Treasure for the islands

April 29, 2005

A scheme to provide Caribbean states with distance learning by satellite and wireless technology aims to foster collaboration and boost the competitiveness of the region. David Jobbins reports

The islands of the Caribbean are getting an upgrade to help them join the knowledge economy of the 21st century thanks to a multimillion-dollar project to boost regional competitiveness.
An initiative to provide distance learning by satellite and wireless technology is due to start operating this summer.

The Caribbean Knowledge and Learning Network will reach colleges and universities across the region, from Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti and Jamaica, to St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Surinam and Trinidad and Tobago.

It is supported by the Institute for Connectivity in the Americas (ICA), the European Union, the World Bank, the Organisation of American States, the UN Development Programme and the Caribbean Community and Common Market. The University of the West Indies is expected to play a crucial role, while its distance-learning centres will be upgraded and integrated with existing higher education colleges in the region.

Regional political leaders hope it will boost the area’s ability to compete globally by raising and diversifying the skills and knowledge of tertiary-level students through greater collaboration between Caribbean institutions.

The network, in partnership with E-Link Americas, a Canadian not-for-profit corporation, will offer low-cost access to high-quality e-learning content and other knowledge resources drawn from local and global sources. E-Link Americas will provide the satellite network that will connect all those regional tertiary institutions that wish to join. The set-up will allow partnering, collaboration and access to other global networks and knowledge bases. Primary connectivity will be through the use of satellite via a digital video broadcasting-return channel satellite (DVB-RCS), an efficient, scalable and easily upgradeable technology. Then E-Link connectivity can be extended across the entire college campus using a wireless network (wi-fi).

The project will use new technologies aimed at providing economies of scale by sharing the infrastructure and bandwidth capacity. By aggregating demand from Latin America and the Caribbean and introducing technical standardisation, the islands will save about 90 per cent on the price they pay for these services. Stewart Marshall, director of the Distance Education Centre at UWI, said: “CKLN is a critical initiative. It recognises the importance of collaboration and partnerships to achieve the necessary economies of scale in these small island states.

“Much of the success of ICT-based education elsewhere in the world rests on the separation of educational functions and development of collaboration to fulfil these functions.

“In the case of CKLN and E-Link Americas, these include the provision of low-cost bandwidth, capacity building and other mechanisms to allow the educational institutions to focus on what they do best - providing high-quality learning opportunities.”

CKLN was launched last July by Keith Mitchell, Grenada’s prime minister, at the Caricom summit in Grenada. It is evolving with the support of ICA in collaboration with the Canadian International Development Agency, the World Bank, the Organisation of American States and the International Development Research Centre. The World Bank’s David Gray said: “This can be a major contributor to the development and application of ICTs in the Caribbean and to the goal of skills development and competitiveness.

“Prices will vary by bandwidth but will be in the order of $100-$400 a month per location. The upper end of this range will provide broadband to a sizeable computer lab.

“CKLN is intended to fast-track the upgrading of tertiary education institutions’ ability to use modern approaches to learning and better serve their communities. A parallel goal is to assist institutions in planning and financing their activities. The beneficiaries will be Caribbean students and employers.”

ICA, which has offices in Ottawa and Montevideo, is part of Canada’s response to the decision by regional leaders at the 2001 Summit of the Americas to engage their citizens in using ICT to address the “digital divide”. It promotes the use of ICT for development in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Ken Sylvester, project co-ordinator, said: “CKLN aims to align the myriad distance education projects under way in the Caribbean and provide an institutional framework, technological infrastructure and mechanism to realise the dream of Caribbean integration through open and distance learning.

“The Caribbean has suffered through monopolistic telecom practices, which have kept costs prohibitively high and delivered relatively outdated and limited services to the region. This has limited the adoption of modern approaches to distance learning and hampered collaboration between these predominantly small states. This initiative aims to change this in the very near future.”

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