Digital Divide into Digital Opportunities: E-Learning in the Developing Countries

Article excerpt

The modern world is undergoing a fundamental transformation as the industrial society of the twentieth century rapidly gives way to the information society of the twenty-first century. This dynamic process promises a fundamental change in all aspects of our lives, including knowledge dissemination, social interaction business practices political engagement, media, education, health, leisure and entertainment.

The speed of global technological and economic transformation demands urgent action to turn the present digital divide into digital opportunities for all. A discussion about the allocation of resources is imminent if we look at the connectivity of the Internet in developing countries. One way to measure the digital divide is to monitor the penetration of telephone subscribers and Internet users, as well as literacy rates in developing countries, Poor access to the Internet in Africa is widely acknowledge

Since the bursting of the "dot.com" bubble in 2000, e-commerce has been growing by about 35 per cent a year, whereas traditional growth is only 4 to 5 per cent. Despite the economic slowdown, the number of Internet users worldwide has almost tripled, from just over 200 million at the start of 2000 to more than 600 million in 2002. This number is projected to reach 2 billion at the end of 2005. By then, many are expected to be using devices other than personal computers such as cellphones for access to the Internet.' In China, for example, there are 5 million new cellphone users each month. The highest growth of internet users is in the Republic of Korea, while that of cellphone users is in Africa.

In the Millennium Declaration, UN Member States agreed upon a number of key development goals. In addition to a commitment to reduce poverty, improve health, ensure environmental sustainability and promote education, one Millennium Development Goal (MDG) requires making available "the benefits of new technologies--especially information and communication technologies".

The rapid expansion of mobile telephony and the emergence of wireless and satellite-based solutions for low-cost Internet access have increased significantly the potential for information and communication technology (ICT). Therefore, the United Nations in 2001 created the UN Information and communication Technologies Task Force, with the aim of bridging the global digital divide, fostering digital opportunity and putting ICT at the service of development for all. (2)

Important support for the MDGs can be achieved with the use of ICTs. Internet technologies offer extensive development opportunities, particularly for people in rural areas and living in poverty. Wireless Internet technologies could allow developing countries to leapfrog generations of telecommunications. Connecting local communities in developing regions to the Internet will have a positive impact on education and their health system The Internet complements locally available information, improves and accelerates knowledge flows, and can be used to deliver innovative education models to remote areas.

There is a broader debate that comes to mind when thinking of the introduction of e-learning in the developing world: what comes first--information technology (including e-learning) or addressing citizens' basic needs? Development organizations must continue to focus on addressing the most basic needs, such as building more classrooms and providing clean water. However, ICTs can be part of the solution. If education and capacity-building are critical steps for entering into the new global economy, e-learning should be considered a critical facet of basic development, an alternative medium of capacity-building and a means to people's empowerment.

Computer-literacy is an imperative precondition for learners to benefit from technology-based learning. E-learning can only build on a set of basic computer literacy skills. Learners should go through an introductory session for each programme that focuses on professional development in the use of technology in the classroom These programmes do not use e-learning as a medium of instruction until participating teachers have gone through two phases of face-to-face training. …