Mind the Gap

Education Beyond Borders

Mind the Gap

Posted by Noble on Sep 09, 2012

Tackling the Global Digital & Educational Divide.

by Noble Kelly, President/Founder of Education Beyond Borders

Through my years of experience in various education systems and environments and working with various demographics, one thing I have observed is a widening global educational and digital gap. We in developed nations are also playing a big role in enlarging this gap when we hasten to advance without inclusion or input from our peers in emerging regions.

Why is there a global divide?
This gap between people/nations exists for a number of reasons; some of them due to physical and resource imbalances and some of them based on an imbalance in knowledge, access to information and education standards. Despite its crucial connection to economic and social development, teacher training is often uneven, protracted, or unsupported. While there are a variety of educational options now available for people (many who take these options for granted) in the developed world, for those in developing nations their limited options are often seen as their only opportunity for survival.  Unfortunately, teachers are rarely included in educational policy change or significant decision-making. Teachers are not just a resource for our children; they are the key to development—especially in developing countries. They know who is sick, who is missing, who has been abducted into the sex trade or conscripted into a military gang, who has been orphaned by AIDS, who is achieving and who is not. I have witnessed first hand the rote teaching styles in many countries as they are pressured to teach a very saturated colonial curriculum in an overly examinable system pressured from above to produce results. You surely won’t have to look too far to see the product of years of standardization on the competency of a society. Without access to teaching and learning best practices, research and methodologies, teachers have no choice but to teach the way they were taught; perpetuating a system that continues to fail a majority of its citizens.

Another aspect of this disparity is the digital divide, specifically in access to and uses of modern ICT. Millions across Africa, Asia, and Latin America struggle daily to survive; force to live in dire poverty due to competition and comparison to the industrialized nations. While on the other hand, the industrialized world enjoys the conveniences, access and efficiencies provided by modern communications technologies, and take advantage of new educational opportunities afforded by ICT. The largest contributors to the digital divide are lack of infrastructure and poverty. Technology has too often been a solution in search of a problem. This is often the case in the regions I visited and when talking to the decision-makers. These purchasers often fall prey to the myriad of salespeople toting the greatest and latest in technology that will be the answer to all their economic and educational woes. They buy it hook, line and sinker. Then when it is soon realised that there was not a fully developed implementation and support plan in place, these huge investments become huge failures with the teacher becoming the scapegoat.

I have experienced where a certain government agency plan for education reform was the installation of computer labs and SMART boards in townships schools. There was no sustainable plan for training, security, tech support, measure of positive educational impact, etc. Yet it seemed their sole criterion for success was the number of “things” that were installed in these disadvantaged and resource poor communities. After years of use, many of us know the potential and pitfalls of interactive whiteboards and the important skills needed to make it an appropriate tool to enhance learning and not used a glorified projector. And with only some classes (mainly Math) having at best 30 minutes a week access to the computer lab and lack of appropriate integration strategies for authentic learning, we see computers used for “drill and kill” practise reducing the students’ motivation for both the subject area and the tool.

One of the most unfortunate by-products of the digital divide is its negative impact on educational efforts throughout the developing world. Digital technologies provide exciting new opportunities for students in the industrialized world to obtain large amounts of current information, to communicate and collaborate in dynamic new ways, and to work more efficiently than ever before. Without access to the benefits of ICT, students in less developed countries may fall even further behind their peers in other nations.

Advocating for homegrown solutions
A huge mistake I see in the name of “development” and reducing this digital divide is to replicate the systems of the “West” in these developing countries. It becomes almost an arrogant assumption that what works here is what is needed there. Putting aside the decades of mistakes and lessons learned, differences in cultural, geographical and socio-political contexts, decision-makers should not be trying to focus on ways to repeat history as a means to become globally competitive. The focus should not be on the historical uses of educational technology, but instead be forward looking and by-pass or skip those steps and look to innovative ways and technologies that are best applicable to local contexts and their needs.

Some may feel that traditional cultures should be left in isolation, so that their value systems and customs remain undisturbed. It is increasingly rare to find communities untouched by the effects of globalization and most have recognised and benefited from efficiencies and conveniences from the appropriate application of modern telecommunications and information resources to their local context. For example, Kenya was the first country to use mobile phones to handle their daily cash transactions through an SMS-based money transfer system called M-Pesa. This system is gaining momentum and popularity with many developing countries due to its innovative and mobile branchless banking service. This is a prime example of developing an innovative technological service to satisfy a specific need and not the other way around—a developing nation leapfrogging in the use of a specific technology appropriate for their use without replicating it from the West. It is also highly believed among those of us working with mobiles for development (M4D) that these developing nations will not be dependent on email as their main mode of communication but rather SMS due to the high saturation of mobile phones over any other technology. 

As dynamic as many of the new forms of ICT can be, technology is no panacea for educational ills. It needs to address clearly defined problems and set appropriate, attainable objectives. Underestimating the significance of the teacher’s role in any technology plan can be a critical error. The most dynamic applications of ICT are those facilitated by a teacher who is prepared to take full advantage of its potential and able to apply technology in creative ways. In my opinion, the greatest needs are: educational best practices and methodologies to enhance learning through a student-centred approach and access to information and others and not so much about the “things”. Resource investment should be allocated towards empowering the teachers and educational leaders by providing them with the tools, training and access to the resources (Internet, networks, etc.) to have a lasting positive impact in the quality of education delivered.

Building a global village
As educators, we are entrusted with the task of developing global citizens. In this new century there is a need for new curriculum, policy and attitude to help foster “global citizenship”.  In the developed world where a majority of its citizens have access to resources, infrastructure and technology to communicate and travel worldwide, the definition of “globalization” may seem obvious. But what about a nation that has no comparable access? The term ‘global citizen’ is most likely not part of their vocabulary. Knowing that other countries, landscapes, people, and cultures exist is one thing—being able to interact with them is another. Is learning this content all that is required to equip students with the global competencies necessary to be contributing global citizens?

Global education is not as much about the content as it is about interacting and contributing within an expanded, diverse audience. If we are not finding authentic, relevant and timely ways to expand our classrooms to include diverse perspectives and voices, then I might challenge you by asking how SMALL is your classroom?

Global education is the term used internationally to describe a form of education which*:
• enables people to understand the links between their own lives and those of people throughout the world;
• increases understanding of the economic, cultural, political and environmental influences which shape our lives;
• develops the skills, attitudes and values which enable people to work together to bring about change and take control of their own lives;  and
• works towards achieving a more just and sustainable world in which power and resources are more equitably shared

* David Hicks, “Teaching for a Better World”

Without facilitating the connection between our students and their peers around the world to discuss and learn in an interactive manner from relevant global issues, curriculum becomes one-sided, stagnant and irrelevant. It is through these connections can the next generations truly understand the extent of the interconnectedness of world events and its people. It also allows us to break through myths and borders and build global, peaceful relationships to work together to find solutions to local and global issues—creating true global citizens and closing the global divide.

A warning
We may be inadvertently contributing to widening the already large global educational and digital divide. If we limit our reach to only our classroom or a few other developed regions due to the restrictions of time and access and we do not have the interaction with more developing nations on a regular basis, then we must question how “global” are we.

There have also been many conferences I have attended where the goal seemed to be to integrate technology in education in ways that only contribute to a more myopic view of the world by not including the voices or perspectives of our peers in developing countries. Many do see the need to be more inclusive in their reach but sometimes it sounds like the need to succeed in the use of technology is more important than the patience necessary to maintain a collaborative partnership with a school in a developing country that does not have the capacity to contribute at the rate that our high-speed, mega bandwidth society is accustomed. So what we end up finding is many connections between the “haves”—from developed country to developed country.

As computers become more pervasive in the western world, it can be easy to forget that not every country has equal access to key digital resources and infrastructure. Broadband speed Internet is almost considered a necessity in many developed countries today, and yet many people in parts of the developing world do not have any ability to go online at all. There is a growing movement to advocate for the access to the Internet and free or very low-cost connectivity as a basic human right.

As educators, no matter where we live, we have a few key responsibilities. We must not only teach the usual academics but also be role models for and nurture our students to be able to communicate, collaborate and cohabitate within a truly global context.  It is only through a more systemic and broader, diverse approach to collaboration can we address global issues, educate ourselves and prepare the next generations for the interconnectedness of globalization. In other words, how to:
• work towards global, sustainable solutions;
• build global relations that will dismiss cultural and social biases, myths and stereotypes; and
• break down the borders and lack of access that prevent us from learning from and acting with a truly global voice.

Closing the gap
Ultimately the goal becomes to work collectively so that all schools have a global vision and culture that supports internationally focused teaching and learning, institutional policy for the full integration of global references and perspectives in all subject areas, redefine high school graduation requirements to include a defined set of global competencies, expand student experiences through internationally oriented service learning, internships, and partnerships/exchanges, and harness technology to tap global information sources, create international collaborations, and offer international courses and languages. With our collective resources we have an opportunity to close the global education divide by working with teachers and students in other parts of the world.

There are no simple solutions to the digital divide problem. But probably the worst possible approach is to just ignore it, because it is only likely to get worse. For as long as millions remain without the technology to communicate effectively, obtain information they need, and become better educated, and we are reluctant to meet them half way then conditions of poverty will continue to prevail across most of the planet.

In closing, I founded Education Beyond Borders with a philosophy based on the premise to invite, gather, distil, synthesize, and disseminate the best collective wisdom from teacher leaders from every culture to make all teachers even more effective in contributing to the creation of a world that works for all. If the key to economic development and our young people’s future is education, then teachers should have resources, tools, and access to the Internet, as well as each other. In short, teachers are society’s glue, and they certainly deserve our assistance; otherwise, we are all left with a gaping digital, educational, and economic divide.


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    Founder/President
    Noble Kelly


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