Nonprofit to wire up rural Asian schools

Room to Read, a nonprofit start-up dedicated to improving literacy in developing nations, will launch a new division Wednesday to wire impoverished classrooms in Asia.

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Room to Read, a nonprofit start-up dedicated to improving literacy in developing nations, will launch a new division Wednesday to wire impoverished classrooms in Asia.

The San Francisco-based company, founded by a former Microsoft executive and funded largely by donations from technology workers and venture capitalists, developed its "Computer Room" project with cash from Microsoft, Global Catalyst Foundation and The Tibet Fund. Eleven classrooms in Nepal and Vietnam will be the first recipients of grants under the new program, which provides each school with four computers, one printer, all related hardware and software and a dedicated dial-up connection.

Room to Read founder John Wood said the group will be cautious when selecting the rural districts that receive computer grants; only those that already have strong teachers and established schools will receive computers. In addition, the communities that receive Room to Read computer grants must provide matching grants for teacher training and computer upgrades, repairs and maintenance.

"There are certain communities where doing this program would be putting cart before the horse. Some places don't even have electricity," Wood said Tuesday. "However, there are some communities where the education system is advanced enough. Computers are definitely not going to solve all these communities' problems on their own, but they could be part of a well-rounded curriculum in some areas."

Computer Room is the start-up's effort to close the digital divide and expand into computer literacy. Room to Read's primary goal is to improve overall literacy by building classrooms and libraries and providing scholarships in poor communities that have traditionally given short shrift to education. Room to Read also provides scholarships for girls, who have lower literacy rates throughout the developing world.

With only two full-time employees, Room to Read relies mainly on volunteers and donors at technology companies such as Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Oracle and other tech employers, as well as Silicon Valley venture capitalists and philanthropists. The group has built 15 schools and 150 libraries, and it has donated 90,000 books to rural classrooms.

The 2-year-old nonprofit developed Computer Room based on the overwhelming demand of teachers and students in communities where it has already built schools, mainly Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam. It received cash grants of $30,000 from Microsoft, $30,000 from venture capital firm Global Catalyst Foundation and $8,000 from The Tibet Fund.

Although $68,000 would be a negligible amount of cash for many San Francisco Bay Area technology start-ups, Wood emphasized that the money will stretch far in the developing world. The average computer room for a rural school costs about $4,000. He is also asking companies to donate software.

Wood dismissed concerns that Internet access would transform rural communities by exposing them to Western commercialism. He noted that Room to Read is encouraging donations of educational software and CD-ROMs to help children learn languages, advanced mathematics and physics--not just software that enables them to get into AOL chat groups to discuss American pop culture and trivia.

"The ultimate goal is to give them one more tool to improve their own lives," said the former Microsoft marketing executive, who was working in Microsoft's Hong Kong office when he quit to start the nonprofit company.

In the group's initial efforts at wiring classrooms, Wood said students and teachers are most impressed by e-mail. Although some schools in Katmandu and other tourist hubs use their connections to promote tourism and e-commerce, most people simply want to stay in touch with foreigners they've met over the years and family members who have emigrated.

"E-mail is such a popular application in these communities where people have been isolated for so many generations," said Wood, who travels to Asia frequently to supervise the building of Room to Read classrooms and installation of computers. "In Vietnam, many citizens grew up not able to communicate with the outside world freely or cheaply. Now they can keep in touch. They are amazed at the power of the Internet."