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

By Sehrt, Marc | UN Chronicle, December 2003 | Go to article overview

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

Sehrt, Marc, UN Chronicle

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 "" 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.

Started in 1997 within the World Bank, and now an independent international non-governmental organization, World Links is one such programme. It has trained thousands of teachers and students from 25 African, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern nations in the use of technology. They are taught the fundamentals of e-learning before they are left on their own to navigate. E-learning can then motivate individuals to pursue computer education, while serving as a vehicle for deepening literacy skills.

However, given the target audience, issues related to multicultural communications and the placement of content on the Internet in native languages other than English also need to be addressed. The lack of content in native languages is a serious impediment to Internet use in many countries. Even in the developed world, the preponderance of English online poses a serious obstacle to universal access. The most effective way to make e-learning a successful experience is to keep it as simple as possible. This is particularly true from a technological perspective, as well as valid from a pedagogical perspective. One has to know how to target the audience, consisting of working adults who have limited free time and experience learning online, which, as with any distance learning, requires a lot of self-discipline and time-management skills.

Furthermore, most adult participants have been educated in a didactic manner and do not necessarily understand the instructor as a "facilitator" rather than as a "teacher" in the traditional sense. Studies in e-learning have shown that most programmes are likely to succeed with the constant involvement of the facilitator through e-mail discussion lists and individualized messages. (3) The facilitator's constant involvement and feedback are the most powerful support for the learner. Many online courses consist of nothing but instructional material (unsupported web-based trainings); others provide a forum for exchange. Very sophisticated courses combine all elements of online learning in one design called "blended learning" and are the best way to create educational environments.

One of the most successful providers is the "Tele-akademie"--an online training and further education branch of the University of Applied Sciences Furtwangen, in Germany, which has implemented the following four basic elements for their online blended learning: (4)

* Instructional material is important. Learners take online courses more seriously if they receive material to work with: e.g., books, CD-ROMs, which also save online time.

* Tutorial support provides motivation. Learners often need guidance and support from instructors, coaches, tutors or technical staff. However, this is also a question of costs--how much financial means an online course has.

* Communication. Using telecommunication tools like the Internet facilitates not only the distribution of information but also the interaction between learners and instructors, as well as among learners themselves. Giving them the opportunity to share knowledge, experience and perspectives is a central demand of instructional theories.

* Collaboration combines the demand for social communicative learning with the instructional demand for active learning. Working in small groups on assignments, examples and cases meets these demands.

For e-learning to succeed in the developing world, it needs to build on another important pillar: the existence of infrastructure, along with some degree of connectivity. A growing difference in market liberalization of the Internet- access supply is leading to another kind of "digital divide" on the global scale: many countries have introduced or are introducing telecommunications regulations that discourage the development of Internet-access service through competition. Granting monopoly to a national operator and charging high license fees for Internet-access service are examples of market barriers Such regulations, found mostly in emerging economies, are a serious obstacle.

Moreover, other technical constraints have to be overcome. The most common encountered are issues such as unreliable Internet connection and phone lines, slow access to web sites due to narrow bandwidth and limited numbers of computers connected to the Internet. Therefore, a key challenge is that technological requirements must be kept to a minimum in order to increase the participation of developing countries.

Easy access to all course materials is essential. Given the technological constraints that users in developing countries have to face, asking them to download or print documents from a web site is just too much. Most learners do not own a computer and have Internet access only from the workplace or public telecentres. Promoting telecentres in emerging economies around the world is important to help achieve significant steps forward in making Internet access and services more widespread, especially in rural areas. It is, therefore, fundamental to implement self-sustaining Internet training centres, which will eventually allow developing countries to keep pace with developed countries and give them access to technological and academic information, as well as Internet training at various levels. The benefits they gain will thus affect every aspect of their personal and professional life.


(1) First Annual Report of the Information and Communication Technologies Task Force. United Nations. 28 April 2003.


(3) Technological Minimalism and Sustainability Strategies--Lessons Learned From Teaching Online. Dr. Barbara Fillip. Knowledge for Development, LLC. Published in a GTZ survey. 2003.


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


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