Building bridges or just widening the divide?

December 1, 2000

Bids are invited for a commercial partner to develop Britain's e-university. With established companies pulling back from expensive investments in internet ventures, it will be interesting to see who steps forward. Meanwhile, Unesco was this week debating the possibilities of information technology transforming life chances by opening up access for those physically and financially out of reach of conventional higher education. This is a field of conflicting pressures. Those whose priority is inclusion and development hope that new technologies will help them reach the poor and outcast at a reasonable price. But many of those who control the technology see it as a source of revenue - the British higher education system included. The nasty possibility, which some at Unesco recognise uneasily, is that new technologies will widen not bridge the gap between rich and poor - people and nations - and that by pushing universities to get more enterprising, governments in rich countries may inadvertently make things worse.

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