We are here for at least three reasons.
First, we are educators, aware of the potential for using technology to increase our intellectual and organizational reach, expand our networks and means of exchange with colleagues worldwide, and empower learners in ways that we are only recently coming to imagine, let alone to realize as everyday operating facts.
Second, we are managers, decision-makers, responsible leaders of our respective institutions and organizations. We need to make decisions on how rapidly to proceed with new possibilities, how much risk we can accept, how much we can invest. Most important, we need to know whether we know what we are doing, and whether what we are doing is likely to advance our goals as educators.
Third, we are participants in a changing world in which powerful forces are creating both new opportunities and new concerns. These are tectonic shifts, literally changing the ground under our feet and causing familiar landscapes to seem unstable, difficult to define – particularly around the edges. The changing information and technology environment is part of this process of change. The changing nature of education is also part of this process. Learning is moving beyond the schools and universities. We need to think about learning continuously over the life cycles and in ways that transcend the institutional controls and academic frames that have defined the learning processes for decades, if not centuries.
The notion of the nation-state as a distinct entity -- self-sufficient, self-defining and self-regulating -- is being challenged by new realities inviting new international, (regional, global) partnerships networks and exchanges – in all sectors. Borders, of any kind, are increasingly porous. Information is one of the most mobile commodities in the world. Increasingly the educated and skilled information workers also are mobile. Similarly, the university is no longer confined to its campus or shaped mainly by its own traditions, its academic community and faculty, its libraries and other stores of knowledge or by other tangible factors.
New identities are emerging, shaped by interactions, exchanges, networked learning and joint projects with others in virtual communities, over distance and over time. Increasingly, coursework is treated as a commodity. New education providers are emerging, unapologetic about their commitment to meeting marketplace demands. Industry is bypassing traditional universities, meeting its own needs for specialized training or advanced education. These new realities raise fundamental questions of how best to set and maintain education standards in the international environment.
What do these trends mean for the "national university?" Indeed, what does this mean for public universities providing public goods? How can we both set standards of excellence and, at the same time Collaborate to ensure equitable opportunities to learn in information-rich, high performance environments in all parts of the world?
I begin with questions shaped by these three identities for three reasons:
First, it is very important that we keep our identity as educators and keep the goals of improving education capacities, supporting learning and learners, foremost in our discussion. There is a very real danger that technology will push education in directions that are undesirable and unsustainable, creating new generations of problems, misinformation and loss of rigorous pursuit of academic excellence. There also is a risk that the education process can become only or mainly a transmission belt for information – answers divorced from the questioning, reflection, teaching and learning processes. We must not lose the distinction between information and knowledge – or the wisdom that comes from sustained reflection.
This is a risk for educators, for learners and I think for the technology community itself. Most of us are old enough and experienced enough to remember the last several rounds of technology-based solutions to education problems, and many of us still have the storerooms of unused equipment to prove the point. My first challenge to this group is to state our education goals and requirements as clearly and publicly as possible -- and to commit ourselves to sustaining the discussion of what these goals should be.
Intense human interaction is needed to get the full benefit of the virtual connections. The long-term benefit of distance learning arrangements may lie as much in the exchanges among the participating faculties as it does in the numbers of participating students. The collaborative processes of exchange and joint development are key to academic progress. Further, one of the lessons of the Open Universities in the UK and elsewhere is that the virtual education works best, and the virtual learners persist longer, when there is human interaction with a tutor, other learners and others with expertise in the field. We need to keep these ‘human factor" lessons in mind, both to improve the learning and instructional outcomes and to support the institutional reforms, institutional partnerships and – ultimately – new relationships among communities and countries in the global environment.
Second, it is equally important that we educators become thoroughly informed on the potential of the new technologies to support education progress, and learn how to invest in and manage these potentials. These are major investments as well as essential parts of the institutional infrastructure, shaping societies as well as economies. In the excitement about ICTs and education, there are many new ventures for which there is more hope than experience. A second challenge is for all of us to monitor our experience with rigorous research and assessment, report it as fully and openly as possible, and seek means of building the lessons learned and the learning process into our institutions, organizations and professional knowledge base. At UNESCO we are adopting a strategy of "prudent acceleration." Perhaps the most prudent rule we can adopt is to be clear about where we are trying to go, before accelerating!
A third reason for beginning with some suggestions about our respective identities and professional perspectives is that the changes most of us view as positive -- as opening up unimagined opportunities, as shaping new professional challenges – are not positive for all people, and are not shared by all people.
This is more than a matter of basic equity and basic rights, though it certainly begins with the concern for equity and rights. It also affects whether the optimistic visions for the information societies can be realized -- for the use of ICTs to connect people, to support open societies and open debates, to enable individuals to transcend authoritarian structures and assert their human rights and basic dignity. Ultimately, it affects whether the communities of connected people will grow and prosper and become more widely and deeply connected.
Without access, we may have unconnected, alienated and excluded populations. Without education, and without a commitment to open societies and to increased political, social and economic participation, we also may see well-connected islands of people, isolated from larger communities, talking mainly with themselves, listening to their own echoes, distrustful of others.
We need to reflect on what happens when opportunity is not shared, when information is not available to all. Will distance education mainly enable those with some education to get more, or can it also be used to ensure that those with little or no education opportunity get some? What happens when leaders in some parts of the world are operating with very different facts? How do we reassure people that others will listen fairly to their points of view? How can we use technology to enable more people to participate in the academic and professional debates, social and economic decision-making, governance and technology choices that shape our collective futures? Without a commitment to equitable access to information and to education, we will have unacceptable levels of excluded, alienated people, and lose the human potential of these people and communities. Neither open markets nor democracies nor technologic and education progress can thrive for long in such conditions.
Some facts may be useful to illustrate the point:
Half of the adults in the world have never made a phone call! There are approximately 880 million illiterate adults, most of whom will never turn on a computer or read a help manual. At least 113 million children of school age are not currently enrolled in primary school, let alone expecting to continue their education at universities and specialized training institutions. The number of personal computers per 1,000 inhabitants ranges from fewer than one in Burkina Faso and 3 in Zimbabwe to 27 in South Africa, 38 in Chile, 172 in Singapore and 348 in Switzerland. The price of a computer represents on average 8 years of wages for a Bangladeshi, less than 1 month for an American. Approximately 55 % of Internet users are in Canada and the United States, 24 % in Europe, 17 % in Asia and the Pacific, 3 % in Latin America and 1 % in Africa. Worldwide, 1 person in 10 speaks English, yet 80 % of websites are in English. The 13 biggest world suppliers of access to the Internet are all Americans. It is estimated that 75 % of European and Asian connections go first to the United States, before being sent back to their region of origin
So, where do we begin? How do we invest? How do we work and learn together? I suggest we begin with the three identities suggested at the beginning. We are educators, looking for better ways to educate. We are managers, looking for better ways to support our education mission. We are people noticing that things are changing and that we need to learn how to work in new ways. Learning, managing and collaborating in the new information environment basically come back to the same tasks and questions:
What do we need to know? How are we going to get better information? How are we going to share the information with enough other people that we can begin to use it to make sense of things and chart new paths to new challenges?
The key to making sound education management decisions on the use of technology to support education is learning how to measure results and how to compare what we are measuring – across systems, across countries and for different sets of learners. Quality assurance, accreditation and certification systems, student records systems, indicators and reporting systems, processes for evaluation and assessment … are among the challenges for educators everywhere.
These are essential functions, whether managing a few schools and programs or managing huge systems across large states and whole nations, working collaboratively with others in larger networks. As we move toward distance education networks, and higher education partnerships across national boundaries, these functions take on a somewhat different character. The technical problems of comparative assessment and accreditation across state and provincial lines in federal systems (such as the United States, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Australia) are not significantly different from those faced across international boundaries. However, it can be much more difficult to devise mechanisms for cooperation and collaboration that all parties can accept and work with over a sustained period.
There are political concerns about sovereignty and control, important differences in education policy and regulatory environments and in the ways education institutions are chartered and governed, as well as the realities of language, culture and geographic perspective.
In many contexts, the use of ICTs in education is limited more by telecommunications regulations and rate structures than by education policies and interests. This puts a practical limit on the ability of learners to utilize distance learning opportunities and the capacity of universities and training institutions to participate in virtual exchanges (joint research, teleconferencing, data exchange) in real time and with broadband connections. There has been some international discussion of ways to increase broadband connectivity, perhaps by putting available spectrum up for auction to universities, museums, libraries and research entities meeting agreed criteria. Proposals such as the Global Service Trust Fund are modeled on the United States e-rate initiatives, which combined economic incentives, subsidies and policy reforms to achieve low-cost connections for schools, libraries and other entities meeting public good criteria.
As in the United States, the e-rate innovations and other means of ensuring affordable access to education institutions depend critically on the willingness of governments to use regulatory means to ensure open access. Without some incentives and public leadership, the markets in most cases will not do it. The experience of the United States and of Canada holds a number of lessons for how to create affordable access. These lessons are not just technical or economic in nature. They include ways to balance national objectives of ensuring full access to information, communications and learning opportunities with the self interest(s) of the private sector competing to improve telecommunications and information infrastructure capacities.
Taking these three factors together – technical assessments, education policy and regulatory environments, communications policy environments – creates a complex set of choices that is difficult for any single country to address. Multiplying them exponentially by 20-50-150 times as additional countries join the enterprise – can be daunting indeed. Each nation, and each group of higher education institutions, needs to set and maintain standards. Each wishes to participate in new initiatives with additional partners and innovations, yet few wish to concede any part of their sovereignty and institutional identity. This can, and often does, lead mainly to failed agreements, partial agreements and pseudo-agreements that pretend to participate in virtual partnerships but in fact serve to protect national universities, preserve academic privilege and restrict the opportunities for professional movement.
This is the environment in which UNESCO tries to be of service, facilitating the exchanges among an increasing number of interested parties, working toward standards, benchmarks, indicators and processes by and through which institutions can collaborate as well as compete. Thus, my third challenge – my invitation – is to find better ways to collaborate internationally on the setting of standards, quality assurance and open monitoring of the increasingly complex and crowded environment for distance education and on-line learning.
N.B. The aim here should not be to control or to regulate. Rather, it should be to help countries, groups of countries or groups of higher education institutions, professional associations and specialized bodies to collaborate in the setting of standards, the development of mechanisms for assessment and accreditation, and the reporting of progress. In this regard, the self-referencing accrediting bodies in the U.S. may provide at least partial models for the emergence of similar accreditation bodies in the international environment.
Several mechanisms have been brought to my attention, each with some relevance to the international environment. In addition to the regional accrediting bodies and the related professional bodies:
There are many other mechanisms setting standards and providing accreditation and certification in specialized fields, including relevant examples from other regions. For example, the European Credit Transfer System, developed by the European Union, provides a way of comparing learning achievements and allocating "ECTS credits" to course units.
These and other mechanisms bear careful study for possible lessons applicable to assessment, certification and accreditation in the growing international higher education environment. It is important to note that they for the most part are initiatives of the education and training communities themselves, which recognize the need for standards, for collaboration in the setting of the standards and for careful, rigorous monitoring and open reporting on conformance with the standards.
Education is a public good. This simple statement is central to UNESCO’s mission, to national laws and international agreements concerning the right to education, and to the international commitments to reach EFA targets. Yet, the experience of using market mechanisms and self-referencing organizations to set and maintain standards for such an important public good is of great interest to other countries. I am aware that there are concerns about some of these mechanisms, particularly those that treat education coursework as a commodity. Educators in other countries need to hear these concerns, and to examine your experience. They can make up their own minds. I would like to explore ways by which UNESCO could help make this experience more accessible to other countries. .
UNESCO will continue to take an active part in the global debate about these issues. It will continue to analyze the educational, economic, technical, but also ethical dimensions of this debate. And it must facilitate an open and sustained dialogue between positions often separated by a gulf of ideology, self-interest, and mutual ignorance.
UNESCO should not itself intervene as a labeling and accreditation agency. But it can and should develop guidelines to help member states individually and collectively to determine the quality and appropriateness of education that is for sale. It is in the interest of all partners, including from the economic sector, to introduce coherence and transparency into this new, mushrooming market.
UNESCO will, in the first instance, examine the legal issues involved, look at the regulatory mechanisms in place and consult widely on what the main areas of need are for quality assurance, both for individuals and for governments. It will develop and test guidelines, and consider work on a declaration or recommendation that could form the basis of an international agreement in this area. The aim is not to control or regulate, but to find ways to provide information about quality, and to encourage the production of educational software that respects cultural specificity, diversity and those universal values on which UNESCO is founded.
Allow me to mention briefly a number of other areas of concern. These need to be talked about and addressed with care, but they do need to be addressed.
First, issues of intellectual property. To realize the economic potential of new publishing products such as educational CD-ROMs and other multi-media products that are easily exported and used everywhere in the world, exporters try to enforce copyright protection. The risk of this expansion of private, commercial provision of learning opportunities is that it blurs the overall notion of education as "public goods". It also risks having educational and cultural products produced openly and collaboratively in one part of the world coming back as copyrighted products of international publishing.
Second, issues of quality control. As more and more educational software and entire courses of study become available electronically, originating from any location in the world - whether for free download or against payment -, the need for a fresh look at quality control for individuals and institutions to assess the academic merit of courses and programs becomes acute. There are very real problems of bad content, unethical providers and other abuses along with the potential of sharing information and creating equal access to shared learning spaces.
Third, a closely related issue is that of standardization of educational contents. There is a clear danger that the volume and accessibility of multimedia products from a few major producers serving dominant markets such as the United States will overwhelm local cultural values and perspectives. It is no accident that recent national cultural policy statements of countries such as Australia and Canada are directed at developing strong home-grown multimedia industries to help counteract such external influences. Such policies carry some risk of reducing access and stifling the creation of new materials. If we do not want to see such protectionism grow, we need to find better ways of working collaboratively through institutional partnerships, of supporting the local production of educational and cultural products, and of facilitating access for a wider range of producers.
A good start on this will be to ensure that the financial arrangements for distance education programs include provision for support of producers on both ends of the exchange, among all the networked institutions participating. We also need to think about the processes of developing materials for specific uses. The quality of education materials must include sufficient diversity to enable local educators to make good choices. And, the process of developing materials, aligning them with education goals, teacher training and learning contexts is central to the improvement of education at all levels. Even excellent materials sourced from elsewhere can be inappropriate if the effect is to short-circuit these local processes of consensus-building, team-building and iterative improvement
About the Author:
Jacques Hallak is Assistant Director-General for Education a.i., UNESCO. He presented this address on the occasion of the conference Collaboration Beyond Borders, Washington D.C., 13 September 2000.