Address by Dr. Abdul Waheed Khan, Assistant Director General for Communication and Information, UNESCO
Mega-Universities fostering innovativeness and collaboration
Dr. Abdul Waheed Khan
Assistant Director General for Communication and Information, UNESCO
It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to be here in Shanghai to Participate in this World Summit of Mega-Universities, and I would like to thank our hosts and organizers, the Shanghai Distance Education Group for their warm Welcome and generous hospitality.
To be on the platform with such distinguished leaders Prof. Zhang Deming, President of Shanghai TV University and Mr. Zhang Xinsheng, Vice Minister of China, is indeed an honor. I am delighted to have the opportunity to once again meet so many colleagues and friends from the open and distance learning community and to listen to the discussion and dialogue, especially as these relate to collaboration between mega-universities. And, indeed the issues, challenges and opportunities are many and varied.
Open and distance learning is regarded as one of the greatest innovations in education in the 20th century and it has witnessed phenomenal growth in the last 30 years. Mega-universities have emerged as the undisputed leaders in higher education. What are the reasons for their remarkable success? There are many such reasons, but allow me to mention but a few.
Responsiveness to change:
Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change”.
We are living in an age of unprecedented change. Technological, economic, cultural and social upheavals have impacted upon us with regularity and increasing ferocity, radically changing the way we live, work and learn. Accelerating change has overtaken even the most stable of our institutions, including education and the rate of change will no doubt increase with gathering speed in the years to come.
The central role of knowledge, education and learning for the success of knowledge societies is now well recognized. Knowledge has become the engine of economic growth, social transformation, cultural enrichment and political empowerment. Accelerating rates of change are already applying immense pressure on individuals for skilling, re-skilling and multi-skilling in response to changing demands for “work-skills” and “life-skills”. Such training must be appropriate, relevant, continuous and flexible, because knowledge workers deal with a commodity that is growing exponentially, that is constantly changing. Can you even think of the consequences if the amount of codified knowledge doubles every 11 hours? That is the situation that has been predicted for 2010.
The rapid creation and dissemination of knowledge is inextricably linked to globalization. Knowledge is seamless-flowing across boundaries and borders. If we are to survive, we need to compete in the global knowledge economy. We need to re-examine the paradigm of economic growth. In this new paradigm we gain a “competitive edge” by improving our capability to create, acquire, store, disseminate and utilize knowledge. This phenomenon has serious implications for higher education.
For one thing, the demand for higher education is growing rapidly the world over and new categories of learners are seeking access to higher education. It is obvious that we need to promote learning through the lifespan. Lifelong learning is, therefore, a crucial imperative in knowledge-based societies. We will increasingly find that the open, distance and flexible learning methodologies offer the only viable alternative to meet the twin challenge of the knowledge explosion and rapidly burgeoning demand for lifelong learning.
Mega-universities have responded to change by adopting a flexible approach to provide quality education at low cost and to reach a large number of learners. They have quite simply adopted a more user-friendly system of education.
Let me now turn to the innovative approaches adopted by mega-universities. Within the academic environment of higher education, it is often easy to take the path of least-resistance-to do things that are comfortable and predictable, rather than venturing into new territories, be it in new academic areas, innovative approaches to learner support, seeking new partnerships, developing new form of organizational structure, adopting new models of leadership or seeking ways that the media and ICTs can be harnessed to enhance the learning experience. However, I wish to stress that our clear focus and first priority must always be on the needs of the learners and the community. And it is not just about numbers of learners, but we must also be cognizant of the issues of quality, relevance, equity and access.
Use of ICTs
I would, of course, be remiss, in my current role at UNESCO, if I did not speak about the role of ICTs in growth of open, distance and flexible learning in general, and mega-universities in particular. Let me clarify that ICTs include both traditional and new media.
It is widely recognized that ICTs are the driving engine of mega-universities, and their use has enabled mega-universities to reach large numbers of learners, in a variety of settings, to provide quality education, both formal and non-formal, using a variety of learning resources. It has also enabled learners to overcome the barriers of time, space, gender, age and socio-economic background. More than anything else, ICTs have enabled learners to exercise greater control over the learning process.
Mega-universities have been pioneers in the use of ICTs and they use a variety of ICTs – print, radio, television, audio and video conferencing, Internet and web. My question to you is the following “are we using them to the best advantage of our learners?” I hope you will consider this in your deliberations during the course of the conference. We need to consider our choices carefully, in terms of accessibility, affordability, sustainability, appropriateness to local context, and pedagogic strength. It is important to point out that ICTs are not only instructional tools, but also serve as a resource for curriculum integration, assessment, communication, management and a collaborative tool between learners and teachers. All these functions need to be taken into account in overall resource planning and programme delivery.
Collaboration is one of the unique features of mega-universities and it operates at various levels. Mega-universities collaborate with a variety of institutions and organizations, within the area of their operation, for curriculum design, course development, student support services, capacity building and programme delivery. Flexible approach allows the mega-universities to harness the intellectual and physical resources of not only other universities, but also resources available in the public, private and NGO sector. This helps not only in minimizing the cost, but also ensuring optimum utilization of existing resources. It also helps to enhance acceptance of the programmes offered by the mega-universities. In turn, the conventional system benefits from quality materials produced by the mega-universities.
There is a vast scope for collaboration between mega-universities at the regional and international level on areas such as curriculum design, course development, exchange of learning materials, use of infrastructure, quality assurance, accreditation, capacity building, research, advocacy and exchange of expertise.
Some mechanisms for such collaboration exist already. Examples of such collaborative mechanisms include the Commonwealth of Learning, the South Asia Foundation Learning Initiative and professional open and distance learning associations. ICTs provide powerful new tools to facilitate collaboration.
Before I conclude, allow me to share some information about the current and planned activities at UNESCO in the area of open and distance learning, that might help promote the goals of the proposed Global Mega-Universities Network (GMUNET).
UNESCO’s work in the area of digital libraries can help mega-universities share curricula, lecture notes, bibliographies, reference materials, computer-based learning modules, student experiments and simulations, etc.
UNESCO is working with universities in developed and industrialized countries to share such open educational resources (sometimes called Open Course Ware after the pioneering project of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA) free of charge on the Internet for non-commercial usage. The idea is not that the receiving universities would directly use these materials in teaching, but rather that they would be adapted, translated, integrated as appropriate in local courses and in turn shared with others.
UNESCO is also making major efforts to work with universities to implement standards for educational services and achievement, and frameworks ensuring transferability and recognition of qualifications. One activity underway is the development of a standard curriculum and assessment scheme for certification of school and higher education faculty regarding the use of ICTs in education (Educators’ ICT Drivers License). As part of this broad effort, we are promoting the development and dissemination of open source software tools for education, particularly considering problems of interoperability of services and multilingual access. We already have a “free software portal” which we will be expanding in the next two years in cooperation with universities around the world. These tools are being tested in a series of “e-campus” pilot projects for open and distance learning at the sub-regional level in Africa, the Arab States, Asia and Latin America.
Another important area for UNESCO is exchange of experience among, and advice to, policy makers in higher education at the national and institutional levels on the use of ICT. One of the projects relevant to our discussion is the development of a “knowledge base” on open and distance learning, which will use regional databases and associated expert systems to support informed decision-making on quality assurance in open and distance learning. Another interesting project is the development of a “policy maker toolkit” in Asia on the use of ICT in basic education. This will be a multimedia interactive module covering goals, indicators, demonstrations, and planning methodologies. This tool should be immediately useful to the outreach activities of mega-universities in Asia, and we hope soon to extend the project to cover other regions and other levels of education.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I remain convinced that innovative and creative delivery strategies for education in general, and tertiary education in particular, are currently within our grasp to achieve sustainable human development. If Governments are going to meet the goals set for Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals, then we need to adopt a “Business unusual” approach to education and learning. We need to do more to increase the level of awareness, knowledge and understanding of developments in the field of distance education and ICTs and their potential to enhance the quality of education. This is an advocacy role for everyone in this room. I am confident that you will take up this challenge.
Thank you for your attention and I wish you a successful and productive conference.