This lecture was part of the Online Learning: An Overview course, in the Spring I, 2000 section

Please consult the "Introduction to our Guest" message in the MOD 4 Guest Lecture conference of our course WebBoard for detailed instructions on how to proceed with this week's guest lecture and related activities. After you have read the lecture below, please answer one or more of the discussion questions by posting a message to the MOD 4 DQ's conference in our course WebBoard. If you have questions or comments about the lecture for our guest, Dr. Nidhal Guessoum, he will be happy to engage in discussion with you in our MOD 4 Guest Lecture conference from May 2, 2000 until May 5, 2000.

  1. Introduction
  2. The Digital Divide worldwide
  3. The Digital Divide in the US
  4. The “Upper” Digital Divide: Fast and Broadband Connections
  5. The (Global?) Virtual Classroom
  6. Final Comments and Conclusions
  7. Discussion Questions
  8. References, Links, Further Reading Articles


1. Introduction   
     (The digital divide) 

Until recently, Larry Irving was the most important person in the US dealing with the issue of the digital divide, in both its national and global dimensions. Until Nov.  1999, Irving was US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information; he was the Administrator of the National Center for Telecommunica- tions and Information Administration (NTIA) and Chair of Telecommunications Policy Committee. Under the late Ron Brown (Sec. of Commerce), he headed the Global Information Infra- structure (GII) international project (see the Agenda for Cooperation document).  

I remember the day I first experienced the Internet in the US. It was just after I had arrived at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland for a research visit in July 96. I had been using the Internet, or more precisely the World Wide Web, in Kuwait for over a year (and I had used email, on the old universities Bitnet since around 1985), but speed made the experience totally different. It took me more than hour to get used to getting full pages, including images, almost instantaneously; it was in fact so fast for my eyes that I kept checking that I was not getting an old file stored in the cache!.. 

Of course I also later realized that such speeds are not common and available everywhere and for everyone, especially from home; still, the mere existence of such fast delivery of information made usage of the Internet a totally different experience and soon opened the door to various great possibilities and applications: chatting, Online education, and downloading software, music, and movie clips -- to name a few. 

I can also tell you, briefly for now, about how slow connections in my part of the world limit our usage of the Internet. Downloading is very limited, both because a small file of say 2 megabytes will usually take more than an hour to download -- and this, assuming the connection does not break in the middle. More importantly for our topic, Online education is also severely limited by connection speeds and stability (or lack thereof): when I attended a workshop on Multimedia in education in Egypt last year, the instructor at one point tried to have us do something with the Web, but with 20 computers in the lab trying together to download files, the effective speed quickly came down to something like 10 bytes per second (yes 10 bytes not kilobytes), which meant any simple webpage of, say, 30k would have taken… 50 minutes! Talk about an information revolution… 

It is true, on the brighter side, that the revolution in computers and telecommunications networks--and the accelerated rate of this change--, along with the global explosion in knowledge, are creating unprecedented changes in the flow of information (and now money) in and among nations. New jobs, an explosion in entrepreneurship, access to education, new modes of community building, ease of access to global markets--all of these things, and many more, are dividends of this information technology revolution. Yet the fruits of the Information Age are out of reach for many in both developed and developing nations. This gap, the "digital divide", threatens to cut off populations from information and opportunities (good jobs) and the chance to participate in the affairs of society and the world. For some citizens technology brings the promise of inclusion, opportunity and wealth; for others, greater isolation and increased poverty. (See the Digital Divide Project.) 

But while Internet users in the United States worry about dilemmas like: upgrade now or later, order high-speed connections or wait for cable modem service to arrive, check e-mail while on vacation or leave the laptop at home; in many corners of the world, there are dozens of developing countries where widespread access to the Internet -- of any kind -- remains a distant possibility. There are still no connections at all in Iraq, North Korea and a handful of African countries. Furthermore, in many countries where Internet connections are available to people, access is concentrated in the largest cities and is prohibitively expensive (compared to an individual's typical income). That expense largely restricts the use of the Internet to an elite, mostly made up of foreigners, government workers and business people (NYT 7/8/99). And if this were not problematic enough, in some cases government censors put the Internet out of reach for most people in their countries. 

“When I was first talking about the Internet in the developing world in 1992, I was called a 'technofascist' and a 'cybercolonist',” said Larry Irving (former US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information). This sounds very familiar to me, because when I myself discuss Internet penetration, widespread and fast flow of information, and applications to commerce and education in countries like Kuwait or Algeria (which should aspire to better standards than the average Third World countries), I regularly hear words like: “elitist”, “priorities”, “cultural invasion”, etc.… 

But Irving has added: “Now I don't get those comments, just questions about how can we get this - and fast.” Well, Amen. 

In the US too…  

Imagine if you could phone people only in big cities. To reach someone in the suburbs or a rural area, you'd be forced to use regular mail. Who would want to live in a country like that? Who could do business in a country like that? But that is what's happening in the U.S. as fast and affordable Internet access rolls out, transforming the country into a very contrasted landscape of digital haves and have-nots. 

Phone and cable companies are going where the money is, wiring neighborhoods and business areas where people can easily afford the service. In America, 86% of Net delivery capacity is concentrated in the 20 largest cities. 

Thus the irony: the very technology that could be a bridge to a better world is fast getting denied to the less fortunate! 

But poor people have always been at a disadvantage, and in many areas of life that often constitute very basic necessities: housing, water, Medicare, education, etc. So why the fuss now over Internet accessibility and speed? 

The convergence of a lot of different interests has put this on the agenda: the general public is interested in having access to the tech revolution, businesses want to expand their markets, schools are interested in trying to change the way kids are taught. Everyone's awareness is coming together at the same time. 
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2. The Digital Divide worldwide
The problem of the Digital Divide worldwide goes much deeper than mere Internet connectivity. It can be traced back to telephone lines, infrastructure, education, and – in the end – just plain poverty. 

More than 80% of people in the world have never heard a dial tone, let alone sent an email or downloaded information from the World Wide Web. In Africa, with 739 million people, there are only 14 million phone lines. That's fewer than in Manhattan or Tokyo!! And eighty percent of those lines can be found in just six countries. There are only 1 million Internet users on the entire continent compared with, for example, 10.5 million in the UK (1999 UNDP Report)

Another prominent problem is, of course, politics. In Laos, for instance, the Communist government considers the Internet a destabilizing influence because of the free flow of information associated with the Web and keeps connections scarce. There are two cybercafes in the capital, Vientiane, but Laotians are not allowed in. The connection of Myanmar (formerly Burma) to the Internet remains similarly tenuous: all modems must be registered with the government, which is run by the military. 

In some countries, users who can connect to the Internet sometimes find that access to certain sites is blocked, according to Human Rights Watch. The group says that some Mideast countries, for example, blocked access to political sites under the guise of protecting users from pornography. This is definitely true in some countries around here (you don't need me to name them for you), and in fact even in Kuwait, which is considered relatively liberal, a high official in the field of communications (himself a liberal educated in the US) told me a few weeks ago that the government is working on installing a national filtering proxy, due to the pressures from some social and political groups. 

Even without such problems, the infrastructure is far from being available for the implementation of the Internet in any area of life. In Cambodia in 1996, there was less than 1 telephone for every 100 people. In Monaco, by contrast, there were 99 telephones for every 100 people. (A widely accepted measure of basic access to telecommunications is having 1 telephone for every 100 people—a teledensity of 1. ) 

Beyond basic landline connections, the disparities are even starker. In mid-1998 industrial countries (home to less than 15% of people) had 88% of Internet users. North America alone (with less than 5% of the world population) had more than 50% of Internet users. By contrast, South Asia is home to over 20% of all people but had less than 1% of the world's Net users. 

Thailand has more cellular phones than the whole of Africa. There are more Internet hosts in Bulgaria than in Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa). The United States has more computers than the rest of the world combined, and more computers per capita than any other country. Just 55 countries account for 99% of global spending on information technology. 

Most telephones in developing countries are in the capital city, although most people live in rural areas. Connections are often poor, especially in the rainy season, and the costs of calls are very high. In many African countries the average Internet connection and use costs as much as $100 per month --- compared with $10 in the US! (And remember that in most of Africa, the average wage of a teacher or an engineer is a few hundred dollars a month --- at most!) 

Internet Demographics in the World:  

What is true or valid for Internet demographics (users’ income, education, gender, race, etc.) in the US gets mirrored even more vividly in the rest of the world: 

  • Income buys access: More than 30% of users in the United Kingdom had salaries above $60,000. The average South African user had an income seven times the national average, and 90% of users in Latin America came from upper-income groups. Buying a computer would cost the average Bangladeshi more than eight years’ income, compared with just two weeks’ wage for the average American.
  • Education is a ticket to the network high society: Globally, 30% of users have at least one university degree: in the UK it is 50%, in China almost 60%, in Mexico 67%, and in Ireland almost 70%.
  • Men dominate: Women accounted for 38% of users in the US, 25% in Brazil, 17% in Japan and South Africa, 16% in Russia, only 7% in China, and a mere 4% in the Arab states. The trend starts early: in the US five times as many boys as girls use computers at home, and parents spend twice as much on technology products for their sons as they do for their daughters.
  • Youth dominate too: The average age of users in the United States was 36; in China and the UK, under 30.
  • Ethnicity counts: In the US the difference in use by ethnic groups widened between 1995 and 1998. Disparity exists even among US university students: more than 80% attending elite private colleges used the Internet regularly, compared with just over 40% attending public institutions, where African- American students are more likely to enroll.
  • English talks: English is used in almost 80% of websites and in the common user interfaces (graphics and instructions). Yet less than 10% of people worldwide speak the language. (More on this later.)
To put it simply and clearly: the typical Internet user worldwide is male, under 35 years old, with a college education and high income, urban-based and English-speaking—a member of a very elite minority worldwide. The consequence? The network society is creating parallel communications systems: one for those with income, education and—literally—connections, giving plentiful information at low cost and high speed; the other for those without connections, blocked by high barriers of time, cost and uncertainty, and dependent on outdated information. 

Think how powerful the Internet is. Then remind yourself that fewer than 2% of people are actually connected,” said Larry Irving. In 1990 more than 90% of data on Africa were stored and managed in the United States and Europe, inaccessible to African policy makers and academics. The Internet is bringing the data back home. Policy makers can also gain access to international expertise and ongoing debates, strengthening their negotiating positions for a much needed greater presence in international forums. If only Africans could link to the vital information that is, at potentially, at their finger tips. 
(Back to Outline) 

3. The Digital Divide  in the US
A recent (July 1999) survey from the US Commerce Department showed blacks and Hispanics less than half as likely as whites to explore the net from home, work or school. The study, titled “Falling Through the Net”, is the third and most comprehensive to be conducted by the Commerce Dept. over the past three years; it reinforces the general impression (and fear) that minority groups are increasingly at a disadvantage in competing for the hottest entry-level jobs in the country, those that require a knowledge of computers as well as comfort in navigating the Internet. 

The following bullets summarize of the main findings: 

  • Among families earning $15,000 to $35,000 per year, more than 32% of whites owned computers, but only 19% of Blacks and Hispanics had computers at home. That gap widened from eight  percentage points five years ago (to thirteen), even as the price of entry-level personal computers plunged.
  • Children in single-parent households have far less access to computers and the Internet than those in two-parent households. A child in a two-parent white household is nearly twice as likely to have Internet access as a child in a one-parent white household; the disparity is even greater between single-parent and two-parent black households.
  • The highest penetration of computers in households in the United States can be found in largely rural, cold-weather states, many of which have pockets of high-tech jobs. The lowest penetration is in southern states where poverty and education troubles still reign; outside the South and Appalachia, New York was at the bottom.
Larry Irving, who oversaw the study, concluded: “it is abysmal that we still have a gap of 3 to 1 among the races” in Internet access, “and that's what we have to work on.” 

Among the initiatives being worked on to address this sorry state is an "E-rate" that reduces the cost of Internet access for schools and libraries in low-income areas, a program Republicans have sought to limit because it relies on fees on telephone bills. 

But the “Falling Through the Net” study also shows clearly that the digital divide is not simply racial or economic: divisions in computer and Internet usage certainly correlate with income levels and race, but they also extend to parents’ education backgrounds as well as geographical locations. President Clinton summed it up simply: “there is a growing digital divide along the lines of education, income, region and race.” 

Still, others dispute the report's conclusions and find them exaggerated; David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, put it this way: “There's no such thing as information haves and information have-nots… There are have-nows and have-laters. The families that don't have computers now are going to have them in a few years…” 

(Back to Outline) 

4. The “Upper”          Digital Divide:  
    Fast and Broadband                    Connections

Bandwidth is the capacity to move information down a given channel." Negroponte ("Being Digital", Vintage 1996) likens it "to the diameter of a pipe or to the number of lanes on a highway." 

 I am sure we have all tried to download a program from the Internet, only to be faced with the “18 minutes 43 seconds remaining” alert (actually, in my case, it's usually more like “1 hour 24 minutes 37 seconds…”). So those of us who use the Net for more than just email to our friends and remote family members have been looking for (and waiting for) the opportunity to "upgrade" connections and speeds. 

Help is on the way, we are told, in the shape of either DSL (digital subscriber-line), which is a technology that claims to wring big bandwidth out of plain old copper phone lines, or coaxial cables that connect to your PC through cable modems for two-way data traffic. And, if you are really desperate for high-speed, cableless connections, you will soon have… satellite networks. 

If you refer to the Connections Speed Comparison Table,  you will note that these services are much faster (and far cheaper) than T1 lines, the high-speed connections that companies and universities get in order to allow simultaneous access from many offices, and this cheapness constitutes a dilemma for the telephone companies, since T1 lines represent the bulk of their sales to businesses. 

The race between the fast technologies is heating up, with – so far – cable being the front-runner, simply because this service is more widely available (in the US, that is) and costs less: about $40 a month plus $150 to install. For DSL: about $60 a month plus several hundred dollars for the installation. (In a recent consumer survey, 84% of Internet subscribers said they were interested in high-speed access, but only 34% were willing to pay twice what they currently pay to get on the Net.) 

The number of households that subscribed to high-speed cable in 1998 was 430,000, but it is expected to reach 4.3 million in four years time. In comparison, DSL customers numbered only 30,000 at the end of 1998, but they're expected to total 2.7 million by 2002. 

Critics warn of some potential problems for cable connections: because cable service is shared, there is a risk of both security and speed reduction (although with at least 1.5 million bits per second, one can afford some slowing down…). Security, however, is a more serious issue, but the companies offering this technology claim they can ensure it by setting up firewalls for each user… DSL is fast and more reliable and secure, although users will enjoy dedicated high-speed lines only for the "last mile" to their homes; they will have to share bandwidth beyond the central office. And they must live within three miles of a switching station to get the service… 

It is going to be very very interesting to see how broadband will change the Internet's role in everyday life: Will it finally replace newspapers and phone books? Will it eliminate paper bills and other snail mail? Will it close down the mall and make movie theaters obsolete? Will reference books and other media fade away?.. 

Something important will also soon happen: you will be connected 24 hours a day -- no more of the dial-up log-in song-and-dance every time you want to check your email or read your favorite newspaper. As someone said, “You're going to be two clicks away from anything anytime;” And with the recent merging of Internet and Media/ Entertainment platforms (AOL and TIME-Warner), not even dreams can allow us to glimpse into the e-life about to dawn… on you. 

Because the rest of us will most probably still live in the World Wide Wait for a long time… 
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5. The (Global?)  
  Virtual Classroom
According to the 1999 UNDP Report, a US medical library subscribes to around 5,000 journals, but the Nairobi University Medical School Library, long regarded as a flagship centre in East Africa, now receives just 20 journals, compared with 300 a decade ago. In Brazzaville, Congo, the university has only 40 medical books and a dozen journals, all from before 1993. 

Distance learning, through teleconferencing and, increasingly, the Internet, can bring critical knowledge to information-poor hospitals and schools in developing countries. The potential is great, but technology alone is not a solution. Three cautions: 

  • Information-poor schools and hospitals are often poorly connected. In South Africa, the best-connected country in Africa, many hospitals and about 75% of schools have no telephone line. Even at the university level, where there is connection, up to 1,000 people can depend on just one terminal. But even computers are not enough: an entire telecommunications infrastructure is needed.
  • Equipment is a necessity, but to be part of a solution distance learning requires institutions, skills and good management. Distance learning technology is of little use without relevant course content and strong staff support. Zambia saw an exodus of 7,000 teachers between 1986 and 1990, largely due to a shrinking education budget.
  • Information is only one of many needs. Email is no substitute for vaccines, and satellites cannot provide clean water. High- profile technology projects risk overshadowing basic priorities.
There are some obvious benefits, of course. Isolated academics and scientists can take part in Internet conferences, keeping up to date on discussions and developments in their fields. Contacts made can become technical support groups, which are of tremendous value to remote specialists. By allowing participants to share and discuss papers online, Internet conferences can easily involve more than 1,000 people worldwide, without any of the costs of travel. 

Now we come to the $40,000 question: Can the Internet help Education in the Third World? 

The Micha-Kgasi High School in rural South Africa, has recently conducted an interesting experiment using just a Pentium-100 PC, a desk jet printer, a data/fax cell phone, and an e-mail connection. Goolam Mohamed, a Math teacher and one of the enthusiastic participants in the school's experiment, said: “There are hundreds of educational projects using e-mail available. Believe me, it really enhances your teaching…” But what can one do with it? The same PC-Printer-Connection was used to do the following: 

  • communicating with institutions for the donation of computers;
  • a water project with an NGO in New Jersey;
  • a research project on rape;
  • reports on cell data project research;
  • a compilation of quarterly schedules for all classes;
  • involvement in the project "Where on the globe is Roger?";
  • a project on "let's compare prices";
  • correspondence and registrations for conferences abroad.
Critics of such experiments counter that these gimmicks are simply being used by upper-class schools that wish to impress prospective parents by offering such luxury, frivolous services as Internet collaborations or interactive satellite courses, while the same amount of money would have brought in more useful book collections, lab equipment, or just good teachers. Is technology being used to give the best education that money can buy, or the one that sells best? 

Virtual universities  

While the Internet in schools has yet to prove sufficient value for money in developing countries, universities have been some of the earliest and greatest beneficiaries of the Internet and computer networking. Researchers collaborate internationally, far more cheaply and quickly than they ever could before. It would seem that Internet elements would already be applied wisely in development projects focusing on universities. 

One such project is the "African Virtual University", at a cost of $1.2 million to the World Bank's lnfoDev programme. The AVU aimed to be "an electronic broker of education, collecting the latest knowledge emanating from universities, conferences, and professional associations for use in [sub-Saharan Africa]; adapting that information into lectures, seminars, courses, and degree programmes... and disseminating it using affordable and up-to-date technologies such as online data basing, public broadcasting, videotape, satellite and the Internet". Using scarce teaching resources to reach students all over the continent through an existing, flexible and low-cost communications infrastructure seems an ideal application for the Internet. 

Distance learning projects can also make available a wealth of educational resources to improve local educational and training capabilities, offering cost-saving, effective alternatives to overseas studies. 

But all this has not impressed everyone. An Internet discussion group (or listserv) populated mainly by Africans working with information and communications technologies drew many critical responses. “Some aid projects seem to be designed with the assumption that Africa suffers from a shortage of neurons, rather than hardware”, said Nemo Semret an Ethiopian at Columbia University in New York. “Such a top-down project is going to make things worse. It will create dependency and complacency, and of course it will never be sustainable…” As soon as the funding ends, the project will die, says Dr. Eberhard Lisse, a Namibian. 

But few deny that education systems in most developing countries suffer from a chronic shortage of information resources and that the Internet has the capacity to play a major role in narrowing this information gap. The question once again comes down to the allocation of scarce resources and the dilemmas involved in diverting money from absolute necessities. 

And finally, there are of course the Online courses like the one we are experiencing right here. Dozens if not hundreds of American universities and colleges are now offering thousands of courses over the Internet, and these can in principle benefit students from every corner of the world. And indeed many people from the various continents have taken courses and exams in subjects that are unavailable to them where they live. In the US itself, people are taking OL courses for various reasons (convenience of time and distance, cost, special expertise at some specific institution, etc.). So there is no doubt that this new technology and approach can have a very positive impact on education for people everywhere. 

But there are also important limitations and obstacles on the way to this lofty goal. First and foremost, those people who are not near the campuses offering these courses, those who should benefit the most from this bridge, are very rarely equipped with what's needed, and this applies very largely to people in the Third World, but also to some extent to Americans in rural areas. 

My first experience with OL Education, indeed when I took this very course (then taught by Jennifer Lieberman, in the Fall of 99), was overwhelmingly positive in its educational aspects, but it did also make me aware of the technical obstacles that exist between this technology and its large-scale implementation. A couple of examples: 

  • Ten days into the course, our college server crashed and stayed down for several days; when it came back up, we could surf the Web but email remained unavailable for another two weeks... not an uncommon occurrence; I still managed to stay the course.
  • The guest lecture (by Ray Schroeder from UIS) was delivered through streaming video, which required the downloading of the (free) RealPlayer software. This in itself was a small nuisance, but I managed to get it done without too much hassle. The lecture itself, however, was not so easy to get, as I kept getting the "Net congestion... buffering" alert. I had to get up very early one morning, when data flow is more fluid here, in order to view the whole lecture uninterrupted. In fact, I liked that lecture so much that I've been trying to audit Dr. Schroeder's OL course at UIS about the Internet itself, but only about 4 of the 13 video lectures have I been able to view without problems.
So it's a mixed achievement for OL courses: on the one hand someone like me can experience, enjoy, and benefit from classes and topics that would otherwise never be available to me; on the other hand, there are more and more requirements and limitations that, I suspect, may end up placing such offerings just way above the foreign commoner's reach. 

In conclusion, although the cost is still prohibitive, the technology is no longer a barrier. If the finances are available, and staff are prepared to take the plunge, the Internet can benefit students by diversifying their range of educational materials and broadening their peer group. Perhaps more significantly, it leads teachers efficiently to a wealth of materials relevant to class delivery and curriculum development. 

(Back to Outline) 

6. Final Comments         and Conclusions 

    Last month, when I was in Central Asia, the President of Kyrgyzstan told me his eight-year-old son came to him and said,  
   "Father, I have to learn English."  
   "But why?" President Akayev asked.  
   "Because, father, the computer speaks English."  

     -- Vice President Al Gore 

           Preparing for the information age  

If developing nations are to be part of the information age, they first need to recognize and strengthen the areas that help them use and make the most of information and communications technology: 

  • Information Infrastructure: create and develop the capacity to send and receive information by telephone, television, radio, and fax; 
  • Computer Literacy: extend access to computers in schools, workplaces, and homes; this includes building networks and using software; 
  • Internet Penetration: expand the use of the Internet in schools, workplaces and homes, and enable electronic commerce; 
  • Social Awareness: build people's capacity to use information more and more through education, and civil liberty, and freedom of entrepreneurship .
Secondly, governments should set for themselves the following goals to reach on their way to an information society: 
  • Generate Cash: find innovative ways to fund the knowledge society;
  • Develop Capacity: build human skills for the knowledge society;
  • Increase Connectivity: set up telecommunications and computer networks;
  • Be Creative: adapt technology to meet local needs and constraints;
  • Have a Communal Approach: focus on group access, not individual ownership;
  • Focus on Content: put local views, news, culture and commerce on the Web;
  • Encourage Collaboration: Make full use of the Internet's global nature and build on its capacity to ignore boundaries.
Finally, officials could take into account (gamble?) the imminent satellite network revolution, which promises greater connectivity, as every point on the globe will/could be reached instantly without the need for expensive land-based infrastructure. User costs will be very high at first, but with several major satellite networks due to be launched by 2001, competition should bring prices falling rapidly in the future. 

           Some positive steps:  

There is a conference called INET 99, an annual meeting of the Internet Society, the nonprofit group that coordinates Internet-related projects around the world with the motto "Internet Is for Everyone." Each year, the group holds a three-day conference; previous locations have included Prague, Montreal, Geneva and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). The latest such gathering took place in July 1999, when 1,600 network administrators, academics and business people gathered at the San Jose Convention Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. 

In addition, each year a workshop is held for a week preceding the conference; in San Jose, 143 people from 66 developing nations attended. This is aimed at sending participants home with additional technical and administrative skills for running networks. Those accepted for the workshop -- some 500 people usually apply -- have basic technical skills. They also have to have leverage within their organization, and the organization has to have leverage in the country -- for example, someone running networking for the major university in the country or within the P.T.T. (usual acronym for the official agency running the national postal and telecommunications system). 

The demographics of the workshop shift each year, as telecommunications needs change across the world. The first workshop, in 1993, had a large contingent of Eastern Europeans. This time, more than half of the participants were from Africa… 

      The Global Virtual Classroom: A Mirage? 

There are, however, additional factors that may weigh in negatively in the Virtual Classroom's strive to be a "global educational equalizer", so to speak. 

First and foremost, the VC is presently -- and will most probably remain for long -- an English-language phenomenon. And this puts great additional constraints and pressure on the global students. Not only do the latter need to master English, they will have to be fast and efficient readers and express themselves rather well in writing. And these are not obvious attributes of the Asian, African, or even European student, contrary to what the culture of globalization assumes. (I can hear some of you saying don't think most American kids master English well enough..., but you haven't heard it from me.) ;-) But think about the simple fact that most world languages do not use Latin characters or western syntax and are not even written left to right! 

In fact, the dominance of the English language over the Internet and its threat to subjugate other languages and cultures has been seen as a grave danger not only for Education but for Culture(s) as well. In a Net-famous article titled "Resisting Cyber-English", Joe Lockard, himself an English professor, uses harsh words to depict the present pernicious English-language monopoly on Net exchanges. It globalizes relationships of domination and subordination between cyber and non-cyber languages... The Net's overwhelming reliance on the English language constitutes its greatest barrier to electronic participation; he writes. Cyber-English has declared global language/class war; learn it or else; speak so 'we' understand you, or take a hike and be damned.” 

Even for those non-native English speakers who manage to learn enough language to, in principle, participate and benefit from the wealth of information available online, many of them have reported that their weak English tends to often be equated with inferior skills, ideas, and minds. In other words, Anglo-Saxons unconsciously believe that if 'we' don't speak English well, then 'we' don't think well. 

And finally, one should not forget that the VC is firmly grounded in the digital culture, meaning that if you do not have enough computer literacy you will hardly be able to significantly surf the Web and extract useful information from it, let alone go through the complete motions of a full course online. 

But whereas schools in the US have largely become equipped with computers and wired to the Net (in 1999 the average public school  had at least one multimedia computer for every 10 students -- see Map -- and at least 90% of public schools had Internet access), and when schools in the West routinely teach computer skills to kids as young at 6 years of age, students globally often never touch a mouse well into their college years -- if they do reach that level. In fact, and this may also exist to some extent in western societies, teachers themselves are ill-prepared for the computer/information revolution, and I can attest that even at colleges in rich Third World countries, a majority of professors simply could not use computers for meaningful exchanges of information, let alone use them in class to further students' leaning. 

To sum up, I think there is no question that Online Education and the Virtual Classroom are major developments in humanity's education and general advancement. It is also quite clear that this represents a great opportunity (at least potential) for people to improve their knowledge and skills, especially if they have or can acquire the basic tools needed in this regard. 

It remains to be seen, however, whether the technical and linguistic constraints attached to this important development will be insurmountable obstacles for people of all walks of life who wish to benefit from the Internet as an educational tool, or whether some procedures can be found to make the Internet a truly global educational equalizer.

I look forward to the discussion session.

(Back to Outline) 

7. Discussion Questions:

Please contribute your ideas on the issues raised in these discussion questions in our WebBoard conferencing forum. Post your answers in the MOD 4 DQ conference. If you are the first person to answer a question, you will start the thread, and if the DQ thread has already been started, please continue the thread by adding your response.

8. References, Links, Further Reading Articles
  • The Digital Divide Project, University of Washington, 1999
  • Losing Ground Bit by Bit, BBC News Online Report, 1999
  • UNDP Report 1999, Chap. 2: New Technologies and the Global Race for Knowledge
  • NTIA Report “Falling Through the Net”, 1999
  • The Global Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Cooperation (1998?)
  • Losing Ground Bit by Bit: Low-Income Communities in the Information Age”, Benton Foundation, 1999
  • International Communication HeadcountNUA Surveys (of Internet users worldwide)
  • Report Shows Increase in 'Digital Divide'”, New York Times, 7/8/99
  • Spanning the 'Digital Divide'”, Washington Post, 7/9/99
  • E-Rate
  • “Common Ground Elusive as Technology Have-Nots Meet Haves”, NYT 7/8/99 (No longer available online)
  • “Big Racial Disparity Persists in Internet Use”, NYT 7/9/99 (No longer avialable online)
  • “Broadband: The Need for Speed”Internet Connection Speed Comparison Chart (no longer available online)
  • “Rules of DSL.: Location, Location, Confusion”, NYT 1/13/2000 (no longer available online)
  • “Don't Take No for an Answer, at Least Not Too Readily” (includes links to sites for DSL service), NYT 1/13/2000 (no longer available online)
  • Why the Digital Divide is Your Problem Too”, Jesse Berst (ZDNet AnchorDesk), 11/3/1999
  • Surfing the Skies, Alex Lash, The Standard, Feb 01, 1999
  • Resisting Cyber-English”, Joe Lockard, Bad Subjects #24, Feb. 1996

    Last Update: 4/18/2000
    Author and Contact: Dr. Nidhal Guessoum
         College of Technological Studies, Kuwait


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