The Global University Campus

On Wednesday I attended the 2010 IGF-USA conference at the Georgetown Law Center. In this second annual U.S. edition of the Internet Governance Forum, a couple hundred Web citizens, industry folk, and government representatives gathered to share their perspectives on the current state of the Internet and the visions they hold for the future of the global Web. I’ll blog later about a great discussion which took place regarding user education of cyber-crime, but for now I’m going to focus on the stand-out speech of the event:

Pablo Molina, a graduate professor in technology management at Georgetown University, kicked off the day with a terrific lecture discussing how the Internet has transformed university education. As a professor and the university’s chief information officer, he described how the 21st-century classroom has shifted focus from the blackboard to the laptop:

Colleges and universities react to globalization by engaging in international initiatives. We import students and faculty from other parts of the world to our home campuses. We open campuses in other countries. We engage in distance learning. Information and communication technologies and the Internet are critical to support our academic mission... You will not find [university students] in classrooms taking notes while somebody scribbles on a blackboard. Instead, you will find them hanging out around online lectures, social networks, and digital libraries.

The digital transformation has arrived, at least in many colleges in the United States. To paraphrase Molina: “Today, the university with the largest student body in the U.S. has over 200,000 full-time equivalent students. Its name: University of Phoenix Online.” He adds that twenty percent of college students in the country are taking a course online. As a current university student, I’d estimate that at least 85% of my course readings are only available via the Web, and I can’t remember the last time my professor didn’t e-mail important information to students at least once during the course.

But the age of the “global university campus,” as Professor Molina called it, clearly has world-wide reach beyond America’s borders. Traditional universities such as Georgetown have entered the digital age (which is saying a lot, I might add - I’m a student there, and we didn’t have Internet access in our campus library until last year), remotely connecting international students from campuses in Washington to London and Qatar with web conferences and video chats. And while the Icelandic volcano eruption brought an entire continent to a standstill, says Professor Molina, it still couldn’t stop his international students from sitting in on lectures via Skype.

In emerging nations, university Web education is slowly taking a foothold. Just a few weeks ago, the University of Nairobi launched its tech-savvy Open Distance and E-Learning Center, which provides high-speed Web access and infrastructural support to the new African Virtual University. The facility gives students and administrators the opportunity to connect with courses, curricula, and students of other universities to share information.

Last year I saw first-hand the gradual integration of the Internet into the classroom when I studied at the University of Buenos Aires, South America’s largest university. For the first time in one of my course’s thirty-year history, the class documents were published online, saving valuable time and money for the numerous students attending from provinces across the country. In an aging, overcrowded, underfunded, and poorly managed university system of over 300,000 students, witnessing the Internet being adopted into curriculum was truly a remarkable sight.

Internet access is developing into a critical part of the university nervous system around the world. But Professor Molina reminds us of the dangers this transition may introduce. As Internet access becomes a prerequisite to learning, the effect of the digital divide could be magnified, which is why Molina made a clear call for advocating for an open, free, and secure Web:

To pursue our academic mission, to close the digital divide, and to bring education to all, we dream about an affordable, reliable, pervasive Internet that citizens worldwide can access... We dream about a strong privacy and information security framework to protect academic freedom and to fuel academic discourse.

In places where Internet access isn’t as readily available, mobile phones are filling the void to help close the digital divide and bring the power of digital education to the developing world. In South Africa, Nokia has teamed up with MXit, a free mobile social networking platform, to connect struggling math students with their school district for access to tutoring and curricula. The project has grown from fewer than 300 to  3,000 “eLearners” and is expanding to two more provinces in South Africa. In Australia, scientists have developed a reliable mobile-to-mobile communication technology which could allow distance learners to share articles, homework, and test questions with each other in areas with weak or no signal.

Initiatives such as these are terrific showcases of mobile education, but they also reveal the long road ahead for mobile phones in university learning. The ability of computer-based Internet access to bring multimedia presentations, scholarly articles, and other academic resources to students makes clear the large strides mobile phones must make before they can realistically be implemented in a digital university setting.

Listening to Molina speak at IGF-USA, it was easy to imagine the myriad ways the Internet and new technologies can improve education. The hard part, however, is ensuring that the Web is accessible to the citizens of developing countries who have the most to gain from these powerful tools -- and the most to lose from missing out.