Hi-tech's borderline

August 30, 1996

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has released the results of a study showing that in the past 15 years the disparities between rich and poor have not been reduced. In fact, they have increased. It is no coincidence that these same 15 years have also seen massive changes in communication and other technologies so that conventional barriers and borders keeping people and countries apart can be transcended. Yet, whatever technology has done for some of us, it has not changed the lives of most of us.

Both governments and institutions that engage in education need to pay careful attention to this awful fact and what it means in the formulation of their goals and objectives. How gross it would be if universities did not play a role in making the world a more humane and equitable place; if our knowledge about disparities was matched only by our lack of concern.

If we begin to honour an intellectual and emotional commitment to reducing the exploitation and destruction of people and the environment we must perforce think of ways to heal fractures, to close distances, to make all of us the custodians of each other and the planet. The capacity of technology to propose a borderless virtual world must be met by a capacity to make a world which revalues itself and all that lives on or in it.

Such capacity can only be built on an assumption that we have a clear idea of the purpose of education and universities. If universities do not give thought and expression to this, it is difficult to imagine who would, or indeed, to explain how universities would be absolved from doing so. It is unthinkable that the privileged elite (who are still a small minority in world terms) are not informed as to the great issues of our time. Issues involving survival and sustainability, issues about closing the gap between haves and have-nots are going to require choices: choices that ought to be made on moral or ethical grounds. As when first instituted, universities are going to have to pay attention to ethics and alert their students to the moral dilemmas of particular professions and career choices.

It is unthinkable that intensive courses and research aimed at improving the economic health of communities are not offered. It is unthinkable that an imaginative review of the education by the best we have to offer in intellectual resources from all over the world is not given priority. It is unthinkable that we make no attempt to foster a sense of civic responsibility; a sense of community.

The high degree of individuality that has invaded our classrooms and lecture theatres and "virtual reality" is not a reflection of how problems in the real world present themselves - there they usually require team effort and are seldom so kind as to divide themselves into disciplines.

One excellent way of doing this would be to incorporate community work into degree requirements. This would have the benefit not only of reminding students of their responsibilities but also of alerting them to realities of which many are unaware. Since the problems of our world are hardly unique to each country, it would be helpful if such programmes could, in part at least, be organised in such a way that a permanent kind of Peace Corps was made up of students from universities worldwide.

Maybe in this way we, who are so bounded by conventions, institutions, political, regional and national identities, will achieve the most difficult task and come truly to understand ourselves as part of a borderless world. I very much like an image evoked by Mary Robinson, on signing the Declaration of Office as president of the Irish Republic. She said: "The old Irish term for province is coicead, meaning a fifth, and yet, as everyone knows, there are only four geographical provinces on this island. So where is the fifth? The fifth province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west. It is a place within each of us - that place which is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in."

I suggest that universities need to cross some ancient borders and cover some new geographical distances to create learning centres at strategic sites: strategic both in the technological sense of having the potential to make communication easier, and in the complex ethical sense of enhancing equality.

Learning centres could or should be the spatial equivalent of equity or affirmative action policies in historically established institutions; the pedagogic equivalent of electrification or road-building. But they cannot rest at being installations. They may be and should be made possible by technology, allowing students to tap a borderless world. Yet they will be as stark as our world at the moment if they do not carry a commitment to a new ethics.

Much as it challenges the methodology of conventional learning and teaching, technological capability should alter the tested ways in which we conceive of the distances between one human and another.

In South Africa we often speak of the "geography" of apartheid. We live in a country where years of political manipulation and racial segregation have created striations on physical maps, let alone political ones. Prolonged deprivation in rural areas has lead to micro-climatic changes and erosion has led to topographical alteration.

It is no accident that worldwide the fractures between rich and poor are often framed in geo-political terms - north and south, urban and rural. Distance learning in wealthier countries may well be able to rest with on ever more efficient circulation of materials, assignments and responses. In poorer places the riches of technology, even of the now seemingly archaic postal and telegraphic kind, cannot be had until some very basic services are implemented. In South Africa, 60 per cent of people are without electricity - and in the population of the world as a whole this is roughly also true.

Governments must take responsibility for the provision of electricity, adequate roads and the other services that will reach into the heart of neglected communities, distant from conventional learning institutions and unreachable by supposedly borderless technological innovation, until they have electricity. The question inevitably arises of how such centres would be funded. Learning centres cannot be add-ons to the work undertaken in universities in the countries most blighted by inequality.

Such universities - my own university is one - are, in a sense, hostage to migrations of students from poverty and violence both inside our national borders and beyond. Where so-called "foreign" students can be absorbed without any real inequity to home students, the issue is fairly simple and has been regarded by governments in general in a fairly laissez faire manner or even as an effective means to begin balancing the education budget. In many countries however, including my own, it is a highly politicised matter - politicised by virtue of a huge backlog in the higher education sector and fierce competition for places.

I would like to envisage the day when world leaders shake hands on deals that include educational resources which may be the richest source of aid that one government could possibly give to another - in the interests of both.

Either a technologically borderless world will lead to the enhancement of the elite (as the UNDP report demonstrates) or it could trigger the transformation of education and politics to the service of all citizens of this planet who ultimately share a common fate. It is by the achievement of the latter rather than the former that we in education will be judged. So far we are not doing well at all.

Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal, South Africa.

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