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Monday, October 8, 2001
Lead Article

Virtual mode, real learning

The focus of Information Communication Technology is on the creation of opportunities for women to become technology innovators and producers, which will ultimately benefit their livelihoods, says Neena Bhandari

FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Nabeela in Tonga is learning economics from her lecturer based 8,000 miles away in Suva. Every day, lecturers from the University of South Pacific in Fiji deliver classes to 4,000 students across 11 Pacific Island nations, an opportunity that would have been unthinkable for teenagers like Nabeela a few years ago.

Extensive network-and satellite-based interactive learning is fast becoming the new mode of education. Unlike postal correspondence, radio and television, which serve as one-way media of instruction, Information Communication Technology (ICT) makes a virtual classroom possible with students and teachers thousands of miles away, in direct contact with each other.
In many developing countries like Brazil, Internet users have grown from 1.7 million in 1998 to 9.8 million in 2000. In China, this number has increased from 3.8 million to 16.9 million and in Uganda from 2,500 to 25,000 during the same period.
The beneficiaries, however, are not all women. For instance, the 1999 UNDP Human Development Report estimates that women account for only 17 per cent of ICT users in South Africa and 4 per cent in the Arab states.
Obstacles to equity in ICT include poorer access to basic education for girls, gender bias in access to computers at school, language barriers as fewer women than men speak English —the dominant language of computers—and absence of technologies and software designed to address women’s issues and concerns.


An ambitious multi-billion dollar programme, the Virtual Colombo Plan (VCP), launched by the Australian Government and the World Bank recently seeks to bridge this digital divide between the developed and the developing countries.

Building on the original Colombo Plan launched in 1951 whereby Australia brought 20,000 students from across the Asia-Pacific region to the country on scholarships, the VCP seeks to take education to people in developing countries via the Internet and satellite communication.

Australia with its large landmass has had enormous experience in distance learning for decades. Lessons are relayed on radio to isolated communities in central Australia from the ‘School in the Air’ programme based in Alice Springs. Similarly, many universities like the Deakin University in Melbourne have been posting assignments to students in the Outback.

As Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says: "The VCP is an initiative aimed at bringing world-class education and expertise to the people of developing countries. It will go a long way in meeting international development goals of universal global primary enrolments set for 2015."

The initiative focuses on the creation of opportunities for women to become technology innovators and producers, which will ultimately benefit their livelihoods. "A special emphasis is being laid on producing education material relevant to girls and their needs, thus incorporating gender equality. It is very important that gender strategy is implemented and technology doesn’t further impoverish women and the girl child," Downer adds.

In the first stage, emphasis will be laid on training primary teachers in ICT, both for direct educational reasons and to provide effective role models for male and female students.

Primary teachers in countries such as Tuvalu and Nauru will be asked what they would like to be taught that would be beneficial to their communities. Keeping their requirements in mind, educational CD ROMs will be developed and dubbed in local languages.

Professor John Waiko, Minister for Education, Research, Science and Technology in Port Moresby says: "In Papua New Guinea alone, there are over 800 languages, of which 282 are written languages. We have one million children in classrooms but two million just roam in the villages because there is a shortfall of 3,000 primary teachers. The VCP can be of great help in bringing these kids to school."
The World Bank is providing $ 1.3 billion as loan and the Australian Overseas Aid Programme is granting another $ 200 million for a complete package, including a computer, printer, UPS connection and education to students in Asia Pacific, South Asia and eventually Africa. Many of the computers made redundant by private enterprises will also be updated for use.

James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank says, "Education is the key to growth and elimination of poverty in developing countries. We realise that education is as important as capital in development and growth.

"This project enables us to meet the challenges posed by the digital divide by radically transforming the way developing countries have access to education through cutting-edge technology and specially prepared education programmes."

One of the world’s oldest programmes of cooperation between nations focused on economic and social development, the VCP aims at applying ICT to traditional knowledge and building on indigenous expertise. Australia has had a long tradition of flying doctors and travelling clinics. Small aircraft are used for carrying doctors to remote areas to treat patients on the ground.

Today, a doctor in Hanoi, Vietnam, is in touch with specialists in Sydney while performing a complicated heart operation. He can get an immediate second opinion on diagnosis and treatment from Australian doctors by emailing X-rays on a digital camera.

The second stage of the VCP will provide content to relevant Internet sites and distance education systems with a focus on agriculture and the health sectors. And in the third stage, the target will be higher education, whereby employed students will be able to upgrade qualifications while working and advanced courses for policymakers.

While the VCP may not offer a substitute for blackboard and chalk, it will make mainstream education available at an affordable cost to developing countries, and serve as another component in combating poverty. (WFS)