Educating in a digital future

September 11, 1998

Western universities must develop 'edutainment' on the Internet or be left behind, says Sa'ad Medhat.

The Internet is redefining how we live, how we do business and how we spend our leisure time, but is it redefining how we educate? With the rapid changes in information technology, speculation has grown as to the direction higher education will take in the next century. Will the year 2000 hail a new dawning of digital education or will the "axeman cometh" for lecturers and face-to-face learning.

Research has suggested that online education will be driven by market forces alone. With the surge in education reforms in developing countries, a greater number of students worldwide want to learn, and the Internet is making education borderless and more accessible.

Internet connections globally are increasing, with 128 million users to date (Euromarketing '98), although the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening at an alarming rate. Over a third of the world's population live in countries that are still not connected to the Net, and email is available in a restricted service. The telephone is still the primary source for basic improvement.

Developing countries are, however, offering new market development opportunities through the Internet to companies providing online education services. In countries where Western qualifications are sought after, online education has been hailed as the cost-effective alternative to study abroad.

Unfortunately, such a demand for education has attracted unsuitable providers to the on-line education arena. Less than reputable institutions have helped to fuel claims of a "degree in days" and "a PhD by return of post", and have kept horror stories alive of education being a commodity business.

Online education should, however, provide a service to those who do not possess the wherewithal to study residentially in a Western university. It is the duty of all legitimate academic institutions to be not only the watchdog of abuse but the proliferator of perpetual learning.

In contrast to their European counterparts, students from the Middle East and Asia are considerably more predisposed to the adoption of online education delivery. These students are IT-aware and acknowledge the benefits of distributed learning, citing advantages such as immediate access to course information and virtual class discussion with peers and lecturers being more in-depth and interactive than those allowed in a physical environment.

Provision of higher education through the Internet is not just about course delivery. Students today want more from education. They appreciate the convergence of IT, communications and education, and expect the concept of "edutainment" to be reflected in course delivery. Through the online educational experience, students should be given the opportunity to undertake constructional learning and the acquisition of knowledge in an active rather than passive format.

Sadly, most Western universities are still embryonic in their online methods, which often include the regurgitation of straight class notes on to the screen. A glance at most university web pages illustrates a distinct lack of imagination and spontaneity. Dull delivery is endemic in traditional universities.

Academics who argue for the validity and necessity for online learning, allude to the "end of university education" and claim that online education delivery will sound the death knell for higher education studies. Such arguments parallel those made about cinema when television caught the public interest. And what of the movie business today? Is it in tatters? Ironically, the cinema industry is perhaps, alongside education, one of the few growth industries this decade has seen.

Lecturers of tomorrow, far from being axed from the education scene, will assume a different role in future years. Instead of just "chalk and talk", they will be expected to be content directors guiding multimedia authors.

The new wave of lecturers will not only be experts in their own field, but will have a consummate understanding of information technology. A variety of online media including white-boarding, audio, videoconferencing and email fora, will be used in the future to deliver courses in the most exciting and stimulating way possible. "Edutainment" will be the new face of higher education, providing a fun, informative and accessible framework of learning, which will make the student central to the total learning process.

Education branding will be important in the future. Among the myriad learning possibilities the net provides, choice will be driven by quality and brand recognition. Universities with a strong traditional name will not have the same currency in the virtual environment. Along with online learning providers, they will be expected to build a portfolio of interactive quality academic courses holding legitimate international accreditation, with a database of strong testimonials and referrals.

The onus of success will be on a university's commitment, drive and enthusiasm to provide online distributed course delivery to really meet the needs of the new students. Technology is bringing a wind of change and universities will not be able to afford to rest on their laurels.

Online learning is the future of academia. It presents opportunities far broader and expands the reach of education wider across the world than any other delivery method. Educators should not hit the delete button before they have really had a chance to appreciate the real benefits that online learning could provide.

The author is director of Dubai Polytechnic, United Arab Emirates.

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