09/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Narrowing the Digital Divide

The school of 600 students has dirt floors. There is no electricity, running water or bathrooms. The students' uniforms are old and torn. Lunch comes from the banana trees and vegetables that are grown on the school property. The teachers use small pieces of chalk to write their lessons on handmade blackboards. Despite the severe poverty, the children are happy and trying hard to learn. I was visiting a primary school outside of Kisumu, Kenya two weeks ago to check on the status of 18 AIDS orphans who are supported by my students, family, friends and several donors in a project that was started five years ago by my daughter and the international club at her high school.

As I was leaving the school, I happened to glance down at my iPhone (something I do far too often), and discovered that my wireless was working. In the midst of this severe poverty, surrounded by students who will be lucky to learn to read and write, the world's knowledge was at my fingertips. With a few keystrokes I could respond to email, gain access to the world's libraries or browse one of the 1,900 free online courses offered by MIT. This certainly is the digital divide and it is certainly a big part of the solution to our educational challenges both locally and globally.

As we begin the school year, schools and colleges across the US are reeling from budget cuts that have forced layoffs, cutbacks in services and are leading to larger classes. In California, the statewide financial crisis has led to unprecedented cutbacks and increases in tuition and fees in the California college system. We will no longer be able to educate as many students in college as before -- in a traditional manner. But in an increasingly competitive global economy, it is imperative that all students get a world-class education.

How can we accomplish this in our challenging economic times? One of the only solutions -- and it is far better than most people realize -- is to harness all the amazing tools of technology in creative ways to teach, to learn, and to collaborate. There is strong evidence that online and hybrid learning (where students learn online and in class) can be personalized, rigorous and of very high quality. In June the U.S. Department of Education released a very important report, discussed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that showed something few academics will accept: "Students learn more effectively in online settings. Most powerful of all appear to be 'blended' courses that offer both face-to-face and online elements. Previous research has generally found that online and offline courses are equally effective." The key variable may not be the technology but that in using a technology-based course, the instructor has to take into account how students learn and the fact that people have different learning styles, and develop different instructional approaches based on that evidence. In a class of 500 where a professor uses the "chalk and talk" method, students are not engaged and involved in the learning process.

A new movement has begun in the educational world. Called the open educational resources (OER) movement, it was spurred by the development of MIT's free, open courseware. "The confluence of the Web and a spirit of sharing intellectual property have fueled a worldwide movement to make knowledge and education materials open to all for use. OER are content (courses, books, lesson plans, articles, etc.), tools (virtual laboratories, simulations, and games), and software that support learning and educational practice, says the head of Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative, whose goal is to "fundamentally change the way post-secondary education is done in this country." The Obama administration agrees and has proposed a $500 million online education plan that would pay for the development of free technology-enhanced, online classes for high school and college students that would be offered through community colleges. Obama's goal is to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 and this can only happen through a plan like this that transforms educational practices.

The world's educational resources increasingly are in the palm of our hand. The only question is whether we can envision and create a new educational world where all children have access to the world's knowledge.