Blog Post

Duke Brazil Initiative and Higher Ed

This fall marks the first year of the new Duke Brazil Initiative. The main goal of the lab is to "develop deeper connections with Brazil through faculty and student research exchanges, university and industry conferences, and by bringing leading Brazilian scholars, public officials and artists to Duke.” In order to do this, the lab provides grants to students and faculty that fund educational exchanges between Duke and Brazilian universities. For the student grant, “typical exchanges [last] approximately one week and include visitations to selected university courses, seminars, interviews, etc. to be used for future grant applications, senior thesis ideas, and to promote DBI activities within the student body.”

As a recipient of a DBI grant, I will be in Brazil from September 2-17 in order to complete a project on the digital divide and higher education in Brazil. Below, I’ve included parts of my original proposal. As part of the Duke Brazil Initiative grant, I will be blogging about this my travels and observations in Brazil over the next two weeks. As much as possible, I would like to foster more dialogue about what types of changes are taking place in educational systems outside of the United States. Please add to the discussion by posting comments and responses.


Brazil, Higher Education, and the Digital Divide

Recent opportunities on Duke’s campus, including the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge and graduate seminars on the future of higher education, have exposed graduate students to a variety of discussions taking place on the role of technology in education. Few of these conversations, however, have focused specifically on how changes in education aim to address the digital divide and inequality of access to information. In Dr. Cathy Davidson’s Spring 2013 graduate seminar, “21st Century Literacies: Digital Knowledge, Digital Humanities,” my peers and I debated educational inequality during one class period. We defined the digital divide as more than a question of whether an individual can physically access a computer and the Internet. Instead, we argued that it references a process in which old and new interrelated factors of social division combine to intensify various levels of unequal access to technology and participation in society.[1] When thinking about education in the twenty-first century—be it open learning communities, OpenCourseWare, or some other mode— it is important to consider the questions “how open?” and “open for whom?” It is equally imperative to question who directs and participates in such conversations. Considering global power divides and the dominance of English-language debates on this topic, I’m particularly curious about the possibilities of cross-border conversations on the digital divide in education—especially as they pertain to the growing relationship between the United States and Brazil.

Over the past decades, Americans have increasingly turned their attention to Brazil because of its growing economy, vast amounts of natural resources, and large population. At the same time that Brazil is emerging as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, its educational system has held the country back because of its waste in resources, underprepared teachers, and students’ inability to compete on par with their peers in other countries.[2]  This is a pattern that is repeated across Latin America, but reforms to Brazil’s educational system in 1995 during the Cardosa administration have caused improvement over the last seventeen years.[3] According to a 2012 World Bank report, “In 1993, the child of a father with no formal education typically completed only four years of school; today, Brazilian students complete between 9 and 11 years of schooling, regardless of their parents’ educational level.”[4] Strong advancements in education, along with the fact that Brazil is at the cutting-edge of educational policy, “makes Brazil one of the world’s best laboratories for generating global evidence on what works in education.”[5] Thus, a Brazil exchange would significantly contribute to discussions taking place on Duke’s campus on the future of higher education. Likewise, Brazilian scholars would gain from greater participation in these discussions.

If granted a Duke Brazil Initiative grant, I will promote exchange between Duke and Brazilian scholars through a project that tracks and reports on conversations that are taking place in both countries. On the U.S. side, this project will focus on four initiatives connected to Duke: two graduate seminar classes led by Dr. Cathy Davidson, “21st Century Literacies” (Spring 2013) and “The History and Future of Higher Ed” (Spring 2014); the Ph.D. Lab’s education module; and discussions that take place at the HASTAC annual conference in Lima, Peru (April 2014). Over a two-week period in Brazil, I will present this work to Brazilian scholars. I will also meet with three different types of professionals in Brazil:1) educators who are thinking about technology and university education in new ways; 2) policy makers who are trying to promote innovative ways to open access to technology in Brazilian schools; 3) and activists who work in the area of education…

This project will foster cross-border conversations on the digital divide and the future of higher education by establishing connections with Brazilian academics, policy-makers, and activists; exploring their methods for addressing the changing nature of education in today’s digital world; and sharing the work that has been done on Duke’s campus. Exchange between Brazilian and U.S. academics on questions concerning social inequality, technology, and higher education will not only produce possible solutions to the challenges facing both nations, but it will also increase inter-hemispheric cooperation on the question of education. Such exchange is necessary if our goal is to pursue the most inclusive and effective ways of rethinking education in the twenty-first century.

[1]This definition is based off of Chapters 1 and 2 of Jan A.G.M. van Dijk, The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society (London: Sage Publications, 2005)

[2]“Education in Brazil: No Longer Bottom of the Class,” The Economist. December 9, 2010.

[3]Barbara Bruns, David Evans, and Javier Luque. Achieving World Class Education in Brazil: The Next Agenda (Washington DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 2012) xx.

[4]Ibid. xxii.

[5]Ibid. xxviii.


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