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Broadband “the missing link” in global access to education


New report from the Broadband Commission highlights strategies for leveraging high-speed networks to realize ‘Education for All’

Broadband connectivity carries unprecedented potential to bridge education divides, transform learning and improve skills for the globalized economy provided that governments make broadband accessible, empower teachers and students to use technology, support the production of local language content and promote open educational resources, says a new report just released by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development.

Technology, Broadband and Education: Advancing the Education for All Agenda, the outcome report of the Broadband Commission’s Working Group on Education, provides a vision of how access to high-speed technologies over both fixed and mobile platforms can be extended so that students and teachers everywhere can reap the benefits – for themselves and for their communities.

The report was presented during the opening session of the World Summit on the Information Society +10 at UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters from 25 to 27 February, in the presence of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and Hamadoun I. Touré, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), who co-chair the Broadband Commission.

Coordinated by UNESCO, it emphasizes the importance of deployment of broadband as a means of accelerating progress towards the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education and the Education for All goals. Less than three years away from the target date for achieving these goals, 61 million children of primary-school age, and a further 71 million of lower secondary-school age, are not in school; and an estimated 1.7 million extra teachers will be needed to achieve universal primary education. In addition, close to 793 million adults – 64% of them women – lack literacy skills, with the lowest rates in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia.

“Much progress has been made to reach the 2015 education goals – but many countries are still not on track,” Irina Bokova said. “In this respect, the digital divide continues to be a development divide. The on-going mobile and internet revolutions provide all countries, especially developing and least developed ones, with unprecedented opportunities. We must make the most of broadband to widen access to quality education for all and to empower all citizens with the knowledge, skills and values they need to live and work successfully in the digital age.”

The report recognizes that participation in the global economy is increasingly dependent on skills in navigating the digital world, but warns that traditional school curriculums still tend to prioritize the accumulation of knowledge above its application, and fail to train students in the ICT literacy skills they will need to ensure their employability in the knowledge economy.

“The ability of broadband to improve and enhance education, as well as students’ experience of education, is undisputed,” said Dr Hamadoun Touré. “A good and well-rounded education is the basis on which future livelihoods and families are founded, and education opens up minds, as well as job prospects. A student in a developing country can now access the library of a prestigious university anywhere in the world; an unemployed person can retrain and improve their job prospects in other fields; teachers can gain inspiration and advice from the resources and experiences of others. With each of these achievements, the online world brings about another real-world victory for education, dialogue, and better understanding between peoples.

Despite rapid increases in access to fixed and mobile broadband, the digital divide remains deep. The International Telecommunications Union estimates that, by end 2012, there were close to 2.5 billion people using the Internet – but only a quarter of people in the developing world. In Least Developed Countries, that number drops to a mere 6%. The latest edition of ITU’s Measuring the Information Society report reveals wide global and regional disparities in both the level of ICT development and the cost of monthly broadband access, which in some 17 countries still represents over 100% of an average monthly salary.

The report confirms that, by 2009, in OECD countries about 93% of 15-year-olds had access to a computer and the Internet at school, with a ratio of eight students per computer. In developing countries, on the other hand, access to ICT facilities remains a major challenge. For example, a study in Kenya, published in 2010, stated that only 3% of schools had Internet access, while in most African countries, there are on average 150 schoolchildren per computer.

While fixed broadband infrastructure constitutes the bulk of high-speed connectivity in many countries, the ICT service with the steepest growth rate is mobile broadband. According to ITU figures, in 2011, growth in mobile broadband services was 40% globally and 78% in developing countries, where it is often the only way of connecting to the Internet.

The report is the result of collaborative input from a large number of Commissioners and their organizations, including Alcatel-Lucent, the Connect-to-Learn partnership (The Earth Institute, Colombia University/Ericsson/Millennium Promise), Intel, the Inter-American Development Bank, Broadband Commissioners Suvi Lindén, Jasna Matić and Ivo Ivanovski, and Special Advisor to the Commission, Paul Budde.

It features case studies from both developed and developing countries, including Literacy Promotion through Mobile Phones in Pakistan and the Harmonizer Programme in Northern Uganda that educates youth in conflict resolution, ICT and social media skills, both supported by UNESCO.

Policy recommendations

The new Broadband Commission Report endorses a number of strategies that governments (particularly those in the developing world) and other stakeholders involved in education should embrace in order to reap the full benefits of ICTs:

1. Increase access to ICTs and broadband

Policy-makers should continue efforts to implement cross-sectorial policies that ensure affordable and equitable access to ICTs and broadband connectivity for all citizens, particularly women and girls and marginalized groups.

2. Incorporate ICTs into job training and continuing education

Given the rapid pace of technological change and such challenges as high youth unemployment, governments should provide financial incentives to support the adoption of ICTs and the provision of broadband in all activities designed to create new jobs and offer lifelong training.

3. Teach ICT skills and digital literacy to all educators and learners

Governments should prioritize the redesign of education systems so as to respond better to the digital revolution. Empowering teachers and students to use ICTs effectively is central to improving education and the assessment of learning.

4. Promote mobile learning and open educational resources

Policy-makers should introduce incentives for the development of open educational resources. In addition, the use of mobile technology should be encouraged at all levels and in all forms of education, facilitating access to high-quality learning.

5. Support the development of content adapted to local contexts and languages

Getting the ICT hardware in place is just one element: investment also needs to be made in creating ecosystems of online educational applications and services with local content and in local languages.

6. Work to bridge the digital divide

Policy-makers should continue efforts to bridge the digital divide between developed and developing countries, by promoting international collaboration and partnerships.

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