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MIT workshop focuses on developing countries

By Ed Arnold / May 2003

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A confession: When I think about e-learning, I focus on U.S.-based corporations. But e-learning is a global phenomenon, and its application extends far beyond U.S.-based e-learning programs or vendors. In fact, technology for education can significantly improve the quality of life for billions of people all over our planet.

This "aha!" moment came to me during the inaugural workshop of the Learning International Network Consortium (LINC), an MIT Project led by Professor Richard C. Larson and funded by a grant from the Lounsbery Foundation. LINC organized this two-day workshop in early February, and it was attended by more than 70 participants from 19 countries.

The workshop featured over 30 presentations from MIT faculty, USAID (United States Agency for International Development), and World Bank policy makers, as well as leaders from educational institutions in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. (For a complete list of the conference's 32 title abstracts, click here.)

A few examples: African Virtual University is a technology-based distance learning network that started in 1997 as a project of the World Bank. The ITESM Virtual University in Monterrey Mexico is connecting 300 Community Learning Centers in impoverished communities. Sharif Virtual University of Iran has established itself as a test-bed for technological and pedagogical studies and provides online courses for Kish Island in the Persian Gulf. Waseda University of Japan has distance learning projects in Vietnam and Malaysia. Virtual University of Pakistan was granted a federal charter in last August. Technion, Israel Institute of Technology has successfully used virtual forums to enhance higher order thinking and critical review of scientific articles.

In addition to this workshop on e-learning in developing countries, MIT has hosted other conferences on technology and learning and has been active in a number of related initiatives. Last fall, MIT launched its Open Courseware Initiative, with a goal is to make all university course material publicly available on the web free of charge. LINC has put forward a similarly noble vision: To use distance learning, e-learning and educational technology to reduce the inequality between those who have access to education and those who do not. Driving this vision is this sobering background:

  • There is a dire lack of traditional educational resources in the developing world. For example, in Pakistan over 3 million people turn 18 each year, yet less than 1% of them have access to higher education. In Algeria, current enrollment is expected to double by 2008. Similar gaps exist throughout Africa and Asia.
  • At the same time, the developing world is suffering from a "brain drain" of its best academic talent into Europe and the United States thereby causing a scarcity of qualified professors on the local level, where the demand is greatest. Kenya, for example, has only five Computer Science Ph.D.'s. In fast-growing economies like China, a large proportion of its finest academics are being diverted into the private sector.

In response, some LINC members are already adapting technology to reduce the educational divide and to make learning resources accessible to a much wider global audience. These initiatives adapt existing technology at low cost to serve existing needs. For example, in India, the PicoPeta Simputer is an inexpensive hand-held computer designed for elementary school aged children that features an intuitive user interfaces that depend on sight, touch, and hearing. Existing courseware includes Geography, Mathematics (arithmetic, geometry), and Physics (optics, projectiles).

Another example, the MIT DakNet project, offers a cost-effective network for data connectivity in regions lacking communications infrastructure. It enables high-bandwidth connectivity at the cost of $0.01 per user. The hybrid network architecture combines physical and wireless data transport to enable high-bandwidth intranet and Internet connectivity among kiosks (public computers) and between kiosks and hubs (places with a reliable Internet connection). Data is transported by means of a mobile access point (mounted on regular delivery trucks), which automatically and wirelessly collects and delivers data from/to each kiosk on the network.

These examples illustrate the notion that resource constraints can spur very creative and innovative solutions. U.S. managers, especially those who feel their budgets are too modest to deploy new technology, may want to take note. Rather than focusing on quick ROI, LINC members are instead concerned with smart, long-term investments that leverage every dollar spent for the global public good. Interestingly, even the Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, and is one of the few profitable private sector online ventures, has admitted to committing several missteps in adapting its business model for global markets.

E-learning has tremendous potential for improving the lives of millions of people by creating access to worldclass educational content. The LINC workshop shows what can be accomplished with practical and creative approaches utilizing existing technology.


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