New Free Software Will Help Close Digital Divide in Education

By Jeffrey Thomas
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Software that will enable teachers worldwide to share educational materials, form communities and collaborate on projects will be available for free early in 2007, according to its developer, the nonprofit organization Teachers Without Borders (TWB).

According to the organization, these new tools will provide the world’s 59 million teachers with easy access to online educational materials that previously have been available only in developed countries with access to high-speed Internet connections and elaborate computer networks and platforms (software that provides the framework for various applications and programs). (See related article.)

“The new digital divide is not between the east and west or even rural and urban; it is between those with platforms and networks and those with none,” said Fred Mednick, the president and founder of Teachers Without Borders. The new software - called TWB Tools - is highly flexible, Mednick told USINFO in an e-mail interview January 11. The various tools “allow for easy content authoring and collaboration, classroom management, the adaptation of texts to meet local contexts - in print, PDF, CD-ROM form, available across all platforms. The offline reader (TWB Reader) can allow versions of digital textbooks, allowing users to highlight, bookmark, and create notes that can be uploaded when one is back on the internet. It also handles various languages and includes a universal keyboard,” he said.

Mednick, who is a former teacher and high school principal in the state of Washington, said TWB Tools will make it easy for teachers to collaborate by creating groups and then working on individual pages, or by creating and sharing galleries, blogs, forums, news feeds and bookmarks. "One can form a group within seconds and have immediate access to all the authoring and collaboration tools," he said.

One tool, TWB Classroom, will offer a kindergarten through 12th grade classroom management model that “will allow teachers to enroll students, create assignments, journals, portfolios, and course materials themselves, along with grading and case notes so that we can provide a secure system in which education follows the child,” Mednick said. He noted many students move from school to school, especially immigrant families. “When they re-enter the system, records don't always follow. But with a student portfolio and case notes, the receiving school can be kept up to speed.”


A teacher does not need to have any knowledge of computer programming to use the new TWB Tools. “It's all familiar icons and an editor that allows people to focus on content, rather than code,” Mednick explained.

A teacher also will find it easy to import material from other open-source platforms that offer free courseware, as well as to export content from TWB Reader, he said. Interoperability and “a climate of sharing” are very important, Mednick emphasized.

TWB Tools will initially contain a small library comprising primarily TWB books, five full professional development courses “and all the tools one would need to build one's own library and/or contribute to the main branch,” he said. Mednick added that it will be “quite easy to import more, so that the local communities can have a baseline of content from which to work - to copy, remix, reuse, adapt, adopt.”

He said his organization is being “flooded with donations of content - UNICEF, UNDP [United Nations Development Program], computer-training companies, NGOs [non-governmental organizations].”

Teachers Without Borders is working to ensure that intellectual property rights are protected, Mednick said. “We want to make certain that, if TWB users are adapting content from other sites, then the original authors need to be acknowledged properly and approve that their work can be used in this way.”


“We expect to reach hundreds of thousands of teachers, to continue to develop the platform so that it is more and more accessible,” he said, adding that he wants to form partnerships with NGOs, universities, ministries of education and agencies such as the State Department, the United Nations and the World Bank.

Teachers, Mednick said, are “the largest professionally trained group in the world and the key to a sustainable, healthy future. They know who is sick, who is missing, who is achieving and who is not, who is orphaned by AIDS, and who is swept up in the drug, military, or sex trade. They administer the polio drops; they live in the communities; they know the families. In short, teachers are an underused development army.”

Teachers Without Borders, which is based in the state of Washington and comprises teachers and volunteers, was founded in 2000 with the aim of closing the educational divide through professional development of teachers and community education.

TWB Tools are scheduled to be available in February 2007 on the Teachers Without Borders Web site.

For more information on U.S. policy, see Education.