In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck boasts he can "put a girdle round about the Earth in 40 minutes". Electronic mail now does it in as little as 40 seconds. This shrinking world presents growing opportunities for education,particularly given the sharing of resources international communication allows.
The Commonwealth, a loose-knit federation of more than 50 countries, provides a good example of how geographical distance matters little once schools are connected by a common language and cultural ties.
Fifty education ministers from Commonwealth countries will gather in Botswana later this month to consider the role of IT in education. Entitled "Education and Technology in the Commonwealth is Making the Transition", the aim of the conference is to allow member states to listen to each other, share good practice and plan further collaboration. An academic symposium, exhibition and showcase of best practice will also take place.
The Commonwealth shows how diverse countries and cultures see the potential of IT in the classroom. From Australia to Canada, and the United Kingdom to the West Indies, change is dynamic. And although the similarity of developmen ts in the classroom is striking, the disparity of resources is equally marked, as are differences of scale.
Many countries see the Internet as likely to provide equality of access to resources. But inequality of access remains a limiting factor. The most frequent comparison is that there are more telephones in Manhattan than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.
In Singapore, 90 per cent of homes are planned to have an Internet connection by 2000. But in Mozambique, a large country recovering from 10 years of civil war, the few existing phone lines are often sabotaged as local people, driven by poverty, cut down the wires to make copper ornaments for sale.
Having joined the Commonwealth in 1995, Mozambique sees its future as part of English-speaking Africa. A recent #163;1.5 million grant from the Overseas Development Agency has been provided to establish the Mozambique Secondary English Scheme (MoSES). Regional resource centres will use cellular connection and other technologies to provide Internet access to rival that of a UK university.
Interaid, a UK-based, non profit-maki ng organisation working throughout the Commonwealth, is using the Internet to bring children from many cultures together. The aim is to promote global understanding by ensuring that all students, rich or poor, will one day have access to the Internet in their school.
Interaid has developed systems that allow microwave connections for schools in remote areas and is working on installations in South Africa, Jamaica and Botswana. Its Web site is a treasure trove of resources, containing template sites and details of school twinning opportunities.
With South Africa conveniently sited in the same time zone as the UK, our schools may well be communicating with South Africa rather than the United States by the year 2000. Richmond Park School, a special school in Glasgow with a passion and flair for IT, has already established video conference links with a school in South Africa.
Elsewhere in South Africa, the Finishing School project is one of many developed by Reach amp; Teach, a non profit-making organisation formed to accelerate learning opportunities by linking use of IT to a general opening up of teaching and learning methods. Schools involved promote a "technology-base d, learner-centred environment" to provide a second chance for those who have failed to matriculate, often because of overcrowded classrooms and limited resources.
In Malaysia, a project focusing on the development of "electronic learning centres" aims to make students more independent in their learning.Pilot school lib-raries have been turbocharged by the addition of 14 networked PCs for CD-Rom and Internet access.
Katherine School of the Air, in Australia's Northern Territories, provides the "largest classroom in the world" in an area of 800,000 sq km (more than twice as large as the UK), where 240 children are taught at a distance in family clusters. Several technologies have supported these far-flung learners - first radio, then telephone, then a short trial with interactive TV, which proved too expensive. Now Internet access is available through the learning centre.
But the primary technology of instruction is still the radio broadcast, closely followed by the telephone. Children talk to their tutors regularly by phone, spending $A40,000 (#163;20,000) a year on telephone bills.
These "remote" students probably have more direct conversatio ns with their teachers than most children in UK comprehensives. Recent research from the area suggests children taught at home in informal environments with technology links to central schools learn more effectively than those taught in a school environment. Human contact, supported by appropriate technology, is finally starting to change the place and pace of learning.
In Canada, Internet investment is a Government priority. Again the scale is huge. SchoolNet is the central resources base for all connected schools.It provides free resources, on-line staff and a brilliant Internet bookmark collection. It also acts as a central clearing house of educational resources, and a gateway to work in individual territories. Home-educated children have their own Web sites on SchoolNet. One poetry page has been visited 8,000 times in the past year.
In Botswana, an innovative project (part-funded by IBM) is allowing deaf children at Ramotswa school to see the power of speech. Using Speech Viewer III software, the pupils can see what they are saying. PAS UK provides the software in the UK. Speech therapists and schools for the deaf are finding it a powerful tool.
In India the difference a PC can make in the hands of a gifted communicator is shown by the work of Katha, a non profit-making organisation working in an overcrowded district of Delhi. Project creator Geeta Dharmarajan uses PageMaker to produce booklets to teach reading and provide health education. Readership in Hindi has grown to 300,000 children. Girls, who receive little formal education, are given a chance to succeed as they see positive role-models using new tools for communication.
We learn most from human contact. The shrinking world provides opportunities to quicken and diversify our learning. The Botswana conference provides an opportunity for governments and academic communities to plan for a "connected Commonwealth", a potent educational network sharing a common language.
* Interaid on http:www. netschools. orgindex.html
* Schoolnet on http:www.school net. ca
* Katha on http:alcazar.com.katha khazana.html
* SpeechViewer III provided by PAS UK, fax: 01635 247300, tel: 01635 247724
* The British Council is organising the exhibition and showcase - further details available from Helena Sharp on 0171 389 4274