Inequalities made worse by ICTs

Information and communication technologies are a high-potential pedagogical tool - but they are also exacerbating existing discrepancies. The high cost of broadband and lack of funds to maintain systems or for teacher training deprive many higher education institutions in the developing world from fully-benefiting from the ICT revolution, says a Commonwealth of Learning background paper for the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education.

Internet access in these regions is further exacerbated by frequent power cuts, as participants often pointed out in panels where ICT was discussed during the conference held in Paris from 5-8 July 2009.

Political will to provide ICT infrastructure, national commitment and funding to produce sustainable networks are key to successfully deploying the technologies, reports ICTs for Higher Education*.

"ICT infrastructure requires major financial investment which is best done on the basis of well-conceived national and institutional policies," the authors say, expressing a view shared by many conference participants from developing nations.

"Since the World Conference in 1998, the transformation of the global landscape of higher education has been even greater than was forecast at that event. In no area is this truer than in the use of ICTs."

Universities were among the first, in the 1970s, to profit from the administrative benefits of computer technology and enormous strides have been made in the past 10 years in the administration and management of institutions, the report points out.

Not only do administrators have rapid and simple access to university records but students can register online, read courses online and turn in papers using the internet. Classes, tutorials and mentoring provided via web-cams and podcasts are powerful eLearining tools.

Using computer technology to educate poses two challenges: the programmes must be adapted to the target audience and the skills training vital to success must be provided.

The report cites two studies by the OECD which concluded that, despite expenditure of US$16 billion, there was no evidence this had enhanced teachers' performance or students' learning outcomes in OECD countries. Neither was there proof that quality or access to education had improved. ICTs had a greater impact on administrative services than on teaching. E-learning had failed, according to the OECD research, because it was irrelevant to local needs and cultures.

Furthermore, people with low-level computer skills are least likely to get the training they need to improve their capacity, the authors note. ICT partners at the conference, including Intel and Microsoft, stressed the need for lifelong learning for a technology that is revolutionised every three to five years. Many fear this will result in a deepening digital divide.

ICT policies are only as good as the services that deliver and maintain them, the report warns. An integrated national policy is the best solution to efficient computer and web-based education. But while "connectivity is the crucial feature that allows access to the internet and the web", providing the required infrastructure can prove daunting for many developing nations. ICT policies should be based on a vision and strategic framework that will harness a country's development challenges.

Despite the discrepancies, one ICT problem is common all: the digital divide is generational and many professors are cyber-clueless. Students are often more familiar and at ease with the latest technology than their academics.

Educators have failed to take advantage of opportunities offered by hand-held internet technology, the report says. Improved connections through 3G cellular phones are untapped potential sources of information delivery - nearly half of the world's population either has a cell phone or has access to one.

This technology depends on cloud services - technology that does not store software but rather accesses it through the internet when needed. One participant suggested developing teaching methods adapted to Facebook, the Blogosphere and Twitter. Perhaps it was the more mind-boggling aspects of such innovations as 'TwitterTeach' that prompted another delegate to point out that not all change is progress.

As several participants noted, the "C" in ICT stands for communications, not computer - a point picked up by the UNESCO report, which mentions the creation and maintenance of a campus radio station in Nigeria as a successful ICT example.

Quality of education was a highly-debated issue at the conference and many concerns were fuelled by ICT-induced changes in education. ICT failures, says the Commonwealth of Learning report, "can be traced to its conception of learning as the transfer of knowledge instead of seeing learning as an active process of knowledge creation".

To be successful there must be a paradigm shift away from "stand-alone courses and resource-based learning to a process that promotes interaction, communication, collaboration and construction".

Sharing ideas, the report argues, is a vital part of higher education. This point was raised during panel discussions by delegates who stressed that higher education develops critical thinking and innovation, both essential skills for knowledge acquisition as differentiated from vocational training.

Delegates often called for international guidelines or certification requirements designed to help parents sort out real schools from those touted by scam artists. Concern over bogus courses and diploma mills was expressed at several panel discussions on ICT as well as in the report.

ICT has far-reaching applications for research. Digital libraries and online data bases are important research tools and should be actively developed by institutions, the report suggests. Results can be shared through networking systems which in turn lead to collaboration and 'folksonomies' or the practice of collaboratively creating, managing and sharing online content.

Most ICT projects in developing countries focus on connectivity and technology issues but pay less attention to content. Institutions could be investigating digitising and providing content, the report proposes. And they also have a role to play in setting standards for content and for management problems, especially when dealing with multilingual systems and local languages.

A successful network must be conceived with the input of the users. For higher education institutions, this means getting feedback from professors and students who will use the system. It also means that systems must be integrated campus-wide, not just be a collection of disparate departmental sites, warn the authors.

Technology transfer is well-developed among universities in high-income countries. The system is particularly flourishing in the life sciences fields and has led to the evolution of a new discipline: bioinformatics, an ICT-assisted discipline of biology. Again the disparities are blatant: 153 North American universities offer bioinformatics against eight in Africa, five in the Middle East and 49 in Asia.

Higher education institutions are now expected to play a role in regional economic growth through innovation, the report states. This requires strong links between universities, industry and governments. Studies show that developing countries, particularly Africa but also in Latin America and parts of Asia, lag far behind in developing sustainable ties in these areas.

The report does not promote proprietary software or open source. "Strong interest groups on each side present this as an all-or-nothing choice but the sensible approach is to use what is appropriate when it is appropriate," the authors argue.

Furthermore, 'free' software is not free to run; it must be upgraded which requires on-site knowledge to maintain and replace equipment. These costs must be weighed against the higher initial cost of licence fees but lower service costs for proprietary systems.

The constant need for maintenance and upgrades if the system is to remain viable in a fast-changing cyberworld is a major drawback of ICT, many participants pointed out.

A further hidden cost is the environmental toll of the electronics industry, Peter Hopkinson of the University of Bradford in the UK told a panel on "ICTs in Higher Education: Breaking new ground". While admitting to enjoying the teaching benefits of the new technology, Hopkinson warned it might be unsustainable. ICTs produced a "high carbon footprint," he explained.

In the UK alone, 23,000 servers provided for 708,000 PCs and generated an annual utility bill of £54,000. ICTs were "massive energy guzzlers", Hopkinson said. The industry produced 40 million metric tons of e-waste each year and often the waste, much of which is toxic, is disposed of in unsanitary conditions in Africa and other developing regions.

Despite the high infrastructure costs and difficulties, the report notes that several developing nations have produced sustainable projects at university level including: India by developing technological parks, South Africa's Stellenbosch University by launching a satellite, and Brazil's State University of Caminas by developing an online patent database.

* ICTs for Higher Education is written by K Balasubramanian, Willie Clarke-Okah, John Daniel, Frances Ferreira, Asha Kanwar, Angela Kwan, John Lesperance, Joshua Mallet, Abdurrahman Umar and Paul West.

The problem of higher education in the developing world not fully benefiting from the ICT revolution is not really because of the cost but rather the attitude of government and private higher education institutions in ensuring that whatever is available is used and shared efficiently and that connectivity is facilitated by way of good regulatory and incentive policies for its implementation.

There is no need for all higher education institutions, particularly in the developing world, to be fully equipped for this would only spread and cause duplication which will be very costly.

Leodegardo M. Pruna

It is not the technology of ICT which could uplift the education in developing countries. It is the political will and high level of discipline among leaders and educators. ICT will only add to the treasures of those running the system (admit it or not).

Jon Jon H. Generao