The 21st century is only a dozen years old, but already it has seen dizzying developments in technology and communications. The arrival of the touchscreen tablet computer and smartphone, and the connectivity made possible using broadband and Wi-Fi technology, have created a new world in which people, public institutions, private companies and governments are increasingly locked in a global embrace.
Nowhere has the impact been greater than in schools and universities. Throughout the developed world, public institutions of learning have been physically transformed by investment in information and communications technology (ICT). Little more than a decade ago, computers were severely rationed in ICT rooms, but it is now the norm for students in North America, Europe and many parts of Asia to have personal access to a PC, laptop or tablet computer to aid their learning.
However, this physical transformation of the classroom is not happening everywhere. The gathering pace of globalisation is leaving children and young people in many parts of the world with a digital-learning deficit that is increasing year by year. A new study by Unesco, ICT in Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, looks at broadband connectivity and computer access in 38 countries. It shows that, for example, virtually all primary and secondary schools in Uruguay and many small Caribbean countries have internet access, yet in nations such as Nicaragua the figure is below 10 per cent.
One reason for this is that schools do not have enough computers to go around. In Uruguay, the learner-to-computer ratio is one-to-one, but in the Dominican Republic there is only one computer for every 120 children. This digital divide between children in rich and poor nations is repeated throughout the world, and one of the biggest issues it raises is that of equity.
Having access to computers and the vast resources open to students through the internet is not only a prerequisite for gaining a good education, but is increasingly the key to getting a good job in the globalised economy. This is underlined by the findings of a report by the British Council and the charity Think Global, which drew upon a recent ICM survey of business leaders in the UK. The report, The Global Skills Gap: Preparing Young People for the New Global Economy, revealed that when recruiting staff, employers valued candidates’ knowledge and awareness of the wider world as more important than their degree classification or school results.
The ability to access and become fluent users of new digital technology and resources has brought distinct advantages to young people from developed countries as they seek to enter the new globalised marketplace. However, advances in technology and communications are also benefiting young people throughout the world by encouraging the development of networks and the sharing of ideas between schools, colleges and higher education.
This increased interconnectedness is providing opportunities for young people to learn about different countries, cultures and languages and to interact with their counterparts on different continents. In higher education, this trend has gone even further. The latest QS World University Rankings show a seemingly unstoppable rise in global student mobility, with those seeking an overseas education flocking to the planet’s most prestigious universities.
One of the most striking developments over the past decade is the growing number of high-ranking universities opening international branch campuses in other countries. According to the latest survey by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, there were 200 degree-awarding campuses operating on foreign soil at the end of 2011, with 37 more due to open by December 2013. The greatest number is in the UAE, with 37 campuses, predominantly linked to institutions in the US. Of these, 27 academic institutions from 11 countries are located in Dubai International Academic City. This vast campus, located on an 18 million square foot site with state-of-the-art facilities, was one of the first academic hubs to bring institutions together from all over the planet when it opened in 2003.
These developments are opening up huge opportunities for academic institutions to share knowledge and learn from one another. The Khan Academy, based in California’s Silicon Valley and supported by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google and other leading digital entrepreneurs, is seeking to create a learning revolution by providing free world-class education resources online. By making available free lectures from inspirational teachers and experts via YouTube, the Khan Academy offers adults and children the opportunity to learn at their own pace.
It also offers rich potential for schools to revolutionise their approach to teaching and learning by assigning online lectures as homework and freeing up class time to provide students with one-to-one and small group coaching.
The Khan Academy is just one example of how technology is physically changing the way people gain an education. In Bangalore, IT entrepreneur Rakesh Shukla is providing mobile ‘internet vans’ to help children in poor areas improve their literacy skills. Even more ambitious is the award-winning BBC Janala project, which aims to raise the English skills of 25 million Bangladeshis by 2017 by providing language courses via their mobile phones, the web, television programmes and print media.
But with these new opportunities comes a challenge. Sir Michael Barber, a former adviser on education and public-service delivery to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, now Chief Education Adviser to Pearson, the world’s largest education company, warns that the first truly global generation will have to adapt and become much more creative and flexible to take full advantage of technological advances. In a recent book, Oceans of Innovation: The Atlantic, the Pacific, Global Leadership and The Future of Education, he warns that China and other Pacific Rim countries will need to develop education systems that are much more open and flexible, encouraging creativity and innovation if they are to become global economic leaders. An education revolution is required, he says.