ICT: Information without frontiers

May 4, 2007

The European Union has ambitions to make the Continent into a single knowledge zone in which information and people can move as freely as goods.

Information technology is a vital part of this vision for Europe's future.

But in practice, Europe will go on facing a digital divide between West and East and between rich and poor unless urgent technical training issues are addressed to ensure that Europe has the people it needs to deliver the EU's promise.

Leading higher education policy-makers debated the challenge of bridging the digital divide in the emerging economies of Europe in Edinburgh in January, at an international information and communications technology summit.

For Muriel Dunbar, the director of the European Training Foundation based in Turin, Italy, it was a chance to point to problems that threaten one of the key tenets of the expanding European Community agenda: spreading wealth through equal opportunities.

Scottish-born Dunbar facilitated a discussion forum on the issues at the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum for Europe at the Scottish Parliament.

The summit heard keynote speeches from Chancellor Gordon Brown as well as Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates.

According to Dunbar: "Introducing electronic technologies cannot be done without addressing access to ICT and educational ability for the population at large in emerging economies."

Dunbar, a former deputy director of the British Council in Indonesia and head of the European Commission-funded ETF since 2004, claims that: "in Eastern Europe and the countries around the EU where the ETF works there is the danger of a younger generation coming through that is not IT-literate.

There is a lack of equipment, teachers, facilities and family support."

The acknowledged generational divide in ICT ability exists even in developed countries where computer use is high. Even in Britain, pit a teenager against most over-40s in an IT IQ test and the results are highly predictable. But it is wider and deeper in the emerging economies of Eastern Europe, Dunbar says, who earlier in her career in educational policy development spent 12 years at the Scottish Qualifications Agency.

"In Moldova in 2002, more than 40 per cent of the population still lived below the absolute poverty level. Between 35 and 40 per cent of the economically active population had moved abroad. The chances of those left behind having any IT ability is practically nil." She suggests that it is vital to develop national training policies with stakeholders in ETF client countries. ICT should be used to deliver training, with vocational education and training a key focus.

Ina Gudele, Latvia's Minister for Electronic Government Affairs, one of the discussion forum's contributors, says the introduction of state-subsidised ICT has been controversial. Latvians had complained: "Government gives us computers but not food." But Dunbar claims that the policy has been a success. "Today, Latvia has made huge strides in becoming an information society, and the Baltics are now being used as a model in countries in the Balkans and south Caucasus that wish to emulate their success," she says.

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