Online Education in Developing Countries

What we see up-and-coming is a society of Open and Distance Learning Institutions with a strong association among themselves. Sometimes this collaboration involves the exchange of course materials, and some form of cross licensing and credit transfer. The delivery is becoming increasingly electronic, and we should now view these educational systems as information technology systems.

Will these developments serve the interests of developing countries? There is clearly much need for caution. We need to moderate the developments reported above with concerns for access to the education both in terms of the students’ own prior knowledge and cultural perspectives, and in terms of access to the technology through which to access the education. We also need to be concerned about the impact upon the local culture that may be matte by imported materials and the developed world’s culture that these embody.

National Distance Learning Programs

In developing countries there is a natural desire to extend educational provision to the whole population.

Online education at the schools’ level began in both countries during the colonial era in the 1950s and 1960s, partly through voluntary organizations and partly through government support as `a palliative for the colonial conscience’. The provision has taken various forms -correspondence schools, radio programs to supplement normal provision, radio and poster campaigns to promote literacy, health and other issues, as well as more formal online education programs. These programs have continued in the post-colonial era, with 70,000 students involved in Tanzania, and 42,000 in Zimbabwe. There has been a major focus on teacher training. Programs in both countries have suffered from inadequate funding (10% and less than 5% of the educational budget, respectively, in Tanzania and Zimbabwe). Neither country has established their own open university. One was advocated in 1989 for Tanzania, with use of radio and television broadcast, but not the full use of IT. In 1993 the University of Zimbabwe established its Online education Centre which now has some 1,500 students. We believe that this uses the conventional correspondence approach based on text.

Online education saves the need to build university campuses with teaching facilities, and for students to travel and to be accommodated centrally. IT and networking further helps this, but requires access to the technology – and as Zindi and Aucoin have pointed out for Tanzania, even something as basic as electricity may not be available within the community that you are wishing to serve. Such infrastructure problems are not faced by developed countries, though sometimes, as in Russia which is also seeking the use of online education to meet an educational need, there can be infrastructure difficulties: thus in Russia conventional postal delivery can be problematic while delivery electronically via satellite to the best of current equipment could be perfectly feasible.

Transnational Programs

We have seen that a large provider of education like the OU is already reaching out beyond its national borders, helped by IT and networking, to provide education globally. Geography is no longer a barrier.

This means that local students could subscribe to courses that may be supplied purely on the networks, and through this would obtain qualifications from the suppliers in the developed world. Presumably these qualifications would be recognized locally, and could indeed have some special standing.

It is worth noting that one motivation for Zimbabwe to establish its own national programs was to reduce the 163 million dollars flowing out of the country from the 40,000 students annually enrolled on online education courses. Developing countries may, just not be able to finance transnational educational programs.

The language of teaching is not the only concern. Teaching materials often draw upon case studies and examples, and these may not make any sense in other contexts. An example from the training materials for a database tool was the use of baseball, which was, of course, incomprehensible outside the US – a translation into football made the training much more widely acceptable.
The transnational and trans-cultural use of educational materials must be viewed with caution.


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