The digital revolution and economic globalization are taking us into a new era. We are moving towards a global knowledge society where information, skills and competencies become the driving forces of social and economic development. The problems associated with this transformation can no longer be solved by traditional means. The Internet, with its extending and improving infrastructure, will be the main telecommunication media of tomorrow. It has been extended to most countries, albeit with slow-to-medium speed. The advancement of videoconferencing, telephony, broadband Internet, World Wide Web, and other communication and information technologies are rapidly creating new opportunities for establishing international distance learning and global-healthcare / telemedicine programs that will allow us to foster global citizenship and achieve "education for all."
Broadband Internet backbone development such as vBNS and Abeline are expanding high-speed Internet access to higher education and healthcare institutions throughout the U.S.. This technology extends increased bandwidth to university researchers requiring the ability to manipulate large quantities of data and graphic images. In addition, this technology holds great promise for improving multimedia distance learning capabilities, especially in rural and isolated areas that are not well served by commercial network providers. The enhanced distance learning capabilities of broadband Internet are only beginning to be explored and offer an immediate benefit to the populations served by these networks. Although the opportunities for international distance learning are great, they are accompanied by challenges regarding technical infrastructure, language barriers, cultural differences, and appropriate matches between needs and educational resources.
We held the international workshop and conference on "Emerging Global Electronic Distance Learning (EGEDL)" from August 9th to 13th at the University of Tampere in Finland -- see <http://www.uta.fi/EGEDL> for the compilation of the conference materials.
The original conception of this event was fulfilled. This conception was to:
Approximately 60 education professionals on distance learning from 14 nations gathered at the conference and discussed practical ways to harness the emerging electronic technological evolution to provide affordable, global distance education across national and cultural boundaries. They brainstormed on methods to use global broadband wireless and satellite Internet in the major regions of the globe. The conference attendees also considered plans for the initiation of the Global Service Trust Fund (GSTF) that would invest in telecommunications infrastructure for education and health.
Issues of information infrastructure, content, and a proposed Global University System were examined in depth. The Global University System (GUS) will establish pilot projects that can be disseminated as "best practices" examples for the further development and deployment of effective international distance learning partnerships. In addition, GUS will foster the development of distance learning and telemedicine pilot projects using broadband Internet technology in order to enhance their teaching / learning capabilities. The GUS will also facilitate connectivity among current distance learning efforts around the world and will provide support and guidance to selected pilot projects intended to serve as models for adoption around the world.
The conference chairman, Dr. Tapio Varis of the University of Tampere, was asked to lead the effort to seek funding and carry out the projects as Acting President of a newly formed Global University System. Dr. Marco Antonio Dias, former director of Higher Education of UNESCO, has also kindly accepted to serve as the Vice President for Administration of the GUS. Dr. Takeshi Utsumi will be the President Emeritus and Vice President for Technology and Coordinations.
The group formulated specific pilot projects focussed on six major regions of the world to reduce the growing digital divide between information rich and information poor populations, as realizing education and healthcare for all, at anytime and anywhere. These prospective projects are being developed for (1) the Asia-Pacific region (with Philippines as its first target, and with sub-regions of Pakistan and South Pacific), (2) North America (for indigenous peoples in the states of Arizona and Montana and in Calgary in Canada), (3) Central America, (4) South America (mainly for Amazon basin in initial stage), (5) Europe (firstly with Ukraine and Bulgaria), and (6) Africa -- see PART II of this report.
The pilot projects outlined in detail at the conclusion of the conference have been identified from grassroots needs and capabilities. Yet they connect to a global vision of the potential for the use of the web in distance education to reach out to institutions and people who are ready to use it right now. The projects are tailored to local and regional needs and capacities, but they will also learn from each other.
There is a high level of momentum to propel us forward as a result of this excellent conference. The challenge now is to remain focussed on what can be done both to crystallize the structure that has evolved out of Tampere, and to secure the resources to move ahead with the pilot projects that have been identified, along with key people who have agreed to assist and enable them to move forward.
Each of these regional groups are now preparing to hold a mini-workshop (say, 3 to 4 days);
The Tampere meeting was a study in contrasts, and clearly showed the enormous gap between the "haves" and the "have nots". On the one hand, some of the players have tremendous resources with which to deploy broadband wireless technology; on the other hand, some must operate on a shoestring budget, and even lack adequate basic wireline services as a starting point. A major challenge will be to identify technology which will be appropriate (in terms of startup and operating costs, maintainability by local people, etc.) in the "have not" situations.
Thanks to our highly successful event with extraordinary supports and cooperations of many funding sources, such as the World Bank, the US National Science Foundation, and colleagues around the world, substantial momentum for our Global Initiative is now building up to have follow-up workshops and conferences to forge ahead the establishment of the GUS with global broadband Internet and Global Service Trust Fund (GSTF) by multilateral collaborations.
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