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.
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.
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."
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)