John Davies meets a champion of high-tech education for the Third World.
Lalita Rajasingham would seem well qualified to talk, as she does, about thinking globally and acting locally. Her parents came from Sri Lanka, she was born in what is now Malaysia, and she has degrees in economics from Australia (Melbourne) and Britain (a Cambridge MA).
For the past 20 years she has lived in New Zealand, where she is chair of the communications studies department of the Victoria University of Wellington. Her husband, meanwhile, is an economics professor in Indonesia.
"I'm very lucky because intellectually I'm western, spiritually I'm eastern, culturally I'm a total mix," she says. Of course, she adds, she joined her oldest daughter - who is doing a PhD in clinical pharmacology at Imperial College London - in cheering on her adopted country in the Rugby World Cup.
Appropriately, then, it was on "global and local realities and how these can be bridged" that Dr Rajasingham spoke to the International Council for Distance Education conference in Birmingham last month. Her message: by superseding the classroom and lecture hall, advances in global telecommunications can return education to the home. There is certainly global thinking in the other reason for Dr Rajasingham's visit here: the launch of In Search of the Virtual Class, the book that she has co-authored with John Tiffin.
The book outlines a vision in which conventional face-to-face teaching will be supplemented, and perhaps increasingly supplanted, by educational systems accessible to a learner through computer-generated virtual reality. Teachers - who may be real or may be artificial intelligences - will be called up as and when the learner needs them; and "virtual" classes will be composed of students from any part of the world, interacting with each other in some form of teleconferencing.
Technology being developed in Japan's Advanced Telecommunications Research Laboratories will soon, says Tiffin, make it possible to use virtual reality in a teleconferencing system.
"In theory, if you have a virtual class, you can replicate that system into hundreds of off-campus classes," says Rajasingham. In this new world, teachers would "no longer stand there pontificating, the sage on the stage, as it were, but there would be a partnership with the learner to facilitate learning".
Conventional education, then, is not enough. "It's like fighting Star Wars with a bow and arrow if you ignore the trends and developments in communications," she says. Her own PhD thesis, gained at Wellington in the late 1980s, was on communications technology in distance education.
"The theme was how to expand educational opportunities for more people than is possible in classroom-based education," she explains. "Given that every society requires a massive expansion of education, particularly in the use of new technology, how would the classroom cope? . . . That quest, to see how opportunities could be expanded irrespective of culture or creed or location, was what set me off."
In Search of the Virtual Class is dedicated to New Zealand, "the country that adopted us", because of its pioneering status: it was the first country to give the vote to women, for instance, and now it is the "first country to develop a national telelearning network". In chapter 9, Rajasingham describes her experience of a New Zealand telelearning project: her university was linked with a rural community technical college and with a school "whose headmaster wanted his staff to be prepared for the future", in a series of seminars. The three-way teleconference used two telephone lines for each site - one to link telephones (for sound), the other to link computers (for pictures).
"One of the most exciting things about teleteaching," she writes, "is that it gives a sense of participation, it allows group involvement and discussion. We found it was not just the students (the primary teachers) who were attending at the primary-school centre. The subject matter was discussed in homes and parents began to sit in on our teleclasses."
Rajasingham is also enthusiastic about the communications system she designed to link a number of rural Maori schools "so that they could have equal access to databases anywhere in the world - as much as a city child would have".
New Zealand has a high proportion of rural settlements, she points out, and the indigenous Maoris - 13 per cent of the population - mostly live outside cities; so she feels that her work in this area might have some relevance for developing countries with large rural populations.
But if the "virtual class" is going to be a solution for educational problems in the Third World, who will pay? Technology after all is not cheap.
"That's a red herring," says Rajasingham. She prefers to talk about the "myth" of the gap between First and Third World: "We use economic measures - production, consumption - but those measures are no longer totally relevant to the new commodity which is information. Information has not got the scarcity value that extracted fuels have . . . The developing world also has access to the global infobahn."
She recalls a visit to an "absolutely poor neighbourhood" in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, where there were signs on thatched roofs that proclaimed "Computer classes: Join the future".
"And there were cellular phones and laptop computers, so who needed electricity? You can link with anywhere in the world if you have a laptop and a cellular phone. Technology costs are falling all the time."
If there is a villain in the pages of In Search of the Virtual Class, it is commuting - conventional education's need for students and teachers to travel to classrooms "for a transaction called 'instruction'."
Such transactions are, Tiffin and Rajasingham argue, "fundamentally inefficient" because "they involve an additional cost for the transport to bring the players together and for the upkeep of institutions". The growth of cities may have taken place alongside the development of efficient, fast transport systems, but "this growth has proved self-defeating by creating urban traffic congestion . . . Travelling to make transactions has become one of the problems of our time, and education is part of it". Rajasingham develops this theme.
"Why do people go to cities? It's because there are just no opportunities in the countryside. But now teleworking can bring different kinds of infrastructures which are not based on pollution and physical transportation. Closer family ties, community meeting places and so on. In the old system you had to attend school, and it was totally transport-based. You were kept in line with your age cohort. It's a factory model - you go in, you are processed and you are churned out at the other end."
She contrasts such a model, which "has nothing to do with motivation", with the virtual class where "the onus is on the student".
The vision conjured up, of motivated students calling up for a seminar on Aristotle, say, or a virtual reality demonstration of a surgical procedure, is an idyllic one. But surely not everyone is keen to learn; what about the unmotivated? "When you talk to what you'd call street kids, it's the regimentation of having to go to school and learning things that are of no interest to them, that puts them off education. But why are the video game parlours full? Because the student can map his or her own way."
Still, Rajasingham does not think that conventional classrooms will disappear. The teleclass has got to be complementary, she says; there will still be schools where people from the same locality learn to get along with each other when they are young.
She is, she insists, a sceptic on artificial intelligence: "I don't think AI will ever get to that area of wisdom. A computer lacks compassion, and I don't think learning can take place without compassion. That's where I think a human being will always be superior."
As if to illustrate this point, she talks of the contribution of human and machine to the writing of In Search of the Virtual Class. "John Tiffin was on sabbatical the year we were writing, and while I was in Wellington he was in every conceivable part of the world. So we used the Internet and would send each other stuff, and it went on fairly well. But when he came back and we started collating the book - oh, we had some tremendous arguments. The Internet activity was intellectually excellent, but the emotional aspects of writing the book came out when we sat down face to face and argued aspects of the work.
"But it's quite a good combination. John outlines the vision and the promises, I signal the pitfalls."
In Search of the Virtual Class: Education in an Information Society, by John Tiffin and Lalita Rajasingham, is published by Routledge.