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Crossing the great divide

It is a grey morning break at a school in London, and a girl is sitting on a bench in the playground chatting to a friend. Only, the girl laughing on the other end of the bench is in a significantly sunnier playground in Cape Town.

The ingenious Worldbench project, created in 2004 by a group of London artists, placed shortened benches with digital projection screens in various schools in the UK, Germany and South Africa. The live video link meant that, when their breaks coincided, the children could get to know each other as if they were at the same school.

The technology involved in that project has already been surpassed. If you had visited education trade shows in Britain back then, you would have seen several companies trying to flog schools pricey videoconferencing systems.

Two years later, Skype launched its own free version. Canny teachers realised that, if they could get access to decent broadband in their classrooms, all they needed was a webcam - available for a tenner.

Videoconferencing is one of the tools used by the Flat Classroom project to link schools and get pupils collaborating on work. The scheme, set up by two educators, one American and one Australian, is essentially a snazzy modern version of a school-twinning project.

However, the technology does lend an immediacy to these international links and opportunities for cooperation that were lacking from the pen pal projects of the past.

The Flat Classroom project is by no means the only scheme of its kind. Yet it has certainly built a memorable educational brand, inspired by journalist Thomas L. Friedman's book The World is Flat.

But that book is not a tome of unfettered optimism. It is a warning to Western powers that the "flattening" of the world through technology means that their workers will face increasing competition for employment from people in developing countries.

The girl on the bench in London needs to get used to chatting to her friend in Cape Town, as one day they may be working together - or competing for the same job.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro michael.shaw@tes.co.uk @mrmichaelshaw.

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