Our educational institutions have a responsibility to train and develop a critical mass of professionals who are skilled in promoting our world view and development.
Our educational institutions create new knowledge, build the technical and professional capacity of a country, undertake research to increase the body of theoretical knowledge as well as its application to practical societal problems. Due to their unique role in society, our educational institutions have become an essential part of the fabric of our civilisation and civic life. Traditional education requires a concentration of population at a given place in time. This is usually called the school or campus. People from other parts of the country have to leave their families and converge at the school or a campus type setting.
This type of education is based on lectures, tutorials and trips to the library, and the key unit of measure are number of years at school, number of semesters in class, number of credit hours achieved. Fact is, the educational institution that most of us went to began with buildings, with classrooms, with lecture halls, with dormitories.
In the 21st century, students need rigorous coursework to gain the knowledge and skills to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, innovators, and effective communicators. They need the skills to make them technologically proficient, globally aware, civically engaged, and skills that is relevant to workforce expectations.
In his book 'The World is Flat', Thomas Friedman argues that worldwide economic trends are flattening. In education, however, we see the expansion of learning opportunities through the use of new distance learning technologies. The advent of the information revolution presents numerous opportunities for a paradigm shift in education. One such paradigm shift is the increasing adoption of teaching at a distance. Today, distance teaching is emerging as a supplement to the traditional educational system based on brick and mortar.
Known widely as Open and Distance Learning (ODL), this mode of teaching has created opportunities for a large number of students looking for ways to enhance their educational backgrounds to do so. Both teachers and learners have increased access to global educational resources.
Countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Uganda, etc., are moving in this direction by making it possible for students to remain in their communities and be connected to learning materials at a centralised location.
Nigeria, for example, has created the National Open University of Nigeria to facilitate this process. And, the mega universities, (universities enrolling over 100,000 students) have done away with dormitories and lecture halls, and use computers and radio and television and books to bring learning to where people are.
They have demonstrated the practicality and applicability of this instructional mode. Available date depicts the practicality of using ODL to increase access and enrolment, improve the quality of education and reduce increasing educational costs.
For example, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), now has one million students enrolled. It is ranked as one of the top ten Indian universities for the quality of its teaching and it operates at a fraction of the cost of India’s conventional universities.
By moving in this direction, education becomes for most students institutions without walls. The computer will be the classroom, the lecture hall, the seminar room, the library, the laboratory. Students can be anywhere in the world, and be part of a learning community, a virtual community, the computer keeping teachers and students in easy and regular communication.
The delivery platform is driven by information technology. This may range from print material, to the use of audio, video, multimedia CD-ROM (Compact Disk Read Only Memory), to developing websites for courses and placing them on the Internet, with links to databases and related sites on the Internet or a course Intranet.
These features of ODL aim to open the world of education to all, irrespective of age, sex, place of residence or occupation, in order to enable every individual to realise his or her academic ability.
Today, we have become a global learning society. As such, our educational systems must become a primary vehicle for assisting learners to become successful citizens of the world- a world that demands new knowledge, new thoughts, new frameworks for problem-solving, and new ways of caring for one another.
We should have the courage to think about a different way to use the new communication technologies, a way that recognises the realities of contemporary society. We need to commit ourselves to doing as much as we can to harness the power of these new technologies for education, and to spending as little as possible on the old technologies—on the brick and mortar for classrooms and lecture halls and dormitories and the rest of the expensive apparatus that drains resources away from the central needs—teachers and students and knowledge that can be communicated without brick and mortar.
We know this vision of teaching at a distance will receive substantial support from the international donor community. For example, the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa formed in 2000 by the Ford Foundation and others continue to support and promote ICT enhanced education in African.
And, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the African Information Society Initiative, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, The New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and others will rally behind this noble cause.
I believe that the key to addressing the challenges inherent in the continent’s educational institutions is ODL. Africans will loose momentum if we fail to move in this direction. It behoves on all major stakeholders (end users, ISPs, network operators, regulators, equipment vendors, etc.) to be part of this crusade.
The golden age of technology is here and Africa’s educational roadmap should be shaped by a movement in this direction.