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Digital Dante: TC's Web-Based Divine Comedy Comes to Life in a Harlem High School

Zelini Hubbard, an eleventh grader from the Frederick Douglass Academy, a public high school in Harlem, is studying Dante's Divine Comedy. But Zelini and her classmates, who are taking the class on their own time, are not just reading the Western classic, but are attempting to understand it in terms of their own experience--with the help of the World Wide Web.

Mimicking Dante's politically outspoken ways, the students are creating their own Hell, Purgatory and Paradise--inhabited by New York City and national figures--in the form of Web pages. Many of the students come from homes without computers and were using the World Wide Web and the Internet for the first time.

They are searching Italian Web sites to learn more about Dante, while looking up other sites for background on issues like Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. They are even using the knowledge they've picked up in class, culling URLs (Web site addresses), collecting images and information from within Harlem for their own on-line publications.

During one class the students were debating where they would place New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, who had recently rescinded the use of free student bus passes; but they were certain about the Menendez brothers, who were convicted for killing their parents. The brothers, by class consensus, were consigned to one of the lowest circles of hell, the region of the treacherous. Even Charles Rangel, the popular Harlem congressman, was up for discussion.

"We took Congressman Rangel and other well-known politicians and were debating where they belong in our structure--purgatory, the inferno, or paradise--because we feel that politicians are not really worthy of paradise," Zelini says.

Jennifer Hogan, a researcher assistant with TC's Institute for Learning Technologies (ILT), who has been leading a group of researchers in developing "Digital Dante," the Web site and its curriculum, asked the students, who were drawing connections between the medieval world and their own, "If the Inferno is really this place where Dante has condemned major figures to Hell, is there anyone in your lives whom we loathe and would love to see travel to purgatory?" In chorus-like fashion several students called out, "Drug dealers."

The students, in effect, were creating their own Divine Comedy, a 1990's version set in contemporary society. But Jennifer Hogan believes that the Digital Dante project is more than that. For her it's part of a multimedia vernacular that is taking on new power in the educational experience. Hogan says that the Web, as an interface to the Internet, is "an unusually liberating technology" that can "improve on traditional notions of a liberal education."

Zelini seems to agree. "When I first took the class, we were studying Dante in a way we couldn't understand. But doing it on the Web, with its visuals, you have a better understanding of what is really going on."

For Robert McClintock, professor of History and Education and the director of the Institute for Learning Technologies, which draws together researchers to study ways in which technology can be used to improve education, Digital Dante is one of his favorite projects.

"I am a cultural historian," McClintock says, and "I have long felt that that Dante's work would translate well in interactive multimedia. The significant point about this project is that it provides access to material and information that was once the province of the culturally elite, but is now open to everyone. What's happening is that people, whether in schools or otherwise, will have an increasing opportunity to participate in the exchange of ideas about all sorts of topics. This is both liberating and important for the growth of democracy."

For Sandra Lloyd Blackman, an English teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy who is working with Jennifer Hogan and others at ILT to learn how to integrate the Web into the classroom, the importance of the project is that Digital Dante "gives the students exposure to a rich variety of material--multiple translations, for example," and that "they have a deeper understanding than perhaps I could have done just by using the text."

By the end of the course, the students were required to develop a multimedia production using sound, graphics and text to justify why they placed "famous people" in heaven, hell or purgatory.

Apparently, selecting candidates for heaven became the hardest assignment for them. Mother Teresa and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. were among those selected for Paradise. Mohandas Ghandi was chosen as "closest to God."

Sitting around the classroom, the students struck up a conversation about what they thought they learned during the semester. Some admitted that they first signed up for the course because they thought they would enhance their computer skills.

But now that the course was winding down, some, like Zelini, were saying that they enjoyed Dante's poetry as much as learning how to scan an image on the Web.

"I have a pretty decent understanding of the text and I'm able to understand Dante. It's a very exciting subject.

To see the Digital Dante web site, go to http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/projects/dante/

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