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Claudia Cova is improving the quality of life of people in the poorest sectors of Venezuela by bridging the digital divide. Through effective donation and appropriation of usable computers, she is providing valuable training and resources for young people to compete in today's technological world.

This profile below was prepared when Claudia Cova Colmenares was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.


Claudia Cova is improving the quality of life of people in the poorest sectors of Venezuela by bridging the digital divide. Through effective donation and appropriation of usable computers, she is providing valuable training and resources for young people to compete in today's technological world.


Claudia is bringing information and communications technology to poor areas of Venezuela in an applicable and useful way. Her organization–Vía Tecnológica ("Technological Way")–provides the resources and training to contribute directly to improving student and community members' lives in Venezuela. She has developed a system for recycling computers previously owned by businesses, public institutions, citizen sector organizations, and individuals. To complement the donation, Vía Tecnológica trains students so they can utilize the computers in their everyday activities. Claudia and her colleagues work to increase the communities' technological capacity by training young people in computer maintenance and repair. They have also formed alliances with schools and local citizen sector organizations to facilitate shared access to the Internet. Unlike most comparable programs, which tend to focus on hardware and software provision, Vía Tecnológica invests the majority of its resources in capacity building to maximize economic, social, and technological benefits.


The digital divide has demonstrated its potential for deepening the rift between the rich and poor in Venezuela and throughout the world. Although programs do exist in Venezuela to donate computers or provide training to poor communities, the two have not been linked, nor is there any real correlation between the services offered and the communities' actual needs.

The lack of access to computers and related technologies stall progress in developing countries. Computers are now indispensable in all fields, making computer access and familiarity essential to development in all fields, including health, education, housing, employment, and social services. But computers, printers, and legally acquired software are too expensive for most Venezuelans. A study by Goldman Sachs Investment Research estimates that only 3.4 percent of the Venezuelan population have access to computers and only 1.5 percent of the population use the Internet. Another hindrance to full implementation of information technology is the lack of the telephone lines necessary for Internet connection in South America. According to 1999 CONATEL statistics, there are only 10.42 telephone lines for every 100 Venezuelans.
The situation in schools, where there is the potential to have the greatest impact, remains grave. According to the Ministry of Education, only 32 percent of Venezuelan public and private schools have any computer equipment, and most of what they do have is obsolete and used primarily for administrative work and not used by students and teachers as a part of the educational process. Nearly all school computer labs open only for computer classes, and most do not have Internet access, because many schools do not even have telephone lines. Computer maintenance has also proven nearly impossible without further technical training.

Claudia conducted an information-gathering study in two Caracas communities, Parroquia La Vega and Parroquia Antímano. In La Vega, 40 percent of the 102 schools have computers for administrative work, four have functioning computer labs, and only two have Internet connections. Three of the four with computer labs are private schools. Forty percent of teachers claim to have computer knowledge, yet they do not incorporate it into their curricula. In Antímano, of 67 schools, 30 percent have computers, which are principally used for administrative work. Only two have functioning computer labs. Approximately 24 percent of teachers have knowledge about computers. In both districts, schools without computer labs expressed interest in incorporating technical resources and being trained in application and maintenance. But, given the schools' economic reality, such developments do not seem like an actual possibility to them.

Training remains the major shortcoming to computer facilitation in Venezuela. According to the Ministry of Education, its own program to provide computer labs to schools has not produced the expected results, as students, teachers, and neighboring communities had little or no previous background in operating such technology. Conversely, there is enormous interest in information technology within these communities for business, public administration, communication, and household application. Some young people study computer technology in universities or have taken computer classes, and parents are generally aware of the opportunities computer literacy presents.


Beginning with the two poor neighborhoods in Caracas, Claudia has developed a program of acquiring and rehabilitating donated computers for use in schools and communities. She matches the donations with computer training for teachers and students, helps community members incorporate the skills and tools directly into their jobs, and facilitates new Internet connections.

Vía Tecnológica is in constant communication with various businesses and public institutions for the donation of computers and has established agreements with the Universidad Central de Venezuela and the oil company Petróleos de Venezuela to donate computers on an ongoing basis. Once a computer is donated, Vía Tecnológica transports it to its office where a specialist evaluates its basic functions and capacity for reconditioning. Those computers that are obsolete, or damaged beyond repair, are dismantled to retrieve usable parts. To date, Vía Tecnológica has successfully rehabilitated 224 of the 345 computer components it has received.

Once a computer specialist from Vía Tecnológica determines that a computer is in optimum condition, it is transferred to a school or community organization. Vía Tecnológica has a rigorous system of identification and monitoring so that precise information is always available about each unit's donor, location, and current owner. This activity appeals to businesses that wish to promote an image of social responsibility. Claudia has chosen to focus primarily on schools as recipients because the investment required is minimal and the impact greater. Furthermore, schools are not often robbed, a condition that provides an added element of security. And because they are places of learning, schools are a natural environment to impart knowledge on virtually any topic.

The process of selecting schools to participate in the program begins with a diagnostic study of the community. The Vía Tecnológica team preselects the schools it will visit based on their informational infrastructure and the availability of physical space and conditions for a computer lab. The team visits the schools and measures the degree of commitment by the administration and staff, schools' ties to their respective communities, and the ability to mobilize resources. The selected schools sign an agreement after negotiating terms and Vía Tecnológica provides the computers, software, and installation to get them up and running. Vía Tecnológica also trains teachers and administrators, helps staff incorporate the newly acquired knowledge into daily work, and maintains the computers during the first year of activities. The school is responsible for maintenance costs thereafter, as well as all installation and operating costs. Schools already involved in the program have been able to secure outside funding and community volunteers.

The training program is held in the schools and includes discussions on the impact of new information technologies and telecommunications on the education sector, basic computer operations, the use of computers to facilitate and improve classroom planning and evaluation, maximization of the opportunities presented by information access, the use of the Internet as a tool for professional development, and the uses of computers and the Internet as complementary pedagogical resources. Vía Tecnológica conducts trainings in Word, Excel, Power Point, and other major software with a focus on integrating their application to classroom tasks, like processing grades, compiling reports, planning curricula, and developing class presentations. In addition to the structured training program, Vía Tecnológica dedicates a few hours each week to help staff and administrators incorporate technology into the overall dynamics of the school. So far, the program is operating in three La Vega schools and one Antímano school. Two of the schools are private and two are public, but all are underfunded and located in poor neighborhoods. The program benefits 42 teachers and approximately 2,300 students in these two communities.

Using space provided by the communities, Vía Tecnológica is also training young people in the maintenance and repair of computers. Once a physical space has been established, Vía Tecnológica holds a session in partnership with other organizations to cover the remaining costs. Claudia and her colleagues constantly adapt the program to improve its effectiveness and comprehension. The full training program has been expanded from 80 hours to 210 hours. The curriculum includes courses on computer hardware, computer software, knowledge and use of the Internet, and the ethical aspects of information technology and telecommunications. Vía Tecnológica has also produced a manual to cover any problems that may arise on the job that were not covered in class and offers internships to students who want additional training and show particular promise. Although training for careers in information technology is the goal of the courses, it is imperative that the students remain in their communities to provide resources to the schools and their neighbors. Vía Tecnológica has trained 23 young people so far, and Claudia expects to train 90 more people within the next two years and 1,350 over the next 15 years.

Vía Tecnológica is also facilitating Internet access for poor communities by helping schools find funding to subscribe with service providers. But because so many schools do not have working telephone lines, Claudia has developed a strategy by which schools share access at one central "infocenter." The Venezuelan government has a program to install such centers in communities around the country through contracts with three organizations. As the infocenters are designed to provide access to technology, but not train their users or implement programs, Claudia has begun to collaborate with the contracted organizations in order to utilize their resources for Vía Tecnológica objectives.

Claudia intends to diversify her financing sources by partnering with private enterprises like the oil company Lasmo and the telecommunications companies Telecel and Cantv. She is also considering sustainable, self-funding strategies like an Internet café and the sale of a number of the renovated computers to teachers (in the schools where Vía Tecnológica operates) who have expressed interest in purchasing units for home use. Claudia has also begun to use free Linux software and is in negotiations with Microsoft to donate Windows operating systems and Office program suites.

Claudia considers the projects in La Vega and Antímano to be pilots, which she is systematizing to spread throughout the country. Her ideal strategy is to identify regional institutions interested in technology transfer and then replicate the entire Vía Tecnológica model in their regions. If that proves too difficult or impossible, she will develop and execute activities in other regions directly from the Vía Tecnológica base in Caracas.


Claudia's life has been characterized by her persistent commitment to social responsibility and an understanding of the important role computer technology can play in improving of people's lives. Her family always inspired a sense of civic duty, beginning at the age of 5 when they brought Christmas gifts to children in poor rural areas. Her commitment to social change compelled her to study sociology at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in 1987. While writing her thesis and working for the Centro Gumilla, she came into contact with several poor communities and community youth groups. After graduating from college, she focused her career on social development by working with various citizen sector organizations.

In 1998 Claudia began work with Oportúnitas: Fundación para la Infancia y la Juventud, an organization that provides new social and educational opportunities for young people. In response to a Microsoft request for proposals, Claudia developed a project to build an infocenter in a poor area of Caracas. Though Oportúnitas did not receive funding, her investigation into the availability and application of technology in underprivileged communities helped her establish the basic plans for what would eventually become Vía Tecnológica.

Claudia was exposed to information technology at an early age. Her father gave the family a computer in 1984 and, from that point on, she incorporated its use into all of her activities. She initially used the computer for recreation, but learned to utilize it in her studies, and eventually gained an understanding of computer programming, repair, and maintenance. In 1995 she received a Specialization in Information Systems at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, at which time she came to understand that she could link her earlier training in sociology to her skills in the application of new technologies. In 1999 she saw a television program about an organization that recycled computers in the United States and decided to try something similar in Venezuela, knowing that recycling computers would not have a significant social impact without appropriate capacity-building efforts. At first, Claudia designed projects involving information technology while still at Oportúnitas, but she was unable to dedicate herself fully to her idea. In June 2000, she quit her job to work full-time on her project and launched Vía Tecnológica.