Steven R. Van Hook, PhD
of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and
to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit
to the utmost. – A Nation at Risk (NCEE, 1983)
Hardly could the
framers of the quotation above – serving for the National Commission
on Excellence in Education and writing from a rather nationalistic
perspective – have imagined decades ago the global
applications of this marvelous sentiment that would be possible come the
new millennium. Through online and other distance education models, a
fair chance at higher education for all is no longer a visionary's
dream, but a visible reality within our peripheral sight.
Now, well into the revolutionary
digital age, we have the technological means to provide unparalleled
access to knowledge for every remote village on each rise, crevice and
plain of Earth.
The World Bank
(2002) has determined that higher learning is vital in developing
national productivity and the ability to compete globally. However, with
only 17 percent of the world's adults able to obtain some form of higher
education, distance education and e-learning are often enthusiastically
embraced as a means to efficiently scale education to fulfill the need
(Irvine, 2003). Aspiring college students around the world may benefit
from a new era of transnational higher education delivered through
distance technologies offered by joint multinational university ventures
innovations are coming so fast that scholars are unable to keep up with
the developments in books and reports, and only the daily updated output
of journalists can keep up with it all (Trow, 2001). However, with the
rapid hardware and software breakthroughs, before long newer information
technology will provide human interaction in a high-definition and
three-dimensional telepresence, allowing for distance education to seem
comparable to a face-to-face experience (Duderstadt, 2000). Already the
current experience with the asynchronous distance learning process can
be just as effective as the classroom experience in terms of learning
and costs, and in some technical ways may already be superior to regular
courses (Bok, 2003). Majorities of academic leaders are expressing a
belief that online education on the whole may prove equal or superior to
face-to-face instruction, and will become even more so in the near years
ahead (Allen & Seaman, 2003).
is the paradoxical problem where students who might benefit the most
from distance learning may not have access to the technologies and tools
necessary to participate fully in the knowledge society,
furthering a digital divide that might actually lead to greater
disparities in educational opportunity (Moore & Tait, 2002). As we
began the 21st century, at the heart of the digital divide was the
technological divide. Only one in 20 people around the world were
online, and most of those (about 60 percent) lived in North America,
home to just five percent of the world's population. In all of Africa,
there were a mere 14 million phone lines – fewer than in Manhattan or
Tokyo (Billions, 2000).
No one agency or
nation could afford the incalculable costs of providing universal
Internet access. However, many organizations, companies, and individuals
have been working to bridge the gap one connection at a time through
targeted and cost-effective efforts. Bernard Krisher, a 69-year-old
former Newsweek journalist, brought online education
opportunities to one of the poorest villages in Cambodia devoid of
electricity and phone lines. A satellite dish provided a continuous
64,000-bits-a-second connection to a small group of computers in the
village, powered by a simple solar power system. The eventual goal: to
construct 200 rural schools in Cambodian villages, under a program in
which donors contribute $14,000 to build small school houses, with
matching funds from the World Bank (Markoff, 2000).
In 1996, operating
under a $400,000 grant from USAID, the Network for Democracy launched
the National Telecottage Program in Hungary. By 1997, the program had
established 14 telecottages across the rural regions of Hungary,
providing “equal (access) opportunity for all” (Telecottages, 1998).
The telecottage centers provided public Internet access to local
low-income residents for information services including education and
training, job hunting, and local development assistance.
the Group of 8 nations established a Dot Force at a
summit in Okinawa to help developing countries reap the educational and
other benefits offered by new information technologies, helping to
bridge the “technological gap that separates the world's haves from
the have-nots” (Simms, 2000). Organizations including the United
Nations, the United States Agency for International Development, as well
as numerous other government and private organizations worldwide have
advocated and devoted resources to enhancing global access to
communication technologies. The problem remains in how to transfer all
this good intent into educational content delivered to the huddled
masses yearning to learn free.
The World Economic
Forum, comprised of business leaders from major multinational
corporations, prepared a 35-page recommendation on how the world's
leaders might bridge the digital divide through public-private sector
initiatives (Drake, 2000; Yamada, 2000). WEF member Richard Li said,
“It's really not a digital divide, it is an education divide, and
information technology is only a conduit to promote education.” Among
the WEF recommendations:
high-level political engagement needed to give real momentum and
public visibility to the digital opportunity as a broad-scale
- Establish a
high-level working group on the global digital economy.
- Establish through
the G-8 governments a special financial assistance program to fund
technology infrastructure development.
- Create a Peace
Corps-style volunteer group, and establish local technology
forecast that the worldwide market for education could reach as high as
$2 trillion in revenues with the growth of for-profit education, along
with universities opening transnational satellite campuses, and
education content providers tapping communication technologies for
international e-learning opportunities (Irvine , 2003). The numbers also
demonstrate a precipitous worldwide climb in higher education
enrollments. From 1950 to 1997, global postsecondary education
enrollments increased from 6.5 million in 1950 to 88.2 million in 1997,
and are forecasted to reach 160 million by 2025. However, even though
global demand for higher education is growing at double-digit
proportions, the resources for paying the tuition bill are low or
nonexistent in large parts of the world, with insufficient government
funds to meet the full educational needs even in richer nations. Given
this stark imbalance, higher education must seek new avenues of delivery
tapping new technologies able to transcend national boundaries, such as
those provided through distance learning programs.
institutions may balk at the high cost of developing online courses,
especially when going up against challengers who have made investments
exceeding $1 million per course; costs which must be recouped through
student tuitions and fees (Oblinger, Barone, & Hawkins, 2001). Some
business analysts have predicted that through fundamental changes in the
economics of information wrought by the Internet age, the forces of
competition will drive the cost of information down to the marginal cost
of its reproduction – to the point that tuition for online courses
will eventually be free, paid for through donations, advertising, and
other marketing strategies targeted at a captive audience (Weigel,
Online content providers – distance education fitting within that
less-than- glamorous heading – will be battling for market share, each
scrambling to find the right business model as Darwinian forces clear
the ground and define the turf.
Higher education is
now in a new era of power and influence, where the push for
market-driven profits has surpassed politics and ideologies in the
realms of international relations. Rather than governments and armies,
it is multinational corporations, media conglomerates, and even
universities that serve as the neocolonists seeking to dominate in the
global marketplace (Altbach, 2004b). However, commercial for-profit
interests alone will not meet the world's needs.
To ensure distance
education opportunities reach across economic borders, we need to
compile, mobilize, and coordinate international donor efforts:
government support through transnational agencies such as the United
Nations, the Group of 8, the U.S. Agency for International Development,
the World Bank, the British Know-How Fund; private persons and programs
such as the United Way International, the Soros Foundation, C.S. Mott
Foundation, Bill Gates, Steve Case; university and foundation
scholarships; telecommunications industry investment in infrastructure
development. With a long-term vision and social perspective, the
financials for global distance education may well fall into place. Yes,
it will be costly. But as former Harvard President Derek Bok advised, if
you think education is expensive, try ignorance.
The future of higher
education around the world has much riding on it, in terms of peril for
a critical mission unfilled, as well as the promising potential of a job
done right. Success or failure may be determined by how well the
guardians of academia meet the looming challenges of applying new
technologies and providing access to universal learning. There are a
number of threats to the successful development of access to global
distance education, calamitous hazards if we fail, and still even new
dangers that may be created if universal access is indeed successful.
Globalization may be
a prominent buzzword in the new millennium, but the concept of national
isolationism is already rendered defunct by last century's nuclear age.
Certain transnational phenomena respect no borders: disease, political
instability, radioactive fallout, poverty, refugee migration. It has
become cliché that the solution to many of the world's woes is
education. Now we have the means to make that theory a practice, if not
for humanitarian reasons, than for global self-preservation.
The World Bank
(2002) reported it found promise in the new technologies supporting
higher education, however warned that the dangers of digital divides
within and between nations could counter the benefits. The worry is that
poor nations lack the education, infrastructure and political policies
to support the spread of a phenomenon that is boosting trade,
productivity, employment and private-sector wealth elsewhere. “This is
all about self-interest,” said Vernon J. Ellis, a member of the World
Economic Forum task force proposing means to bridge the global
technology gap. “There is nothing wrong with self-interest, as long as
it is enlightened, long-term self-interest” (Markoff, 2000).
If it is true that
knowledge is power, then certain totalitarian regimes are bound to feel
threatened by an educated and empowered public. According to the human
rights organization Freedom House, at least 20 countries – such as
Myanmar, Cuba, North Korea, and China – have restricted their
citizens' access to the Internet. Foreign educational efforts –
whether online or onground – may be especially suspect. Education in
particular has been jealously guarded in many nations and is carefully
protected as a matter of nationalism and a solidifier of cultural
differences (Irivne, 2003).
peoples online access to worldwide communications is not necessarily a
clear-cut end in itself, as witnessed by some of the pitfalls found by
introducing technology to village life. Cotopoxi men remote in Ecuador
used their aid-provided computer equipment to access online pornography
rather than crop information, much to the dismay of Cotopoxi women. And
when impoverished women of the Wapishana and Macushi tribes in Guyana
began making “big” money by marketing their hand-woven hammocks over
the Web, the threatened male hierarchy drove them from their homes
(Romero, 2000). Strategies for providing Internet access must coincide
with developing content schemata suitable for and beneficial to global
Others are concerned
that instructors will lose control over the courses they teach, and
their lessons will be modified or prepackaged into a one-size-fits-all
lecture by someone at an online institution (Ellin, 2000). Educational
content innovation may be impeded over issues of intellectual property,
such as who owns and who should control content that appears online.
Online education may take a technocratic rather than Socratic turn:
instructors, students, and content reduced to modular components,
installed, formatted, and executed. Ultimately, the threat of distance
education might be to education itself – will we sacrifice academic
quality for the sake of quantity?
Ironically – in
this age of instant rich media communications with exponentially
multiplying bandwidth and dimensions, when nearly the entire knowledge
base of human experience is digitalized and accessible – the dangers
of isolation and division between peoples are perhaps higher than ever.
Further, if the global network connections that do form simply serve a
purpose of homogenization, at a cultural cost of diversity and the
survival protections that diversity provides, society may be the worse
counter-juxtaposition of circumstance is that the demand for
international education is so high, while at the same time teachers
skilled with global competence are so few. Universities and college lack
sufficient foreign language and international studies faculty –
particularly in less common languages and nations – and faculty in
professional disciplines needing greater international expertise such as
business, public health, law, and the environment (ACE, 2002).
pedagogies may need to be adapted to a wider array of cultural and
linguistic differences, especially in settings with increasing numbers
of international students as institutions seek to expand their
enrollments beyond national borders (OECD, 2003). Simply providing
educational content is not necessarily a worthy goal, unless the content
is viable, valid, credible, and appropriate.
Some are concerned
that the act of internationalizing education may actually mean
Americanizing it, since the United States is the dominant
online-education purveyor (Statland de Lopez, 2000). Academic
institutions offering education to other nations may frequently be
insensitive to the characteristics of a local culture and the students'
particular needs. Some analysts are criticizing that universities may
offer lower quality programs abroad than are found on the home campus,
and that the program content does not focus on local concerns, while the
primary use of English as the language of instruction raises questions
of cultural imperialism (Newman, Couturier, & Scurry, 2004).
To accommodate the
increasing demand for language and cultural diversity in the
globalization of distance learning, there will be a huge market demand
for appropriate course materials, and numerous education companies and
universities are now creating content and programs in multiple languages
(Irvine , 2003). Researchers are devoting studies to identify effective
methods to ensure that international cross-cultural harmony may be
better realized (e.g., Bruffee, 2002; Conceicao, 2002). It may well be
that profit incentives rather than social visions are what ultimately
motivate governments and people to transcend their differences and
strive for cooperative and peaceful interaction.
individuals around the world are increasingly turning to higher
education to provide students with new horizons through a deeper
understanding of the world at large (OECD, 2003). Several countries,
such as India and South Africa, are already heavy importers of distance
learning programs through top exporting countries including the United
States, Australia, and the United Kingdom; while other nations are
developing their own distance learning technologies and programs (Eaton,
2002). Distance education and training will also likely play an
important role in expanding access to education opportunities throughout
Central and Eastern Europe, provided there is sufficient funding and
regional collaboration to develop the necessary communication
infrastructure (Moore & Tait, 2002).
Especially in the
low-income but high-population countries of the world, the new
technologies are seen to promise significant learning opportunities,
even though lack of Internet connectivity, regional bandwidth, local
access and professional competence pose barriers (Irivne, 2003; Moore
& Tait, 2002). The regional disparities are great, as some of
largest populated regions (e.g., India and China) also have the lowest
concentration of telecommunication services. In many countries, the
demand for higher education is actually driving the development and
expansion of new technologies, along with new business opportunities and
economic growth (Irvine, 2003).
The gap between the
need and the supply for higher education has driven the emergence of a
global business network. Among the participants in this market-guided
network are traditional and digital publishers, media companies,
software and hardware producers, consultants, communication services, as
well as for-profit and nonprofit education providers (Irvine, 2003).
Such players as these may help to address the social and economic
divides caused by “devastating consequences of ignorance and exclusion
from the world marketplace” (Irvine, 2003, p. 104).
Returning to the
opening quotation, we are truly living in a time when no child need live
an entire life in ignorance; no inquiring soul need go uninformed. The
calling of our age is to engage the will to make it so. We must first
advance through many challenging social, political, and economic
spheres. Each of these challenges may prove terminally problematic. The
fiscal tyrannies of a competitive market may well deny the commodity of
knowledge to those people living beyond the margins of a profitable
business plan. Despotic governments may inhibit information flow to
their peoples under the guise of national security. However, the
greatest hurdle could well be within the social sphere: do we truly
believe that universal education for its own sake is a worthy aim and a
fundamental right, and are we willing to pay the costs?
Perhaps among the
most valuable aspects of the new potential in global higher education
are the benefits to be gained from learning about world problems that
transcend national boundaries. By such better understanding, humanity
may best discover solutions that tap the “interconnectedness of
systems – cultural, ecological, economic, political, and
technological” (Tye, 2003).
have protested against support for providing online education to
impoverished nations, rightly observing the obvious: “Poor people
can't eat a laptop” (Thomas, 2000). This is true. Poor people can
neither eat a hammer nor a textbook, but these are recognized as
valuable tools in reducing poverty. Globally accessible distance
education should not be an either/or proposition, but a this/that
solution. Bread and modems. Health care and computers.
Shoes and wireless access. Once the general intention is
unleashed, the specific means may inexorably come in small bits and
bytes. As it has been simply put: now that we can, we must.
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R. Van Hook
been an educator for colleges and
universities in the
United States and abroad for more than a
decade, teaching in traditional, online, and hybrid classrooms,
and developing more than a dozen different courses.
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