INTERNET AND EDUCATION: virtual classrooms for everyone?
A dusty, one-room schoolhouse on the edge of a village. An overworked teacher trying to manage a room full of boisterous children. Students sharing schoolbooks that are in perpetual short supply, crammed in rows of battered desks. Children worn out after long treks to school, stomachs rumbling with hunger. Others who vanish for weeks on end, helping their parents with the year-end harvest. Still others who never come back, lacking the money to pay for school uniforms and school supplies. Such is the daily dilemma faced by many young people in the developing world as they seek to obtain that most precious of all commodities, an education. With the global economy relying more than ever on brainpower and innovation rather than raw materials and manual labour as generators of wealth, a good education has become the key factor determining who will succeed and who will be left behind. With countries in the developing world stretching their budgets to the limit, and with education ranking low on some governments’ list of spending priorities, the odds seem to be stacked against their favour. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that there will be more people to educate in the next thirty years than have ever been educated up to this point in history. Figures for 1995 show the sad effect educational neglect is having on the poor. While 70 per cent of children in low-income countries were enrolled in primary education, the enrollment figure for secondary education was only 17 per cent. In comparison, industrialized countries retained nearly 100 per cent enrollment in both primary and secondary schools. The erosion continues in higher education, where only 6 per cent of students in low-income countries continued their education compared to 57 per cent in the industrialized world. The result? Entire generations of children and young people that are not able to enjoy face-to-face education are condemned to poverty if conventional education remains the only avenue of bringing knowledge and skills. One way which governments have tried to expand educational opportunities to as many people as possible while keeping down costs is through distance-learning. For those too far away from schools or universities, too busy helping out at home to attend school on a regular basis, or too poor to pay tuition, distance learning has proven to be an attractive alternative. With the rise of the Internet the distance-learning experience has been completely transformed. In the past, distance learning was largely a lonely experience, in which the student was confronted with a pile of mailed learning material and sporadic and structured interaction with an elusive and remote tutor. In this kind of world, the student not only had to overcome a number of difficulties to interact with the tutor, but he/she also faced extended periods of time between the sending of a request and receiving a reply. Furthermore, interaction was restricted to that between individual students and their tutor, since no type of communication existed with other students. In contrast, the Internet constitutes a virtual classroom in which intense interactivity and the sharing of resources and information constitutes its essence. This is not to say that there were no virtual classes before the rise of the Internet. For some years, a number of educational institutions struggled to develop and sustain distance-education programmes that were designed for tele-conferencing systems. The extremely high cost of the service, however, constrained its growth. For most developingcountries, the technology was far beyond their reach. A selected few were able to implement the system in a limited fashion for a small elite. Furthermore, the need of real-time presence made the system quite rigid and not very adequate for a time in which flexible education hours are crucial. Education officials...
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