Crossing the Digital Divide

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In a follow-up to their landmark publication The Digital Classroom: How Technology is Changing the Way We Teach and Learn, the Harvard Education School noted that essentially all the K-12 classrooms in the U.S. have been wired (though many still have slow dial-up connections). So here, the "digital divide" is fast disappearing, from a pure technology standpoint. For the world as a whole the picture is not so uniformly bright. Asian countries like Korea and Japan have even greater connectivity than we do, while Africa, the Near East, Latin America, and Caribbean countries lag way behind.

The Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society has led several efforts to aid specific countries like Jamaica. Working with the Berkman Center and with Shawmut Education of Boston, I had a chance to see some of these efforts at first hand. But even when we build prototype digital classrooms, the problem remains of moving meaningful content across the digital divide. 

Shawmut Education is one of hundreds of agencies that collect computers discarded by American companies and move them to developing countries. David Pearson, Shawmut executive director, regularly packs old desktop and laptop computers into his luggage for trips to Jamaica. Shipping costs are prohibitive, so checking them means they can travel for no cost beyond the price of the passenger airfare, which allows large 70-pound suitcases. 

Once in Jamaica, they are installed in classrooms, usually with new network cards and enough RAM to support modern browsers. In one demonstration, a large shipping container (the kind that travel on trucks and ships) was converted into a digital classroom, with the plan of driving it around the island to teaching locations in different parishes. (Watch a video of the conference at the Berkman Center on Economic Development in Jamaica at 

So what kind of content is moving through these digital classrooms to cross the divide? For decades there has been much talk about distance learning, in which the teacher is here and the student is there. A number of lessons have been learned that have proved to be stumbling blocks for this simple distance-learning content model, from time zones to language and cultural differences, which would limit even physically present teachers. 

A major lesson learned is that the best content to offer helps teachers do a better job teaching. "Teach the teachers" is the war cry of those providing web-based professional development. There are thousands of online lesson plans and course curricula for K-12 that are adaptable to needs in other countries. And college material has recently boomed: MIT's OpenCourseware project, backed by the institute's $100 million commitment plus outside financial support, allows college teachers around the globe to adapt MIT courses to their local needs. The more modest Harvard@Home program offers special lectures in easy-to-view video format. These programs are truly global learning with nearly universal content (once-translated). 

Local learning uses the digital classroom to generate new content, empowering students with their own blogs and class wikis. Here, students often surpass teachers in technical ability, exhibiting what Harvard Education calls "multiple literacies." Today's "screenagers" are far more comfortable with content on machines, even cell phones, than their teachers. Kids everywhere "text" each other, and as cheap webcams and Skype become pervasive, they can be face to face with students anywhere. 

Most early distance learning projects invested heavily in videoconferencing technology. Skype and tools like Apple's iChatAV now deliver that capability to the digital classroom for free. Another critical infrastructure change is wireless. David Pearson used to carry multiple network cards and Ethernet cables to Jamaica. Now he carries one wireless router and a handful of tiny USB wireless adapters, which cost less than the old cards and cables, and they are easily moved between machines. Pearson says that "wireless is the ticket to cross the digital divide." 

Another great tool for global or local learning is screen-sharing programs. Pearson's favorite is VNC, freeware that lets all the students see the teacher's screen and actually move the mouse and type there. 

Pearson sums up the goal, reminding us of JFK's quote, "We all breathe the same air." But if air is content, he says, those without digital classrooms are left out of breath. He also eloquently expresses his hope that the digital classroom will allow the whole world to "get on the same screen."