Young people from around the world will be taking a peek in the next few months at how the new information age will help them improve their understanding of other cultures. A project sponsored by the United Nations Cyberschoolbus and the European Schoolnet, will link them together for an examination of the relationship between information and communication technologies (ICTs) and human rights. The event was launched with a joint news conference linking three continents.
It is being billed as one of the largest education events ever attempted on the internet. It is also a preview of how today's - and tomorrow's - kids will learn about far off lands and people.
Youngsters from every corner of the globe are participating in a three- month-long event to examine the impact of information technology on human rights. It is an ambitious project, and it began with a futuristic news conference featuring students, teachers and United Nations officials in four countries.
In New York, Undersecretary-General for Public Information Shashi Tharoor said the events planned for the next three months would have been impossible even six years ago.
"And this is just the beginning," he said. "More information can be sent over a single cable in a second than could be sent in a month over the entire internet in 1997."
Mr. Tharoor was linked by television and internet with students and teachers who will participate in the project in Geneva, as well as in Kampala, Uganda and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It was an imperfect effort, filled with the kind of glitches common in any new medium, but through it all buzzed the energy and excitement of frontier explorers.
Speakers, many of them teenagers, talked in the language of the information age, using phrases such as ICTs, the digital divide, and even a new profession - the school networker.
Brigitte Parry, the manager of European Schoolnet is a pioneer in this new field. Speaking from Geneva, she said her job description has not even been written. "I am a school networker. What does that mean? Nobody knows yet really. School networking means facilitating the creation of weblike organic networks in schools that can work together as we wish or as we can," she explained.
Ms. Parry will help co-ordinate the three-month cyber event for school kids, including online activities and a poster contest.
Several students from Geneva's International School were also online for the news conference. Alegra Richardson, an American student at the school, said the project will underscore the importance of universal respect for human rights.
"ICTs are something we have grown up with, that were born around the same time we as young people were, so it's up to us," she said. "We are responsible for how they are used in future. Because we hope that someday every article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be true for all people everywhere. Because it's a universal declaration of human rights. ICTs must be used to enforce that."
Another student, Arthur Mbena of Tanzania, said the information age is providing students in Africa and other developing regions with previously unimaginable opportunities. "We see ICTs have helped us in understanding ourselves," he pointed out. "It has promoted an understanding of reality to people of Tanzania and people of other parts of world, too. Because through this we get information about lot of things like disease and other natural hazards that are happening in the world."
Critics say this push toward greater dependence on the internet is widening the gap between the haves and have nots. They call it the "digital divide". Shashi Tharoor of the United Nations says this project is making every effort to bridge that divide, spreading the benefits of information technology as widely as possible.
"But projects like this will aid the spread of access to new technologies and growth in recognition of the benefits they can bring, by linking people from rich and poor nations and teachers and governments, and even donors what can be achieved with simple computer and phone," he said.
The project will conclude December 11 during the Information Summit in Geneva, with an online interaction between the students and an as-yet-to-be named world leader, marking the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.