Online Education in Developing Nations
Universal education in the United States is no longer a novel idea; in fact, K-12 education has become something most Americans take for granted. Even with issues of access and affordability in the world of American higher education, the possibility of obtaining a college degree is not out of the question for most Americans. For many in the world, however, education is far from a “given;” millions of children in developing nations never see the inside of an elementary school classroom and the concept of achieving any level of postsecondary education seems as likely as sprouting wings and flying to the moon.
One UNESCO report estimates that “only about 3 percent of young people in sub-Saharan Africa and 7 percent in Asia attend some form of postsecondary education.” Compare these statistics to postsecondary education statistics in industrialized nations (approximately 58 percent of the population in industrialized nations pursue some form of postsecondary education) and for the United States alone (60 percent) and it becomes clear that a large sector of the world’s population is not able to access the valuable skills gained through higher education. In the United States, we have had 150-200+ years to develop our three tiered system embracing community colleges, four year colleges, and research universities. The fixed costs of opening physical campuses, particularly in areas of large geographic expanse, often exceed the limited budgets of developing countries. Even China’s successful and rapidly expanding economy cannot keep up with the infrastructure involved in building college campuses.
In recent years, many developing nations have made significant steps toward improving access to postsecondary education through the use of online education. According to one estimate, 7 of the world’s largest distance education universities are located in developing countries. A report published by the Task Force for Higher Education and Society, established by the World Bank in conjunction with UNESCO, found that “at the world’s 10 biggest distance institutions, the majority of them in the third world, the cost of education per student is on average about one third the cost at traditional institutions in the same country.” In today’s “knowledge economy” it has become clear that if developing nations are to take advantage of globalization, they must reinforce their most valuable asset, their citizens, with the tools, namely education, required to compete. The significantly lower costs associated with distance education have made that an attractive option to many developing nations.
In a report published by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), an organization dedicated to “ensuring that millions of the world’s most vulnerable people have access to education, healthcare and a social safety net,” the group found that even in Africa, one of the most destitute places on earth, significant numbers of online education programs are popping up in even the most desolate regions. The Virtual University of Pakistan is another institute of higher education utilizing the growing access of technology to reach students across the country. Using the internet as well as a cable television network which can be accessed from anywhere in the country, Virtual University of Pakistan is making enormous strides in providing affordable access to degrees in higher education to thousands of Pakistanis living in-country and abroad. The Chinese have jumped on the online education bandwagon in a big way: China Central Radio and Television University has 1.5 million students and caters to working adults. In a 2001 article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Vice President of China Central, Yu Yunxiu, explained that the traditional universities were not able to meet the demand of drastic increases in enrollment numbers so China Central has picked up the slack.
Higher education in third world countries is one of the solutions for improving the quality of life for citizens of those nations. Funding it and creating access to everyone is a problem with solutions still evolving. Many obstacles to online education initiatives in developing nations remain. There are functional obstacles including spotty internet access in remote regions of many developing nations and cultural issues including those related to gender and the role of women in conservative societies. Critics are quick to point out that there is much work left to be done before the world of higher education can legitimately believe that it has made a significant impact on the educational futures of those in developing nations. There is little doubt, however, that the rise of online universities in developing nations is a step in the right direction.