Crossing the Digital Divide: A Story from Egypt

We hear a lot about the digital divide between northern and southern countries, but we know deep down that the real digital divide lays somewhere in that fuzzy expanse between 18 and 40 years of age. Somewhere between those who were born digital and who are discovering digital.

In the last few days in Egypt we learned more about this. Yesterday we heard a great story from Ahmed, a teenage undergraduate student at the School of Engineering in the University of Alexandria. Ahmed and some of his friends had recently engaged one of their professors in a little experiment.

In a course on the combustion engine, the students had finally had enough of their professor lecturing them on how the engine works. He did this by drawing the parts on a white board and explaining how the various parts worked to them. Drawing took a long time, was nowhere near to scale and, most problematically, did not move. The professor simply drew arrows to indicate how the engine worked or acted it out himself (no doubt with high amusement factor).

Ahmed asked his professor one day if he could have his notes and try to represent the lecture in a different way. After initial resistance, the professor handed over the notes. With the help of one of his friends, Ahmed learned Flash and animated the whole lecture. The professor was delighted as it saved him time, was accurate, and the other students loved it. Ahmed also put it online for sharing with professors, and students in other classes and engineering schools (still patiently working with engines drawn on whiteboards) could benefit from it too.

Being on the “wrong” (forty plus) side of the digital divide can be a humbling experience. At the same time, it does serve the nobler purpose of leveling the playing field and opening it up for more intergenerational co-learning opportunities which present a win/win for both professor and student. Having converted the lecture of the professor into animation, Ahmed himself gained a much better understanding of the workings of the combustion engine. Having accepted the possibility that his learners (students) may have something to teach him, the professor has also learned how new technologies can enhance his work.

If this heralds a paradigm shift, what will our universities look like in the future – will we all be learning together?

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