The Global Classroom.
By Luke Clark ~ thetransitcafe.com
Friday, 28th July 2006
In a twist on travel, Take Me There takes a two-part look at the global spread of E-Learning. Will education as we know it one day mean our classroom is our computer – and our classmates are spread through the world? Luke Clark reports, in Part 1 of 2.

Imagine a time when schools replace the chalk board with the computer monitor. Even with today's rapid advances in technology, it seems unlikely.

Yet educationalists and business people alike already see a time when knowledge can become more borderless than ever before. This trend will offer far-flung students more access to education than ever before. Indeed, some in the field of E-Learning believe that time is now.

In 1999, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems told the New York Times, "The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error in terms of the Internet capacity it will consume."

Many such prophetic statements were made in the heady days of the dot.com boom. Yet Chambers was partly right. E-Learning was set to boom. But its real playground would not simply be the United States – the market would be a global one.

Early hurdles

The US example was initially not a great success. Companies like Fathom.com, founded in 2000, with US$25 million in investment, now gives courses away free. Their notion of excess American collage students seeking a degree, were flawed. Education researchers estimate that over this time, US$100 million was spent on Web-based Courses. New York University's web venture NYUonline, also closed its profit-making arm, while E-MBA created in November 2000 was abandoned in March 2002.

The problem may have been that nobody studied their demographics. Proportionately speaking, the US is not where the world's young people are. In the United States, more than 25 percent of today's working-age population will leave the American workplace by 2010, into retirement, as the ‘Baby Boomer' generation retires.

Yet in many other countries where population booms happened far more recently, education is now a primary issue – and technology is set to play a key role.

Jason Sparks (pictured left) is a part owner of Logical Steps, a company which has developed a speciality in e-learning applications for use around the world. Sparks, whose company is based in USA, Singapore and India, has developed a learning application for Kenya.

Empowering the village

"Our biggest difficulty has been deploying e-learning solutions. In the US & Singapore, broadband is ubiquitous. In Africa, it is limited only to large cities. So we look towards more traditional methods of deployment like DVDs or even video tapes." Yet despite the hurdles, computers do get to children even in the most remote places, he says.

"My favourite example of e-learning in these circumstances is about the teachers travelling from village to village with a computer strapped to a horse drawn cart. Students still learn." Sparks says globally, e-learning is steadily opening up education for people who were previously unable to access it.

"Traditionally, learning has been confined to a specific time and place like a classroom and to specific group of people like a corporate sales team. Usually a single expert, the teacher, teaches a group of non-experts, the students.

"In contrast, in an Internet-based community anybody can learn – regardless of location, time or how well they performed on an entrance exam."

As an example, he says MIT's OpenCourseWare now publishes MIT's previous course materials online for anyone to access. And thanks to technology, there need not be just one teacher, either.

"Online communities also allow for multiple experts from multiple subject areas to answer questions – frequently the same question."

A global wave

Reports suggest that the trend towards globalising learning, and opening the access to education materials through the Internet, may already be unstoppable.

In Manila, a project for out of school youths initiated an e-learning project at the infamous Smokey Mountain, a garbage dump where the city's poorest live in makeshift villages. Aiming at helping the kids pass equivalency tests for a high school diploma, the project had much-improved results when they adopted second-hand computers and e-learning applications than through traditional learning. Students came more regularly, were more able to finish lessons, and half of them were able to pass equivalency tests.

In the Czech Republic, education minister Petra Buzkova prepared a plan aimed at improving Czechs' knowledge of foreign languages, which he says is among the worst in Europe. This is in line with an ambitious plan by the European Commission that every European citizen should have command of at least two languages, apart from his or her native language. If he can find the funding from the Finance Ministry, one aspect of Buzkova's plan will be to provide an e- learning portal offering free foreign language courses to adults.

In India, Reliance Web World has gathered vendors for its new e-learning platform, starting with management, technology, knowledge management and healthcare management courses. RWW was last year in content-providing partnership negotiations with prestigious institutes in the United States.

And in Britain, a group of academics including the creator of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, called on the government and public bodies that fund academic research to ensure anybody can view publicly funded research for free on the Internet.

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