Cyber universities, the challenge of equal access and the growing carbon footprint of information and communication technologies were debated during a parallel session at the World Conference on Higher Education. The Conference, gathering close to 1,000 participants from 148 countries, opened on 5 July at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris with a call for higher education to address global development challenges.
“A business as usual attitude to the provision of higher education will no longer do as demand rises along with question of equity, affordability and relevance,” said UNESCO’s Assistant-Director General for Communication and Information, Abdul Waheed Khan, opening the session. “The conventional system alone cannot meet the challenges. We must ask the questions: Will present day universities become the dinosaurs of tomorrow? Will there be profound changes in learning content? What is the role of students and staff and how will we ensure quality and sustainability on the Internet?”
Didier Oillo, Creator and Director of the Virtual University of the French-speaking world and a specialist in providing ICT for underprivileged and marginalised populations, said the 1998 World Conference on Higher Education had recognised the potential and challenge of technology. “Since then the knowledge society has moved far beyond to develop its own economy and industry. There are new ICT tools, collaborative sites and blogs, platforms like Facebook and Twitter, video conferencing and mobile tools. Young people have already mastered all these new and different techniques but not all teachers.”
According to Oillo, roles were changing rapidly in the virtual learning environment as teachers took on more of a mediator’s role and students gained greater control over their own learning. Now new technology should be used to include countries in the South.
Frits Pannakoek, President of Canada’s open Athabasca University and of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), also summed up the differences since the 1998 conference when the digital world of the 1990s was not truly connected with ICT underdeveloped and not widely available. “Content was not affordable, indigenous cultures were marginalised on the Internet and English was the dominant language,” he said.
“Now the world is still not wired but it is increasingly wireless, ICT are still unfairly distributed worldwide but there are positive changes such as the invention of the 100-dollar computer. Indigenous cultures are finally online, and in Canada and New Zealand they have a strong presence,” Pannakoek added. “English had also lost some of its hold with smaller languages asserting themselves. However, there was still a question mark over the quality of learning offered through ICT and the fact that Northern material dominated, which meant there was no real local trade in educational resources. The 18 plus students demand ICT-driven learning and if this is not provided as an option, conventional institutes will lose them,” he warned.
Professor Zheng Deming presented China’s oldest and best established distance learning project, Shanghai Television University (STUV). STUV began in the 1960s using television to improve access to education and now uses ICT to provide the same service to Shanghai’s 19 million inhabitants. To adapt to the country’s rapid growth, the University launched the project Turning the Digital Divide into Digital Opportunity.
“Because of the development of the country we had an urgent need for highly qualified talent or to retrain the huge workforce,” said Professor Zheng who is President of STUV. “We also wanted to ensure that the elderly could access lifelong learning programmes.”
Their virtual campus now offers 8 learning platforms serving different groups which include underdeveloped and disadvantaged communities, 400 rural schools, 4 million immigrants and the elderly. In 2008 STUV was named as a laureate for the UNESCO King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa Prize for the Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Education.
Professor Dele Braimoh, a UNESCO Chair holder and Director of the University of South Africa (UNISA), Institute for Open and Distance Learning, described the challenges that students and staff are facing in a country suffering from poverty, poor infrastructure and lack of ICT skills. “There is a gap between the sophistication of the technology available and the knowledge of staff and students. We have 300,000 students and most come to open and distance learning with no prior training. Staff too often have very conservative mindsets about new ways of teaching. In addition we have students who are too poor to buy personal computers, limited computer bandwidth and constant power outages.”
The benefits of ICT in higher education were obvious as they were location-independent and improved access for many groups, according to Peter Hopkinson, Director of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) at the University of Bradford and in charge of the University’s Ecoversity project, which aims to embed ESD in the institution and all aspects of student learning.
“Fifteen years ago I had no desktop computer, no Twitter and no Facebook. Now students do not need to be in a certain location to learn, they can use podcasts for lectures and download tutorials onto mobiles. Libraries are online and there are vast data centres like Google. We have to ask whether in the future people will even go to a university as we understand it,” Hopkinson said. “However, the growth of ICT carried with it a huge environmental impact. In the United Kingdom the carbon footprint from new technology was soon set to outstrip that of air travel.”
Concerns were voiced about the potential loss of student-teacher and student-student interaction. “We must not forget that the ‘C’ in ICT does not stand for ‘computer’ but for ‘communication’. Education is not possible without communication; it includes interpersonal communication in a classroom as well as Internet communication. Communication must be applied so that it aids higher education,” concluded Mr Khan.