Issues of E-Learning in Third World Countries (information science)

Introduction

Around the world, e-learning is becoming popular, especially among higher education institutes (universities). Many highly ranked universities have either already deployed an e-learning system and are fully operational, or they are in a process of deployment where e-learning-based and non e-learning-based educational environments co-exist. It is also possible to find a few virtual universities. The amount of money and effort that has to be spent on e-learning is high. In addition to the initial e-learning system installation costs, there are ongoing maintenance, management and content development costs. Due to the rapid growth in the field of e-learning and the role it plays in today’s education systems, those working in the field have begun to introduce standards for different aspects of e-learning. The Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) which is described as “a collaboration among leading universities and specification and standards organizations to support innovative learning technology in higher education” is an example (OKI, 2003).

Many highly ranked universities use commercial e-learning systems such as BlackBoard, WebCT, e-college, Netschool, etc. Several open source products are available though their usage is not wide spread, although it is expected that collaborative projects such as Sakai will enable large-scale open source products to be introduced to the market. This effort is described on the Sakai website as, “The University of Michigan, Indiana University, MIT, Stanford, the uPortal Consortium, and the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) are joining forces to integrate and synchronize their considerable educational software into a modular, pre-integrated collection of open source tools” (OKI, 2003).


background

Many third world countries have become “Transitional Countries”. The term “transitional country” has been used in different ways in different times and different contexts. However, today’s meaning of a “transitional country” is a country that lies between a developed and a developing country, and has an evolving market economy. Dung (2003) states:

Generally speaking, the expression ‘transition’ is used, mainly by political scientists, in the context of changes that have followed the fall of regimes, usually when dictatorial regimes have given way to more democratic ones, but this usage has been extended to contexts where previously rigid structures, such as those governing the economy, are giving way to more liberal, market-friendly structures and associated features of liberal democracy.

Third world or transitional countries require sustainable development. Sustainable development of a country is very much dependent on industry, higher education and research, hence university education is vital. The importance of the higher education is stressed in the United Nations Resolution on the Decade of Education For Sustainable Development January 2005 – December 2014 (UN Report, 2002). For a third world country, as De Rebello (2003) puts it, “The university system was seen as being uniquely equipped to lead the way by their special mission in teaching and training the leaders of tomorrow, their experience in transdisci-plinary research and by their fundamental nature as engines of knowledge.”

current trends in information technology in THIRD world countries

IT is becoming a driving force of economy. Realizing its potential, many transitional countries have embarked on projects in collaboration with funding agencies to improve IT services, though their IT infrastructure facilities are not adequate. Many foreign investors start IT based companies in transitional countries. The products are aimed at the US or European market, where the parent companies are based. India, in particular, exemplifies this for the IT sector, and many major IT companies have branches in India. In Sri Lanka, due to the limited market, poor infrastructure and slightly higher labor costs, such foreign investments are limited. However, the level of IT expertise is at a competitive level. Many local IT companies carryout sub-contracts for foreign IT companies. A few companies directly interact with the global market. Realizing the potential, the Sri Lankan government embarked on “e-Sri Lanka move” project to introduce e-governance and to improve e-services within the country, and formed the ICT Agency using World Bank funds (Development Gateway, 2003). Motivated by these initiatives and realizing the importance of e-learning for today’s form of higher education, some Sri Lankan universities have deployed e-learning systems as pilot projects and a few others have started exploring the possibility of using e-learning for their university education.

Due to the employment opportunities offered for IT professionals of transitional countries by developed countries, many professional IT programs have been initiated in transitional countries. In Sri Lanka, income generated by foreign employment has now become considerable compared to its other income sources such as garment, tea, rubber, minerals, spices, etc. Though most employment opportunities are labor-oriented, many professional opportunities are in the IT sector. However, this causes “brain drain”.

Importance of e-learning for higher education in third world countries

In order to understand the importance of e-learning, it is important to consider what we mean by e-learning. According to the definition of NCSA’s e-learning group (Wentling, T.L. et al., 2000):

E-learning is the acquisition and use of knowledge distributed and facilitated primarily by electronic means. This form of learning currently depends on networks and computers but will likely evolve into systems consisting of a variety of channels (e.g., wireless, satellite), and technologies (e.g., cellular phones, PDA s) as they are developed and adopted. E-learning can take the form of courses as well as modules and smaller learning objects. E-learning may incorporate synchronous or asynchronous access and may be distributed geographically with varied limits of time.


In an abstract form, I would define it as “electronically facilitated, enhanced and managed learning”. It can consist of many components or elements of a learning environment of a university system if they can be electronically facilitated, enhanced and managed. Some aspects that could be integrated into an e-learning system to make an impact in a university system, especially in the context of a third world country, are given below.

• Curriculum related aspects – courses and course contents, discussions, library catalogues, etc.

• Academic administration related aspects – registrations, student information, grading, etc.

• Technology infrastructure related aspects – alternative technologies, lab facilities, home use, etc.

• Societal context related aspects – cultural events, forums, activities, etc.

• Industrial collaboration related aspects – industrial expertise and contents, know-how dissemination, guidance to/from industry, etc.

These aspects, when incorporated in an e-learning system, will improve the quality of the higher education, if implemented using strategies and technologies suitable for constrained environments in third world countries. However, deployment of a suitable e-learning system requires a particular educational, administrative and technological environment, and the university educational system will also need to undergo changes. This is where the issues are faced in third world countries. One should not think that the deployment of e-learning is an adaptation to the required educational change. Contrarily, an ability to adapt is a must for the deployment of e-learning.

Bates (2000) states that higher education institutes consider technology-based learning for the following reasons:

• the need to do more with less

• the changing learning needs of society

• the impact of new technologies on teaching and learning (Bates, 2000, p. 8).

Although we observe that mainly the universities in developed countries tend to consider the above reasons, they are applicable to any university. It is in this context that e-learning is becoming attractive. However, when universities in third world countries embark on e-learning-based educational transformations, they face many barriers. In many cases, e-learning cannot be implemented in the way it is done at US or European universities. The approach has to be tailored to the environment, if it is to be a success.

Common issues to be addressed Administrative Issues

Most of the universities in third world countries are traditional universities. Gunn (2000) in his keynote paper states the following:

Perhaps the most critical challenge to traditional universities is develop capacity to change. This calls for major restructuring, removal of unnecessary processes and streamlined administration procedures. Motivation to progress, change and develop is hard found in the current insecure climate. . . The challenge this raises is being able to exploit the resources of commercial interests while maintaining quality and standards of service as a priority area. Ability to achieve the right balance between opposing forces of cost and quality without reducing education to the lowest common factor will be a powerful survival strategy.

In many third world countries university academic administration is stream-lined and rigid. Changes are usually not welcomed. Many fear loosing the value of their jobs if IT strategies are introduced. Many administrative officers have the mentality that the others should come to them to get the work done. While this shows an attitude problem or an inferiority complex, it affects many productive plans.

However, rigid administrative procedures are sometimes required to prevent exploitation and use of facilities for personal advantage.

Some administrative functions can be handled efficiently through e-learning. Typical examples would be student semester and exam registrations, yearly progress archiving, student information management, etc. However, administrative officers such as registrars, examination branch officers, etc, are not comfortable when it is handled entirely by the e-learning system. There is the fear they might loose their job. Another fear is whether they will have any value for the university. A valid concern that is raised is whether the e-learning system is secure enough to protect confidential data and prevent students tampering with data.

IT Infrastructure Issues

IT infrastructure facilities in third world countries are often primitive. While IT infrastructure needs improvement for better interconnectivity of academic institutes, a countryman’s concern is food, water supply, clothing, roads and transportation, housing, primary schools, and other essential items for their living. Governments in these countries have to allocate the majority of their funds for the latter and a low priority is given for IT infrastructure. It is not justifiable to allocate huge funds for the improvement of IT infrastructure when the basic needs of the people are not met. The good news is that some form of infrastructure is already available. The solution we propose for the improvement of higher education using e-learning has to consider alternative techniques given this serious limitation. This is not to say that mobile communications and other new inventions are not penetrating the market.

Consider Sri Lanka as a case, every university is interconnected by a university network called LEARN (Lanka Academic and Research Network). Some universities have 2 Mbps E1 links, while the rest have only 128 or 64 kbps links. Very soon the latter will be upgraded, but the maximum would be 2 Mbps in the foreseeable future. The current international bandwidth allocated for the whole university network is below 2 Mbps. This will gradually increase on demand, but on-demand increase implies the presence of congestion. The universities also experience disruption of the telecom services, either due to faults or non-payment of bills. However, within these infrastructure constraints, the majority of universities are able to have an acceptable level of communication for the current IT operations within the country. Web servers are acceptably fast and e-mail is heavily used for communication and collaboration among academics. A few e-learning systems are also operational.

Any e-learning-based solution has to work within these IT infrastructure constraints. Within a university it will work acceptably since many universities have local area networks with either gigabit fibre optics, or fast Ethernet or at least 10 Mbps links. Between universities it will work as long as it does not have heavy content delivery, congesting the links. However, international collaborations through e-learning will not be at the levels required by many e-learning systems in the near future.

Limitation of Equipment

In third world countries, equipment such as servers, routers, cabling, laboratory computers, etc. are usually procured under special university budgets, or grants and loans from funding agencies. It is not possible to expect frequent upgrades to equipment. It is very unlikely that high-end servers with redundant power supplies and disk arrays will be always available for the deployment of an e-learning system and redundancy and backup systems are not a priority. Sometimes valuable information stored in the system may be at stake. However alternative approaches such as weekly or critical time-based backups may be carried out.

Thus, any approach to introducing e-learning has to start with a low-end solution. Once the importance is recognized by the authorities, some form of ongoing support is feasible. Strategic planning is required to get the funds for improving the performance and reliability of the systems gradually.

It is not possible to assume that students will always have access to computers. While a few have their own computers, the majority of the students in transitional countries use common lab facilities to access computers. Labs are open only during working hours and usually scheduled for different groups of students based on assignments and workloads. In most cases, e-learning-based learning activities also need to be planned accordingly. For an example, if an assignment is given with a deadline for the submission through the e-learn-ing system, this deadline has to be flexible in situations such as insufficient computers, labs being not open on demand, workers’ strikes which are frequent in many third world countries, long electricity power cuts, etc.

cost Factors of E-Learning Systems

Most of the commercially developed e-learning systems such as BlackBoard, WebCT, etc, used by US and European universities are extremely expensive for the third world countries to purchase. A monetary grant may be a possibility, but then the question would be maintenance costs, purchase of additional modules to suite the changes as time passes, costs of customizations, etc., if these costs have to be born by the university, which are very high given the limited budgets. Therefore, any grant must include these costs. Otherwise, it will be a waste of funds.

An alternative is to select an open source solution. However, currently it is difficult to find the exact match of an open source solution, or to customize it to a particular university’s environment. Projects such as Sakai may help solve this situation in the future, but we have to wait until their collaborative environment is functional. However, there is the concern whether it also will assume state-of-the-art technology infrastructure.

Another alternative is in-house development, however, for this to be a success, continuous employment of developers and good software development approaches with research input from an e-learning perspective is required. Finding developers is not a difficulty in most transitional countries, and the costs for this will be far below the purchase of a commercial e-learning system. To succeed, however, a vision to continue the project, and institutionalized incentives to the people involved, should be in place. While the result of this approach may not be as sophisticated as, or as reliable as, available commercial systems, it is possible to come up with an acceptable solution at a very low cost. In the author’s environment, it was possible to get a group of students to start on the development of an e-learning system using research findings. Later, an expert was used to further improve it to be used as a production system. It needs further development, but the advantage is, while the required institutional changes for an e-learning-based education are conveyed to the rest of the faculty, the changes can also be synchronized with the development cycle, as illustrated by Collis and Moonen (2001). Even if a fully fledged e-learning system had been purchased, it would have been a failure due to the faculty being not ready to adapt immediately.

Reliability issues

Reliability issues have already been mentioned under IT infrastructure issues and limitation of equipment. The following summary is provided to emphasize the issue of reliability.

• Frequent electricity power failures.

• Data communication connectivity failures or disruptions due to non payment of bills.

• Congested links.

• Less emphasis on backup and redundant systems.

socio-cultural issues

In most of the third world countries, especially in South Asian and African continents, socio-cultural setting is very prominent. It affects how people engage in learning activities. Verbal and physical interactions are important and hence total virtual learning environments may not produce good results. This situation may change in the years to come, especially among the urban population. However, socio-cultural aspects cannot be neglected when dealing with education, and it is true also for technology-based education, as described by Gunawardena (1998).

Most of the e-learning systems and available contents are based on popular languages. However, this is not to say that they do not support other languages, but it will require an additional effort to prepare contents in native languages. In many third world countries primary education is done in native languages, although at university level popular languages like English or Spanish may be the medium. This situation can create communication barriers in e-learning-based learning processes.

Many people in third world countries believe that developments in IT will cause many people to lose their jobs. This is a serious social issue. However, there are situations where it is thought to be the other way round. For an example, in e-Sri Lanka move, the government expects that there will be an increase in job opportunities if IT is promoted. For an example, to deploy e-learning in a university environment, additional support staff is required for facilitation, content creation, maintenance, etc.

future trends and conclusion

E-learning can play a major role in higher education in third world and transitional countries. It will help improve the higher education, thereby contributing to sustainable development. Using e-learning it is possible to improve curriculum, academic administration, industry collaboration, etc.

Emerging related standards such as Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM, 2003), IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC, 2002) and collaborative work currently being carried out such as OKI (OKI, 2003) will make e-learning more widespread.

However it may not be possible to deploy it in third world countries in the way it is done in the highly ranked universities in the US and European countries. First, the related issues have to be addressed and alternative solutions should be explored. Given suitable alternative solutions, or desirable approaches, e-learning can be a success in many third world and transitional countries.

KEY TERMS

Academic Administration: Administration procedures or formalities linked with university education, such as registrations for semesters or examinations, progress reviews and monitoring, eligibility formalities, student history records or progress archiving, promotions to levels or years, academic timetables, etc.

E-learning: Electronically facilitated, enhanced and managed learning.

IT Infrastructure: Technological infrastructure that enables the transfer of information.

Learning Environment: Overall university setting in which many educational and administrative processes interact.

Open Source E-learning Systems: E-learning systems developed by the Open Source Community and freely distributed with their own license or a GPL (General Purpose License) to use, modify and distribute together with the source code.

Third World Countries: Countries that are not yet developed.

Transitional Countries: A third world country that is in a transition process based on more liberal, market-friendly structures and associated features of liberal democracy.

Virtual Universities: All the learning and administration activities are done through e-learning and very minimum physical interactions, or no physical interactions at all.

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