Vol. 15 : No. 3
Editors Note: Although the focus is Pacific Region, this is an excellent statement of the worldwide learning environments to be addressed by distance learning technologies.
Digital Oceania: The Internet, Distance Learning, & Sustainable Human Development in the Pacific Islands
By L. Heidi Primo
The synergy between technology initiatives and sustainable development [i] is frequently not recognized. The goal of this paper is to promote increased understanding of regionally specific issues and barriers limiting the rapid adoption and diffusion of innovative knowledge-transfer technologies. There is limited availability and access to useful information within the region. Information gaps are frequently at the root of other significant barriers. In many Pacific Island countries, a central technology transfer information focal point does not exist. Hence relevant expertise is scattered amongst various sources within the public and private sectors. This paper is an effort to share information and focus on identifying financial, institutional, information, and capacity barriers that exist, along with possible solutions.
Cyberspace, the global intellectual commons, is here to stay! As a parallel realm to geographical space, it is rapidly becoming the depository and research library archiving humankind’s collective consciousness. Access to the Internet, technology-based education and distance learning all will have huge impacts on shaping the world of tomorrow. The potential to realize sustainable development by harnessing the power of information and communication technology AND applying that power to the building of education and training capacity in developing countries is a monumental task that will require international cooperation.
The Pacific Islands, as a region, faces an unprecedented challenge in gaining access to the benefits that the Information Superhighway has brought to the developed world. Essential to any vision of a sustainable future will be access to technology, increasing digital literacy and affordable connections to the World Wide Web. Indigenous islanders not only stand to be recipients of global input, but they also potentially can appropriate new cybertechnologies to perpetuate their cultures or widely publicize information about their sovereignty struggles. In order to assume this role, first islanders must bridge the ever-expanding “Digital Divide” that exists between residents of prosperous and underdeveloped nations, currently polarizing the connected “haves” and the unconnected “have nots.”
The Pacific islands have faced the uneasy conflict between change vs. traditional cultures ever since the first invasions by colonial powers, missionaries, and commercial sea ventures seeking to exploit their resources. Islands that provided ports and safe harbors (such as in Guam, Port Moresby, Oahu, Hawai’i and Suva, Fiji) were developed as metropoles, whereas outlying islands were protected from much of the impetus to change due to their remoteness from the routes of commerce. This factor, plus the histories of the various colonial, military, and sovereignty struggles, plus trade barriers, and the unequal distribution of economically-viable resources collectively account for the fact that there is a huge disparity from one island to the next. This manifests in terms of different levels of development, available capital and participation in the “modern world.” The Internet itself, as the global library of humankind’s shared knowledge, facilitates governments, research institutions, scholars and citizens everywhere to engage in shared problem solving toward agreeable solutions. How different governments and island leaders react to the Internet depends on the extent to which they are prepared to accept external influences.
Technology has been slow to disseminate; many islands and districts on more populated islands still do not have electricity or telephone access and communicate with the outside world by ham radio. Infrequent, albeit regularly scheduled, visits of government or missionary-sponsored ships (prone to delays and breakdowns) bring in supplies such as rice and kerosene, as well as cigarettes, beer, the mail and two-week old newspapers. Other islands received infrastructure improvements as part of multilateral or bilateral donor packages. Even some of the more populated islands have less than ten years experience being wired for telephone communication, electricity, and the resultant outsider influence, which arrives along with new communication modes. The Internet is making slow but steady inroads but faces tremendous obstacles. A "one size fits all" technology adoption policy is almost certain to be unsuccessful.
Worldwide, many people are concerned about the globalizing effect of the media, of which the Internet is becoming a major transmission model along with radio, television, and printed materials. While countries like Iceland and Finland have higher percentages of their populations connected and online, the Internet currently disseminates many United States cultural values such as free speech and free market capitalism. Current estimates project that 50% of American homes have Internet access. Already, almost all of the public schools and more than half of the classrooms in the U.S. have Internet access. [ii] Yet, United States companies cannot even fill their digital workforce needs. Thus, the federal government is issuing new visas to foreigners and companies to tempt workers by paying high salaries with signing bonuses and stock options, insuring the continual brain drain of the developing world’s ablest technology workers to urban areas in developed countries.
Decentralization remains a fundamental building block of the Internet. But, Is access to Cyberspace a right? Cyberspace brings up unprecedented issues about global boundaries, and sovereignty of borders controlled by code & architecture, rather than military posts. Global organizations such as ICANN & W3C make decisions about Internet domain name assignments and network protocols, standards that Pacific Islands will have to abide by, but which they are not even present to discuss, due to lack of technological understanding. There are also old cultural survival issues that must get revisited in the face of globalization vs. preservation of indigenous lifestyles. Would instant remote access to the world’s library be more of an alienating force? Would traditional Pacific Island chiefs (who have often resisted even electricity and phones) lose their authority? These negative aspects need to be weighed against the positive aspects of using the Internet as a distance education tool to improve the health and welfare of individual islanders.
The Internet is slowly becoming available on more and more islands in the region. (See Appendix on the current status). It still remains largely the province of academics, the governments, and the eco-tourism providers, although e-commerce is starting to blossom. Economic issues are at the forefront of discussions on computer and network access for small islands. The vital questions are whose responsibility is each island’s connectedness and who should foot the bills? Is it the government’s duty to see that their citizens can compete in the modern workforce in a digital age, or is it the responsibility of private sector and industry telecommunications providers, who stand to make a profit as more and more customers come on board? In a region where many villages are only accessible by boat, and their only power source is solar or Honda generators, the technical difficulties of entering Cyberspace may have to wait until satellites and wireless technologies become feasible and cheap. As is usual in the Pacific Islands, if there is not enough of a market to warrant major infrastructure investments, indigenous islanders will remain one of the last people on Earth to experience diffusion of innovations.
At the very least, a connection to the Internet requires electricity, a computer with a modem, a dial up connection through a phone line, satellite or cable connections. Beyond that, there are requirements for the individual to have the training to use it and literacy in the English language (or a translation program that instantly translates foreign languages.) Other skills required include familiarity doing web-based research, and the discrimination to be able to discern good information sources from bad. There must be a server to route to an ISP; that requires some cost to pay monthly ISP charges. Someone must serve as Webmaster; someone must be skilled enough to maintain the server. In order for Pacific Islanders to participate in disseminating their cultures and news outward, some individuals must be able to construct and program web sites.
Funding issues also will be problematic. Although the United Nations advocated technology transfer and technical assistance initiatives for sustainable development capacity-building in developing countries, the Pacific Islands are usually low on the priority lists due to small populations. A further problem is that U.S.-affiliated islands under the Compact of Free Association are expected to receive bilateral funding, thus they are often locked out of UNDP or UNESCO projects due to the assumption that they will receive American support. While the American Congress and Executive Branches are focused on wiring inner city and rural schools and libraries in America, the problems of access on remote islands is not even under discussion.
These are all obstacles that will need to be faced on every island that sees the potential of the Internet as a desirable force that overpowers the challenges. Pacific Island leaders must first come to terms with the vision of how technology can bring about positive change, before they will come to consensus to embrace those changes. The Internet allows not only instantaneous communication, warning in the face of impending disasters, access to current public health research, updated news, and potential income for craftspeople and small businesses through e-commerce, but governments should embrace the opportunities to be notified of grant and funding opportunities on a timely basis. The emotional consequences of the diaspora (of islanders seeking better jobs abroad) can be alleviated if people could remain in touch with departed extended family members by email. There is also the possibility of reversing the “brain drain” if trained workers can be empowered to compete for well-paid telecommuting jobs online. One major cost to Pacific Island governments is travel expenses to attend meetings; these costs could be cut down tremendously with teleconferences and netmeetings, thereby freeing up money to go into other programs. Some island governments have managed to turn the selling of domain names into a new and profitable source of income. (See notes on Tuvalu, Tonga, and Federated States of Micronesia in Appendix).
Distance learning courses in both degree programs for personal enrichment, provide unprecedented opportunities for Pacific Islanders, although tuition cost issues are still a problem. Collaborative research between scholars allows sharing of information, avoiding redundancy. The need for students to leave their home islands to pursue higher education would be minimized if those who are self-motivated or have employment and family obligations can take online classes. Community building online encourages active learning. The Internet has become a publishing forum for writers, artists, and web designers, which will give islanders a chance to have their works seen and appreciated. Teachers who are professionally isolated with few resources can support learning in the classrooms and can bring in outside information sources never previously available. Also, they will be in a better position to prepare students for critical job skills for the “Information Age” when their classrooms gain access to computers and advanced technologies. Only the fortunate few students who are trained to use technology will gain the basic knowledge skills to become tomorrow’s workers and informed global citizens. The rest of the island youth will be relegated to island existence and continual poverty, with few prospects to support themselves in our “Information Economy”, while the world changes. While this is not necessarily bad, it denies individuals the right to choose their own future.
Realistically, the average Pacific Island home or family complex is unlikely to be connected anytime in the near future. Even with drastic price reductions in computer hardware over the past year, the cost of even a cheap computer that will allow Internet access is beyond the yearly income of many island families. Emerging technologies such as WebTV may be more viable for some homes. A look at some of the exorbitant hourly costs charged by telecommunication and ISP providers on many islands makes this an impossible expense in cash poor economies. The exception is Niue, where the government offers free Internet access to all residents.
In the United States, the government’s plan to bridge the “Digital Divide” was to provide access in schools and libraries first. Obviously, governments will need to be online; most are already with the exception of Nauru, Tokelau, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands and the Marshall Islands. Community technology centers in local public buildings would make sense in Pacific Island villages. This would involve having a computer lab and a staff person who is trained to assist users who come and go on a drop-in basis. Oftentimes, this results in children teaching adults, which increases their self-esteem and familiarity with programs. Old obsolete equipment donations are not recommended, since new users will become frustrated. One aspect of technology transfer to developing countries is the tendency to “leapfrog” through outmoded technologies, skipping several stages to go straight to the newest innovations.
Creative financing will be imperative. Donors must pay, obviously, to provide both the networks and the personnel to train indigenous islanders to maintain, wire and fix hardware, so they are not perpetually dependent on outside consultants to keep them up and running. It may be possible to interest some philanthropy organization (such as the Benton Foundation or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) in assisting the dissemination of the Internet to some of the remotest equatorial regions on the planet. Kiribati and Fiji have already had private entrepreneurs jump on the Cyber Café bandwagon; there is the possibility this model could be successful in any of the major towns on capital islands.
The need to increase the flow of information about appropriate technologies between recipients/users and the suppliers of the technologies is critical. 'One-stop' technology transfer shops (information and demonstration centers) could be a useful way to inform the public about what is available and possible. Another solution for capacity building is to phase in a regional consortium to share resources in Cyberspace. This would involve creating an interactive site to serve as a hub for indigenous people in the Pacific region. Besides connecting to news sites (which do already exist for the Pacific Islands), this could provide a perpetually updated listing of grants availability and requirements and funding opportunities. This could also connect to the Pacific Island Development Program’s Web site at East West Center, which focuses on networking private investors with investment possibilities in Oceania. NGO’s, university students doing internships and Peace Corps volunteers could be utilized to train teachers and government employees in quickly emerging and changing technologies, although this would still need to be coordinated internally within the country.
In the U.S., the influence of the telecommunications providers established a new mechanism to begin addressing the imbalance of access, mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Its purpose was to promote broad universal access to telecommunication services, and it was linked to a Telecommunications Development Fund to stimulate new technology development. This, along with the e-rate that allowed affordable wiring of schools and libraries, has been instrumental in extending reach. Although this subsidized rate was pre-maturely available to American associated Pacific Islands it had little impact, due to the fact that many schools do not even have phone lines or computers to connect.
The current and potential role of the private sector in the transfer of technology is immense. Local and foreign companies could be encouraged to assist in the building of technology information networks to foster greater accessibility among all stakeholders, especially educational and research institutions. Industry donors may provide hardware, software and peripherals for pilot projects. Policies to facilitate and encourage the enhancement of technology access initiatives by the private sector are needed.
Pacific Islanders believe that human beings are
their most important resource. The need to strengthen and build the requisite
human, institutional and technical capacities of countries in the region
is paramount. However, few, island countries have undertaken a systematic
identification of education, training and capacity-building needs. The
dangers of global and Western influences are not to be minimized: more
information and exposure will change indigenous cultures. But change
is something the Pacific Islands have been grappling with for more than
two centuries. On the Internet, the domination of EuroAmerican representations
is balanced by the chance for native peoples to expose others to competing
indigenous representations of knowledge on their own terms. Schoolchildren
can create Web Quests virtually introducing others to their island lifestyles
and beliefs. Failure by decision-makers to recognize how Cyberspace can
facilitate development agendas will deny islanders the benefits of competing
in global online markets. By embracing the Internet and distance learning,
there are numerous opportunities for capacity building to prepare future
generations to cope with unforeseen challenges, so they can create and
attain a secure and sustainable future.
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Alphabet Soup of other Useful websites visited for information to prepare this report:
Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) at: http://www.apnic.net
Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) at: http://www.prel.org
Pacific Telecommunication Council at: http://www.ptc.org/
the World Bank at: http://www.worldbank.org/
For more information on these and related issues,
please visit the Digital Oceania web site at: http://www.digitaloceania.net
Appendix- status of the Internet in Pacific Islands
About the Author:
L. Heidi Primo is currently a distance education graduate student in “Educational Technology Leadership” (ETL) through the George Washington University, living on the Big Island of Hawaii. She works full time as an Educational Specialist for the State of Hawaii teaching male and female inmates in the Hilo jail. In the past, she taught pre-primary and elementary classes in public and private schools. After completing a Master’s program in “Pacific Island Studies” at University of Hawaii at Manoa, she became a full-time faculty member in the Divisions of Social Sciences and Education at the College of Micronesia-FSM in 1993. Ultimately, this led to a 3 year job in the President’s Office for the National Government of the Federated States of Micronesia doing public education, policy analysis, and research as well as United Nations negotiating on the topics of Climate Change, Coastal Zone Management and Sustainable Development. Ms. Primo may be reached via email: L. Heidi Primo <firstname.lastname@example.org>
[i] The most widely recognized definition of “sustainable development” comes from the 1987 report "Our Common Future" based on the findings of the Brundtland Commission for Environment and Development: "development that meets the needs of the present without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs."
[ii] Smart Business for the New Economy, Nov.2000, p. 86.