array of information on the actual Internet. However, for new users, our findings with SolarSPELL show us that the users appreciate having a finite amount of localized, relevant information to explore. In contrast to the vast ocean of information available online, which first-time users rarely know how to navigate, the specially curated information is education-specific and familiarizes first-time users to the navigation of information that has trusted origins. Before, during, and after the TTT training, we also validate the content of each collection with local and national partners, who both assess the cultural appropriateness of the resources with local values and customs and provide or suggest new content to be added. The curation of the library results in a safe digital experience, without the risk of information overload, extraction of personal data, or the risk of exposing minors to age-inappropriate content.
In this way, our interview excerpts illustrate how SolarSPELL is relevant both as a library of educational resources for schools and their wider communities. When reflecting on the limited teaching, media, and locally-relevant resources they have access to, many of the interviewees pointed out how SolarSPELL is addressing these deficiencies.
Table 3: Select excerpts regarding access to localized, educational content Resource category In-field interview excerpt School resource Asked if teachers at their school are better equipped to do their jobs with a SolarSPELL, a [Samoa] PCV responded: “Yeah, the more resources, the better. Without the Voice of America stuff, I think my kids would be bored. It’s hard because I don’t have access to the Internet out here. It’s not like I can go and download more resources that are suitable for that level — the resources we are given from the Peace Corps are only up to a certain level. And you want to keep these kids [progressing], it’s not like you want to get them to learn the alphabet and letter sounds and word families and then let them go. You know, especially the ones that are already learning and speaking English on a day to day basis, you want to keep that going at least for as long as we’re there. Definitely better equipped.” School resource When asked the most positive outcome of having a SolarSPELL at their school, a [Fiji] PCV responded: “It’s hard to get kids excited about learning in a normal classroom, and for me it’s just been really exciting to be able to have them explore, look, learn, and figure out what they want to learn about and read about. Kids that will never read, I see them reading on the SolarSPELL. It’s a really great outcome. It just opens so many doors. In this village, there’s almost no Internet access. The kids here haven’t even been a few hours away over to the next village. It’s very isolated. So, it’s really nice to see them be able to connect to the outside world.” School resource When asked what the most popular content from the SolarSPELL is, a [Comoros] PCV responded: “Voice Of America, totally. And anything else that’s like a song — there’s that one planet song and there’s the song that the Peace Corps volunteers made about the local ‘putu’ (hot peppers), which is relevant to the kids because it’s in the local language and it’s got people dancing, so it’s a big hit. That and there’s a PCV who wrote books translating English into the local language, and they get really excited because they don’t have anything written down in their local language. It really empowers them, because for a lot of them it’s the first time that they realize that they can actually read. Because they recognize the language, unlike when everything that’s written that they struggle to read is in more unfamiliar languages like English and French.” School resource When asked how the SolarSPELL was integrated into their school, an [FSM] RPCV responded: “For the younger grades, I found the books in the local language really helpful because I was able to show them the locally translated picture books to strengthen their learning of English by being able to compare it to their vernacular. Those were the resources I used the most.” School and community resource When asked what the most popular content on SolarSPELL in their community is, a local [Comoros] PCV counterpart responded: “Voice of America! People like it so much. Also, the stories. There are some stories, especially the [Early Reader] stories in the local language. [The students] want to learn English. For [the students], it’s an opportunity. To have English content and video content that they can listen [to] and see people acting, it makes it easier for them [to learn].” School and community resource When asked what was the most positive outcome of having a SolarSPELL at their school, an [FSM] RPCV responded: “Because it was the only ‘wi-fi access’ on the island, everyone in the community got really excited, thinking that they were getting on the real Internet. But, when they went on to explore they were forced to engage with only educational material. And all the videos they were watching were about things like sexual assault on Vanuatu, and it was a fictionalized movie about gender violence and sexual assault. And everyone on my island was crying because they thought it was so good. So, just having the ability to expose them to new and educational things was really awesome. They didn’t have the option to engage with progressive and interactive material until SolarSPELL came there. It was really powerful to be able to pull up Wikipedia articles to show the kids pictures of places and things that they have never seen and might not ever get to see in real life in the future either.” School and community resource When asked what the most popular content on SolarSPELL in their community is, a [Fiji] PCV responded: “Content about Fiji! They went nuts about the Fiji culture videos. They’re not used to seeing videos of people that look like them because a lot of the mainstream media, especially on the main island, is American or foreign. So, they went nuts. To be able to relate to something, as foreign as this [SolarSPELL] is — developed outside of Fiji, but still related to them on such a unique level, I think it’s something that really, really empowers them.”
Skill-building opportunities via exposure to the SolarSPELL Library as a tool and a trained trainer
The SolarSPELL library mimics an online experience so that even in the absence of Internet connectivity, when paired with TTT training to promote skills-development, it can be used as a tool for developing information and digital literacy in off-line communities.
Information literacy refers to individuals’ “capability to recognize what and when information is needed. They are also able to identify, locate, evaluate and use the information to solve a particular problem” (American Library Association, 1989). Digital literacy, initially defined as “the ability to read and understand hypertext,” has evolved since the early 2000s, as Bawden (2008) explains and proposes four main skills associated with this literacy: Internet searching, hypertext navigation, knowledge assembly, and content evaluation.
Furthermore, digital literacy has incorporated different levels of skills from clicking with a mouse, or swiping on a screen, to searching, interpreting, and creating with information technologies. Our interview responses indicated that the SolarSPELL was used to learn information literacy as well as to gain exposure to the tools needed to apply information literacy in the digital age, i.e., to develop digital literacy.
Table 4: Select excerpts regarding skill-building opportunities via exposure to a tool and a trained trainer Skill category In-field interview excerpt Information literacy When asked what the most positive outcome of having a SolarSPELL at their school, a [Vanuatu] PCV responded: “How easy it is for them to get information without assuming. Since we don’t have a viable Internet, that’s one way for them to research. So for teachers, when we first did the [SolarSPELL training] workshop, they were amazed that this is a thing — it’s possible. So, it was great to see their reactions and see that they can actually use it for their lessons. We’re actually going to use it this week for one of the teacher’s classes. It’s a research topic, so I told her we can go together and use the SolarSPELL for research purposes for her kids.” Information and digital literacy When asked the most positive outcome of having a SolarSPELL at their school a, [Vanuatu] PCV responded: “I think that it’s a good tool for teaching kids how to start conducting research on the Internet without having to be on the Internet and [gain] access to information outside of the random assortment of books that were donated to my school.” Information and digital literacy When asked about the most positive outcome of having the SolarSPELL at their school, a [Fiji] RPCV responded: “The technology literacy that it exposes to the kids. That they understand more about how to access information, and how to use tablets and the Internet to do that. And showing them what else is on the Internet besides just Facebook, because that’s what most of them use the Internet solely for here. It’s a life skill for them to learn that will help them so much in secondary school for doing things like research projects. There’s no other way here for them to learn that skill.” Digital literacy When asked about the most positive outcomes of having a SolarSPELL in their community, a [Comoros] PCV responded: “Learning about searching for and using digital information on their smartphones that isn’t just information from Facebook. Most people’s only experience with the Internet here is just Facebook. So they get surprised to learn about stuff like Google. Like when I use my phone to Google something, that’s a useful piece of information, they start to make that connection.” Digital literacy When asked if they thought the locals in their community were better equipped to use other technologies after using the SolarSPELL, an [FSM] RPCV responded: “Yeah, because in order to use SolarSPELL, you have to learn how to connect to the network and navigate a Web site. And most of the people on the island had never even been exposed to any of that before. Using SolarSPELL is really good for learning technology.” Digital literacy When asked if SolarSPELL could better equip people in their community for using other types of technology, a [Comoros] PCV responded: “Yes, because the navigation of SolarSPELL is very similar to navigating any kind of Web site. Like how you close out of something, how you open something new, how you go back, etc. I think it would help them navigate any type of Web site afterward. SolarSPELL could also help them with learning how to research.”
Emerging impact of SolarSPELL use
In this section, we introduce the emerging impact of SolarSPELL digital library use in relation to both Internet-readiness among users and improved test scores in schools.
We understand Internet-ready skills as a combination of the existing definitions of information literacy and digital literacy. It is this collection of attitudes and abilities related to the interaction with digital content and technologies that prepares individuals for Internet use. None of these skills require Internet connectivity, and in fact, can all be developed off-line. To this end, we use the term Internet-ready skills to describe a skill-set aimed at preparing users for interaction with the Internet in disconnected environments.
The SolarSPELL initiative encompasses the conceptions of digital literacy and inclusion, combining available, affordable, and accessible hardware, with relevant, safe, trusted content in an empowering learning experience for users and communities. Our interview results have begun to demonstrate that Internet-ready skills can be built even in off-line locations using the SolarSPELL model: pairing relevant, localized, trusted, safe digital resources, along with training and skills-building.
The respondents reported positively on the use of the SolarSPELL, to build digital literacy, information literacy, and, therefore, Internet-ready skills. Through interacting with the SolarSPELL, students, teachers, and community members can learn and develop numerous Internet-ready skills such as navigating between hyperlinks and keywords, use of digital formats and new media, and strategic selection of information for research projects. We believe our case also provides evidence that the Train-The-Trainer model was significantly more effective than having provided no training and merely handing over the libraries.
Figure 4: Students in Fiji using the SolarSPELL library.
One additional aim of the SolarSPELL initiative is to accelerate the ability of the currently non-digital and unconnected, to become digital content creators sooner than would have happened without the introduction of the SolarSPELL library — in other words, more quickly than if they needed to wait for the Internet to reach them. By demonstrating localized digital materials, SolarSPELL users can recognize their own potential to use their Internet-ready skills in the future, including through creating content. SolarSPELL has the goal of empowering learners to become the ambassadors of their own local culture, language, and personal world views when they may have the opportunity to join the Internet. Thus, localized content is a fundamental aspect of SolarSPELL that transcends self-identification and seeks to empower students to be active participants in the digital and information age.
Finally, regarding test scores: the SolarSPELL initiative is generally reluctant to report on student test scores for manifold reasons, among them that 1) SolarSPELL is a library and its use is entirely voluntary, not required, in all settings; 2) only a maximum of two teachers per school have received SolarSPELL training; and, 3) although SolarSPELL strives to provide content that will be useful to teachers and students, its content is not (yet) mapped to any official tests. Moreover, only half of the ministries of education in the countries in which SolarSPELL operates have provided textbooks for inclusion in the libraries, so cross-country comparisons are not appropriate.
Having stated all of the above, we did interview two local teachers from Fiji (where the textbooks are included in the SolarSPELL library) who reported significant improvements in their students’ test scores. The scores these teachers reported were corroborated with school administration. Both of these teachers spoke about holding extra study sessions with their students after school and on weekends, and of their own excitement to suddenly have so much information at their fingertips that they spend hours exploring the library’s content on their own. Thus, we believe that the improvement in test scores the interviewees reported are the result of both improved access to educational content directly relevant to these students’ education, combined with teachers who are freshly motivated by having access to this multimedia educational content.
Table 5: Select excerpts regarding emerging impact of SolarSPELL use Impact category In-field interview excerpt Internet-readiness When asked if they thought that their students were better equipped to use other technologies after using the SolarSPELL, a [Fiji] PCV responded: “That’s the dream — to help prepare students using a safe, kind of ‘bubble’ of Internet connectivity to be able to explore the outside world a little bit more effectively.” Internet-readiness When asked if they thought that their students were better equipped to use other technologies after using the SolarSPELL, a Fijian teacher responded: “What SolarSPELL has done for the kids, it has opened their eyes. So, whenever they go out and they get access to [the] Internet, they will know that it’s not just for Facebook. There are more things in technology, in smartphones, in tablets, that they can explore.” Improved test scores When asked the most positive outcome of having a SolarSPELL at their school, a Fijian teacher responded: “Last year, at the end of the school year, we had external exams, and the result we got was 100% positive. My school, when I first came, for the past 3 years, my school has been scoring like 29% for the overall and the second year we managed to move it up to 54%. But last year we got 100%. Thanks to the SolarSPELL, my children have access to the world through that.” Improved test scores When asked about the most positive outcome of having the SolarSPELL at their school, a Fijian teacher responded: “Teaching resources, like the visual aides that are in there. It really helps the students to understand things better. The improvement of our national exam results for year 6 and year 8. From 49% to 75% since the SPELL started being used at the school. The SPELL is the biggest reason that these exam scores increased so much. I’m the same teacher: the only thing that changed was access to the SolarSPELL. Also, I’m going to start using the SPELL to do night classes for the students as well. One of the big improvements that SolarSPELL helped us with is increasing the government exam grades. The government insists that we get our school over 50%, and after using the SolarSPELL we jumped from 49% to 75%.”
The SolarSPELL initiative demonstrates a model for digitally including the half of the world that remains unconnected. Technology alone, and Internet access alone, will never address digital inclusion or information literacy. To quote Warshauer (2002): “focus on the transformation, not the technology.” The model that drives SolarSPELL, in the spirit of digital inclusivity, is to empower remote communities in off-line spaces, not just by providing access to localized, relevant educational resources via easy-to-use technology, but by ensuring that the capabilities exist locally, to build digital skills and information literacy.
In this article, we explored a collection of interviews from five sites, to illustrate the potential of this off-line digital library intervention in the development of Internet-ready skills — skills that have been demonstrated to be essential in today’s information society. Nonetheless, we recognize that both ongoing and further research will be needed to demonstrate the levels of proficiency acquired, as part of these Internet-ready skills, when using the SolarSPELL.
In spite of the results that affirm our assertion that Internet-ready skills can be developed in an off-line environment, limitations to the study remain. First, in order to quantify skills-development, randomized control studies could be conducted. Next, since we have focused our interviews on the teachers, we have not been able to observe skill development in all users, and are relying instead on self-reporting of a select set of users. Finally, our interview protocol is not framed to directly address the concepts of digital literacy, information literacy, and Internet-ready skills. All of these categories emerged from the understanding that the researchers developed through the emerging findings from our interview transcriptions, combined with our review of the literature. Reframing the research instruments in the future could lead to enhanced insights on skills-development and outcomes.
The SolarSPELL off-line digital library is reaching marginalized communities that lack access to electricity and Internet connectivity. In this way, digital capabilities and information literacy are built locally: there is no shortcut for building these skills, yet they are absolutely essential for meaningful, effective Internet use that can bring about empowerment. Our plans are to expand the SolarSPELL off-line digital library initiative to more locations around the world, in every instance working with partners that are able to build skills locally, and in every case, improving all aspects of the initiative (hardware, software, content, training, impact evaluation) to continue working to empower and include those who remain unconnected.
About the authors
Laura Hosman is an associate professor at Arizona State University, holding a joint appointment in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and in The Polytechnic School.
Direct comments to: laura [dot] hosman [at] asu [dot] edu
Coreen Walsh is project manager for SolarSPELL at Arizona State University.
E-mail: coreen [dot] walsh [at] asu [dot] edu
Martín Pérez Comisso is a graduate assistant for SolarSPELL and a Ph.D. student in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University.
E-mail: mapc [at] asu [dot] edu
Jared Sidman is a graduate research assistant for SolarSPELL at Arizona State University.
E-mail: jmsidman [at] asu [dot] edu
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Received 6 June 2020; accepted 9 June 2020.
Copyright © 2020, Laura Hosman, Coreen Walsh, Martín Pérez Comisso, and Jared Sidman. All Rights Reserved.
Building online skills in off-line realities: The SolarSPELL Initiative (Solar Powered Educational Learning Library)
by Laura Hosman, Coreen Walsh, Martín Pérez Comisso, and Jared Sidman.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 7 - 6 July 2020