Nº 2 2013 > Broadband
Broadband the missing link in global access to education
Every citizen should be empowered with the necessary knowledge, skills and values to lead a fulfilling and productive life. This is the aim of the “Education-for-All” goals of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and of the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015. All of these goals were adopted in 2000 by the majority of the world’s governments. Yet more than a decade later, the global education landscape is still bleak.
In 2010, 61 million children of primary-school age and another 71 million of lower secondary-school age were not attending school. Close to 793 million adults — 64 per cent of whom are women — still lack reading and writing skills, the lowest literacy rates being in sub-Saharan Africa, and South and West Asia. And 1.7 million additional teaching positions need to be created to attain the universal primary education goal by 2015.
A new report from the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development, released on 25 February 2013, emphasizes the importance of deploying broadband as a means of accelerating progress towards education for all. The report “Technology, Broadband and Education — Advancing the Education for All Agenda” highlights strategies for leveraging high-speed networks to realize the dream of education for all.
In the twenty-first century, education cannot be separated from technology. Participation in the global economy is increasingly dependent on skills in navigating the digital world, but traditional school curricula fail to give students the information and communication technology (ICT) skills they will need to ensure their employability in tomorrow’s knowledge economy.
What does broadband really offer?
According to the report, broadband networks have the potential to radically alter the education landscape, creating new centres of learning in the developing world, extending access to distance learning programmes to outlying communities, and helping poorer countries retain high-performing students who can help lift their nations out of poverty by serving as local entrepreneurs, researchers and policy-makers.
The report provides a vision of how access to high-speed technologies over both fixed and mobile platforms can be extended, so that students and teachers everywhere can reap the benefits for themselves and for their communities. The report also features case studies offering fresh insights into how education is being transformed by technology (see article on ).
“Technology, Broadband and Education — Advancing the Education for All Agenda” is the outcome of the Broadband Commission’s Working Group on Education, chaired by Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General. The group held its inaugural meeting in Paris, France, on 5 June 2011 to define the scope and purpose of its activities. By its second meeting, on 24–25 February 2013, the group had finalized this report, which it presented to the WSIS+10 Review Event, hosted by UNESCO in Paris. Following a press launch at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on 27 February 2013, the report was also presented to all Commissioners at the 7th meeting of the Broadband Commission, on 17 March 2013, hosted in Mexico City by the Carlos Slim Foundation.
The report is the result of collaborative input from a large number of commissioners and their organizations, including Alcatel-Lucent, the Connect To Learn partnership (The Earth Institute at Columbia University, Ericsson and Millennium Promise), Intel, the Inter-American Development Bank, Broadband Commissioners Suvi Lindén, Jasna Matić and Ivo Ivanovski, and Special Advisor to the Broadband Commission, Paul Budde.
Commenting on the report, ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun I. Touré said that: “The ability of broadband to improve and enhance education, as well as students’ experience of education, is undisputed. A student in a developing country can now access the library of a prestigious university anywhere in the world.”
Distance-learning strategies can help nations educate children and adults living in remote communities. Further, broadband-based educational programmes could become a source of income for higher education institutions that produce curricula tailored to the needs of the billions living in the developing world.
Who is already online?
An estimated 2.3 billion people were Internet users by the end of 2011. Only around 25 per cent of people living in the developing world were online, with a mere 6 per cent from the least-developed countries. While access to technology for educational purposes has increased, progress is uneven.
In member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, 93 per cent of 15-year-olds have access to a computer and the Internet at school. The ratio of students to computers has improved, falling from 13:1 in 2000 to 8:1 in 2009 in schools attended by 15-year-olds. In some OECD countries, such as Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Republic of Korea, home access is even higher than at school.
In stark contrast, in most African countries there are 150 students per computer. Elsewhere, countries such as Peru, Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay are committed to providing each student with a computer. Overall, though, access remains limited at school and at home.
“Much progress has been made to reach the 2015 goals — but many countries are still not on track”, says Ms Bokova, who co-chairs the Broadband Commission with Dr Touré. “We must make the most of broadband to widen access to high-quality education for all.”
While fixed broadband infrastructure constitutes the bulk of high-speed connectivity for many countries, the ICT service with the steepest growth rate is mobile broadband.
With the accelerated growth in mobile devices, we are already witnessing the emergence of flexible, open learning environments that allow for real-time, interactive and personalized learning. Enabled by a participatory and collaborative web (Web 2.0), new technology and communication tools have gradually blurred the boundaries between formal and non-formal education.
Much learning now takes place outside traditional classrooms. Distance learning, cooperative work in virtual environments, online learning communities, and access to vast resources and databases are just some of the possibilities on offer.
Is technology used effectively?
Technology has not always been used effectively to improve learning. Data suggest that even in OECD countries both the intensity of usage (the amount of time technology is used) and the quality of usage (the variety and relevance of the technology used) are still low.
In the classroom, students usually use ICT to search for information, rather than to process and share that information. Ironically, this is the opposite of how students use the same technologies during their free time outside of school.
Although the need to increase educational access and participation will persist beyond 2015, especially in developing countries, priority action should gradually shift towards improving the quality of education for all members of society.
To this end, the Broadband Commission Working Group on Education makes a number of recommendations to governments and other stakeholders concerned with education, some of which are highlighted below.
Increase access to technology and broadband: Policy-makers should continue efforts to implement cross-sectoral policies ensuring affordable and equitable access to technology and broadband connectivity for all citizens, particularly women and girls and marginalized groups.
Incorporate technology and broadband into job training and continuing education: Given the rapid pace of technological change and the pressing need to address socio-economic challenges such as high unemployment among youth, governments should provide the necessary financial incentives to support technology and high-speed broadband adoption in all activities designed to create new jobs and open up prospects for lifelong training and employability in the emerging knowledge society.
Teach ICT skills and digital literacy to all educators and learners: Governments should prioritize the redesign of education systems in their national education agendas so as to better respond to the challenges of the ongoing digital revolution. Empowering teachers and students to use technology is central to improving education and the assessment of learning.
Promote mobile learning and open educational resources: Policy-makers should introduce policies and incentives promoting the development of open educational resources and encouraging the wide-scale use of mobile technology at all levels and in all forms of education, thereby facilitating access to high-quality learning and teaching resources.
Support the development of content adapted to local contexts and languages: Governments and organizations should invest in an ecosystem, not just in technology, by supporting online educational applications and services with local content and in local languages.
Work to bridge the technological divide between countries: Policy-makers should continue efforts to bridge the digital and knowledge divides between developed and developing countries by promoting international collaboration and partnerships.