'Good morning, Birmingham. This is Soweto. We're sending you the pictures we took before break'

John Davitt enjoys the insightful cultural exchange set up between schools in Birmingham and the townships of Soweto

It's 7am and over Johannesburg the July sunrise throws into sharp relief the low hills which still dot the city (spoil heaps from the goldrush 100 years ago). I'm up early to head south out of Johannesburg towards Tembisa, one of the many sprawling black resident townships that are collectively known as Soweto, an acronym of south western townships.

These townships were established during the apartheid years to provide cheap labour for Johannesburg without having to allow the migrant workers the right of permanent residence in the city.

In Birmingham, 6,000 miles away, Clare Short, Britain's Secretary of State for International Development, is also up early. She is heading to Hamstead Hall school, Birmingham to take part in a conference that will link five Sowetan schools with five Birmingham schools via the Internet for direct conferencing and collaborative learning activities over the coming year.

The collaboration builds on a long-term link between the two cities, established when Tim Brighouse, the chief education officer for Birmingham, visited Johannesburg to launch a big education initiative earlier this year.

The Internet project, funded by Clare Short's Department for International Development (DFID) and managed by Interaid (a UK Internet Education charity), concerns a subject close to her heart.

"All children have the right to education and to be able to understand the forces that are shaping the world in which they will grow up. This link is one step towards meeting that goal - access to education without boundaries, " says Clare Short online to start the proceedings. In Soweto, we read her words as soon as they are typed.

The launch proves an immediate educational boon at both ends of the link, as images are exchanged, printed and displayed. Hamstead Hall sends pictures of the Birmingham Bull Ring and an Excel chart detailing the ethnic origins of children in Year 7. This sparks debate more than any text file and the Tembisa children realise that, like them, the students in Birmingham come from a very diverse ethnic background.

Tembisa students then send pictures of the local post office and some shack dwellings, which the students have taken themselves that morning with their Casio digital camera.

The images by themselves might prove shocking, showing a stark lack of material resources and some basic amenities, but soon the students accompany them with their written accounts of life and ambition, and the focus shifts to the massive potential and enthusiasm of the students which I will witness around me in all the five Soweten schools I visit.

One email from Nkosi, in Tembisa, captures the moment and the opportunity:

"Life here might be a bit different from you as we are still a growing nation. In terms of that we are underdogs in the world map. But all in all we enjoy life to the fullest."

Once images have been sent as email attachments, the collaboration steps up a gear using "chat" software known as ICQ. This software, discovered by Nick Short, director of Interaid, is available free on the Internet and has proved a key feature in the early success of the project.

Once downloaded and installed, it allows you to set up your own directory of Internet users with whom you wish to communicate.

Whenever your Net pals are online at the same time as you, a little control panel notifies you of the fact and you can send messages and organise chats where your question and the typed response of your contact appear on screen at the same time.

Another important consideration is that the software requires no cameras or sophisticated ISDN links - it works happily with a humble modem connection and an ordinary telephone line.

Using ICQ chat, the students in Soweto speak directly with the minister:

"The Birmingham-Soweto link project is a good example of how information technology can be harnessed to broaden the horizons of young people all over the world, and build real bridges for development," says Clare Short.

Immediately in Soweto, Violet Madingoane, pioneer of computer centres in townships schools, answers: "IT must be part of our future, the knowledge of how to communicate with computers will be a key tool for our children's progress."

With such tools, stereotypes are soon challenged as students from both ends of the link relate details of their daily lives. A digital drumbeat across continents 6,000 miles, but only an hour apart.

Now, many weeks later, a daily chat with schools in Soweto is a natural part of life. Although I provided the initial training, the teacher's Internet skills now surpass mine.

Already the teachers in Soweto have been invited to talk at an African Conference on Connecting Schools. They are driving the initiative themselves and, the other day online, I was introduced to a Hong Kong resident who was helping them with some curriculum development via the Internet.

A roll-out of practical project activities is also under way - schools are sharing curriculum ideas and writing collaborative stories. Chat is starting to be used in a more structured fashion to discuss pre-arranged agendas. Requests like: "Can we chat about plant growth on Friday at 2.00?" will hopefully become the norm.

All such projects need a definite purpose, product and audience so that the technology extends and enhances learning opportunities.

Interaid aims to extend such work with government assistance to provide access and repeatable models for purposeful communication in development education - across cultural, political and continental divides.

Any school wishing to contact Interaid and obtain details of exchange projects andor school contact information, should visit: www.netschools.org. The Department for International Development is at www.dfid.gov.uk. ICQ is available from www.icq.com. John Davitt is on davitt@rmplc.co.uk.

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