Monday, March 07, 2005

A "Digital divide"?

A “digital divide”? Education is widely regarded as a pathway out of poverty, but is this a step too far? Two years ago, the government here, always striving to improve the lot of their people, were talking about spending millions of dollars to install plasma screens in over 1,000 schools; the idea being to beam standardised lessons into classrooms all over Ethiopia, by satellite link. Well, it has happened, despite the scepticism and disbelief of many. It is a wonderful piece of technology, but poses significant problems, both educationally and socially. The programmes were made in South Africa and undoubtedly offer high quality material. The snag lies in the fact that the teachers used for the programmes speak far too quickly, partly because the assumption, when the programmes were made, is that the audience will be native English speakers, too, and partly because they have a lot of material to get through in a short time. There have been two major impacts of this technology here so far: only those who have good English are able to keep up with the lessons, most students are beginning to feel left behind; and the teachers have become supervisors and technicians, turning the equipment on and off at the beginning and end of each session. The students even refer to them as DJs. Trend-watchers talk of the “digital divide” – the gap between those in our world who have internet access and those who don’t. The long term implications of this new technology are worrying. We’ve just completed a survey of library users - the students we know are deeply troubled now, there are no accompanying text books available and we can’t get hold of the teachers’ handbooks for any of the subjects yet but, through the Library, we can and will help them improve their chances of understanding the satellite lessons, even if it is only by offering English conversation. Any other ideas?